Friday, 18 October 2013

Catch My Breath - BBC Radio 4 Extra - Behind The Scenes Part 1

My gothic horror serial CATCH MY BREATH is on BBC Radio 4 Extra once again this coming week, Monday 21st - Friday 25th October, 6pm every day, with a midnight repeat (and then each episode available digitally for 7 days afterward). So I thought I'd write a bit about the background of the story....

(Meanwhile, if you catch CATCH MY BREATH and like it, catch me LIVE at the London Horror Festival in my two shows there, the very vampiric BLOOD AND STONE: A Lullaby For Elizabeth Bathory on Oct 30th and my Edinburgh Fringe hit 21st. CENTURY POE: FALLING FOR THE USHERS on Halloween.)

We go back a long way do me and 'Catch My Breath' (on BBC Radio 4 Extra all this week LISTEN HERE.... It began one day in my teenage years when I came across a film still in a very highbrow movie magazine, a still from a German Expressionist silent film. I long since parted company with that magazine, but I have a faint memory that the still was supposed to come from the film Schatten / Warning Shadows... although I've since seen, and loved, that film and could nowhere see in it an image exactly matching the one I recalled from that movie magazine. But the still depicted a darkly handsome man holding a candelabra standing at the foot of a staircase and looking directly up at the camera. I don't think the accompanying article said anything about the narrative context of the image - it was a general survey of the German silent cinema - but there was a game I used to play in those days as a would-be writer, a sort of imaginative five finger exercise. I would look at a still from a film I'd never seen, about whose story I knew nothing, and make up my own story to go with the image. (I would also do this with titles of films I otherwise knew nothing about: I once got a great plot out of the title Spider Baby).

Anyway, I stared at this intriguing still, asking myself who is this man? What staircase is he stood at the foot at? And who is he looking at with that handsome but untrustworthy grin. And I started to come up with answers. He's in a grand house, he owns that house, he's welcoming us to that house, we're lost, we need someplace to stay, he's handsome, charming, seductive. But he's not to be trusted. He has a secret. A downright demonic secret.

It was just a game, but already it was the beginnings of an honest-to-goodness story and when I started to get serious about being a writer, clunking a typewriter onto a kitchen chair in my first Glasgow bedsit, I began using it as the starting point for a screenplay called 'Primal Scenes': there had been a brief boomlet in low budget British horror cinema and I thought, like many an ambitious tyro writer... who knows? Of course, like 99.9 % of screenplays it didn't have half a hope of actually being produced, although it did at least get me shortlisted for the National Film School's screenwriting course. But I didn't give up on the story, converting it into my first, abortive, attempt at writing a novel and then, when Ghost Zone was something of a hit on BBC 7 as (Radio 4 Extra then was) and I was offered the chance to do another serial for them, I decided to rework Primal Scenes into radio drama.

There was quite a bit of reworking required, as the change of title implies. The most obvious difference between Primal Scenes and Catch My Breath is that the two heroines of Primal Scenes were a mother, Colleen, and her daughter, Kate, both escaping suburbia and a violent / drunken husband / father. But when the chance to do the story for radio came along, I immediately wanted to change this: for one thing, I was aware of the radio convention that when there's a child character, directors tend to cast adult actors doing 'child voices' - and it's never really convincing. It's acceptable for a small part, but I didn't want the main actor through the whole 2 1/2 hours of a five part serial sounding like that, so I changed the situation to make Kate and Colleen both young women... though Kate's experiences with a violent father did find their way back into the plot - even more dramatically, in fact. And the dynamic of the two characters didn't even change as much as one might anticipate with a significantly younger Colleen still sexually self confident and an older Kate still implicitly virginal and fearful of the whole world of sexuality a figure like Adam Strachan embodies.

Furthermore, Primal Scenes had been much closer to a traditional vampire story - I was a child of Hammer Horror, the classy atmospheric gothic of Brides Of Dracula and Kiss Of the Vampire a particular influence. But by the time I did Catch My Breath, I'd been earning spare time money as a walking guide on the long distance paths of the Scottish highlands and, for the first time in my life, steeping myself in the supernatural folklore of my own country and culture, as distinct from that of Transylvania, or Bray Studios, or Hollywood. I can still remember the rainy, 'dreich' night in the King's House hotel out on Rannoch Moor when, huddling close to the fire in the bar, I fell into conversation with a much older hiker (from Aberdeen, I think), who'd caught me reading J.F. Campbell's Popular Tales Of The West Highlands and told me "Och, son, I ken a few mair fearful tales than yi'll find in an auld book like the yon." I called his bluff and he told me about a creature called a Beatha-Greimach that drew the breath from its victim's bodies. Instantly I was grabbing a beer mat and scrawling the name on the margin of a beer mat (like most names in Gaelic it doesn't look anything like how it sounds). This sounded fascinating: Scottish folklore doesn't have any vampires, but it's well known that it has creatures very close to the vampire, the beautiful female Leanhan Shee, for example, who may have been a stronger influence on Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla or Bram Stoker's vampiresses than anything in Romanian folklore. Maybe that's what lies behind the fact that the four most important 19th century writers in the vampire genre were all Celts, or part-Celt at least; the Scots-Italian Polidori, the Scottish James Malcolm Rymer (Varney The Vampyre) and the Irish Stoker and LeFanu. What, I thought, if I ditched conventional vampirism in favour of a tradition of supernatural horror a Scottish author could truly call his own? One day that old man from the King's House bar is going to catch up with me and demand a 'finder's fee' at the very least!

Developing links with the Scottish folk tale tradition allowed me to go more into the origins of my supernatural villain, and that in its turn, allowed me to develop the character of Isla Thorwald, a character who existed in Primal Scenes solely as a babbling, toothless old crazy woman jumping out of the scenery occasionally to provide a scare or two, but who now became a major, developed character.

There were other, essentially practical changes. Primal Scenes was very much a film script, orientated around set pieces of visual action. There was a great scene, for example, where Kate tails Strachan all the way to the back streets of Glasgow, where she catches him 'in the act' with a young woman. Strachan chases Kate through the streets, he in a car, she on foot. She jumps on a train out to the countryside and he drives like a madman to head her off at the station. But that kind of purely visual, wordless action just doesn't work in the verbal medium of radio so you're better off reworking all that stuff into scenes that, though action-packed, are word driven.

The other main change came at a prompt from Patrick Rayner, head of drama at BBC Scotland. I'd been developing the idea with Bruce Young, the director, and we were all ready to go in terms of submitting the final pitch to the commissioning editor down in London, when on the day of the deadline Patrick got in touch to say he liked the idea, but we needed 'one more character': my storyline, devised initially for a two hour film might not have enough plot for a 2 1/2 hour radio slot. Panic! A whole other major character, with the deadline that afternoon? Who? Doing what?

So I took the dog for a very intensive walk around the local nature reserve and racked my brains. But something came to me very quickly. Originally, I'd purposefully not attempted to explain how a supernatural forest demon came to acquire a human name and identity: I thought it was fair enough in a gothic tale to leave some details shrouded in mystery. But then I thought there might be real dramatic potential in developing a human character from whom the demon's human identity was stolen. And, of course, to a writer in the Scottish gothic tradition, the tradition of Jekyll& Hyde and the Justified Sinner, the doppelganger aspects were irresistible. So suddenly there was an extra resident creeping around the upstairs recesses of the Strachan house. And the pitch made the deadline!

In part 2, I'll talk about the actual production.....

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