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It’s April 28 2013, and I’m both excited and a little nervous to be heading to a recording studio in London to see the making of my first script: a Halloween special for the audio drama series The Confessions of Dorian Gray.
As I arrive, the actors are gathering in the green room, drinking tea and chatting. Scott Handcock, the producer/director and series creator, welcomes everybody. Some have worked together before – on production company Big Finish’s other series, such as their long-running Doctor Who range. Everyone is friendly, and lead actor Alexander Vlahos (perhaps best known as Mordred in the BBC’s Merlin) takes the time to say nice things about my episode, which puts me at ease.
Recording starts swiftly. The play is a mixture of dramatised scenes, and narration in which Dorian ‘confesses’ his latest murky adventure in the realm of the supernatural. The first scene to be performed is an action-packed two-hander. If your idea of how audio drama works involves actors huddled around a mike while a sound-effects man clanks props and shuffles in a gravel box to create footsteps – think again. All sound effects and music are added in post-production. Alex and guest actor Daniel Brocklebank are ushered into separate glass-fronted soundproof booths and don headphones, their scripts on music stands before them. Overlooking the booths is the control room, run by studio engineer Toby. The actors’ voices will be recorded digitally onto separate tracks, meaning edits can be made precisely with no concern of cutting into another actor’s overlapping performance.
I’m amused – and delighted – to discover that for a story told by sound alone, a great deal of physical acting goes on. Alex cringes and ducks from an imaginary – and currently inaudible – explosion. Hands mime tugging at doors, pulling on ropes, struggling free of debris… This is not just a case of being caught up in the moment: the movement of the body affects the character of the voice, and the emotion carried by it, and so it all adds realism to the finished product.
In a pattern that will repeat across the day, a full read-through is made of each scene, Scott then providing notes and guidance on moments he’d like to see played differently. Individual words that need to be hit with emphasis are to be “pinged”; moments that can be skated over lightly are said to be “thrown away”. Discussion occurs regarding pace of delivery, and emotions of the characters. It’s fascinating to discover how a subtle shift in one element affects all the others, each actor’s performance changing in response to that of their colleagues, and so lending new and unexpected interpretations to moments I thought I knew backwards…
The scene is run again; both this second, more directed performance and the first are committed to disc, giving the director options for the edit later. Toby adjusts sound levels, compensating for peaks and troughs in loudness as the scene progresses, and helping to flag up individual words that have been stumbled over, or stray from the script: these can be picked up as further recordings of just those moments, and edited into the final take.
As a writer, my job is pretty much done before the recording – it’s the director who makes the ultimate decision on tone and meaning. Nonetheless, I’m pleased to be consulted about a couple of tiny cuts, or the re-wording of a line to better fit an actor’s delivery.
Sitting at the back of the control room, it’s both terrifying and wonderful to hear my script performed. I’ve spoken these words aloud myself many times: trying to sound-out whether conversations flow, and to ensure each character’s voice is distinct and consistent. Listening to the actors work, there are several uncanny moments where their performance echoes precisely what I’d imagined. On most occasions though, it improves upon it, lending the heightened situations of Dorian’s world a real truth and emotional wallop.
The end of my day’s recording also marks the end of the current series for Dorian, and cast, writer and director all head to the pub to celebrate. It’s been an amazing day for me, and one that’s left me hungry to write more drama…
Series Two of The Confessions of Dorian Gray will be available to download from Big Finish from July, the season special follows on October 31st. If you’re in the mood for some spooky adventures in the company of the charismatic Mr Gray, I hope you’ll take a listen.
Roy Gill’s first novel, The Daemon Parallel, is out now. He is currently working on a sequel by popular demand, due to be published next year (Floris Books). Other recent work includes short stories for ‘Kin’ anthology (LGBT History Month), wayward adventurer Iris Wildthyme (Obverse Books), and a very singular detective (that one still to be announced…). The Confessions of Dorian Gray – Halloween Special will be available to download from Big Finish on October 31st.