The recording of ‘Wonderworld’ from journal entry
Studio 6, BBC Maida Vale studios
14.00 to 18.30
8 February 2007.
It was the Very Snowy Day that people had been treating like the approaching apocalypse all week. I put on my trainers instead of my boots, which later transpired to be a mistake and then had to run for the number 12. On the bus I read through the script and tried out voices in my head, then, quietly, aloud. I didn’t look any more mad than the other passengers.
From Warwick Avenue tube, I walked up to the BBC’s Maida Vale studio in Delaware Road. It’s a very odd building with a white stucco front like a sort of campy barracks. Apparently, it had been an ice rink in the 1930s. I found my way in and went via reception down a corridor that resembled a ‘Twin Peaks’ set.
On the way I glanced into what I thought was a small room and saw that in fact it was a vast studio that contained an orchestra tuning up. There was a huge auditorium, empty apart from an old couple on the balcony who must have been the seeds of an audience, or perhaps they were the audience. Dozens of other people wandered around with a sense of purpose but no apparent organisation.
No one asked me who I was or told me to get out so I stood there for a while by the old couple. Like the rest of the building, the studio was in various states of repair and full of clutter. I felt right at home and could have just stood there all day and probably night as well. Studio six beckoned though and it was already midday so I headed off. On the way I passed a door marked ECHO CHAMBER. I found out later you can get the best echoes in the world there.
I got to studio six and met Tim, the sound engineer. The studio was full of doors in doorframes that could be closed or slammed for sound effects. One room had a sink in it with bottles of different shapes (gin, wine) a kettle, sink, fridge and microwave with SOUND EFFECTS ONLY DO NOT USE written or taped on. There were two windows, each with a different sort of blind for a different sort of blind sound. The floor was wooden. Next door was another room with a concrete floor, a pile of paving slabs and various wooden screens. A set of steps had three surfaces: carpet, metal and concrete for… different sounding steps! The silence in the studio was very thick but not oppressive.
It was full of lovely equipment like microphones and decks, both digital and analogue. The control room behind a thick glass screen looked like the Starship Enterprise. You just wanted to get on and create something with it, make it all come to life.
I’ve always enjoyed performance technology; lighting and sound as much as acting. Even doing stand-up I hate not having a mike. I love the stand, the mike itself, how it enables me to use my voice in subtle ways, how it’s a prop. I don’t overdo it; I never take it out of the stand; that just annoys me and I wave my arms around too much anyway. I’m a very physical performer, more perhaps than I realised but more of that later.
Ben, the producer, arrived shortly after me. He said that I shouldn’t worry about the technicalities of the recording and to just concentrate on playing the main character, Shane. He said I probably had a thousand worries in my head but I should leave it up to him, which I was more than happy to do. I actually wasn’t worried, I felt very calm.
The rest of the cast turned up; Neil, Catriona, Graeme and Claire. We wandered around. The whole area is rigged with microphones, even the access corridors that lead to the generators, in case anyone wants to use that sound or space. It’s the kind of place where your spontaneity is catered for.
The read-through went okay; predictably, the voices I had practised didn’t sound as good as I expected. It was all a bit loud because we were in the large Green Room and everyone gets self-conscious at these things. I kept remembering Alan Cumming in ‘Burn Your Phone’. He was so focussed and natural and he sustained it for the whole day. My stuff needs a kind of naturalism, I think, because my stories are invariably about some sort of insane world and fruity performances will overdo things rather.
Back in the studio we started the recording. Shane’s ‘office’ was the little room with the sink. I started okay, although overdid the gravely voice thing a bit but then he is supposed to be hung over. Pretty soon any actorly affectation fell away as I just got on with it. Acting is about making the character’s words sound like something you would say, rather than putting on ‘voices’. I performed solidly for four hours. Ben later said that although we were all relatively new to the medium we took to it immediately. He told me that I’d got Shane bang on. I haven’t heard any of the recording yet. I don’t usually like listening to myself but this time it felt authentic so I’m actually curious.
Later, I was in the room with the pavement for the scenes where Shane reluctantly leaves his office to see if Desta has been eaten by the ‘leopard’. This was the point at which I wished I hadn’t taken my boots off because Jill, the woman who banged the doors and dropped stuff on the floor to create some of the more immediate sound effects, came in with a pair of what looked like Steptoe Senior’s boots. I had thought they would have a recording of the sound effects! No such luck. But the shoes worked; they clicked against the concrete paving in a satisfying and convincing way. They also made me feel slightly off-balance, as Shane is by that point. I had thought about wearing my suit as well to get that complete character feel but I’m glad I didn’t. One has an imagination after all.
I ran on the spot and enjoyed the physicality of it. I acted with my whole body instead of just my voice. I even clenched my fist to give myself a sense of the walkie-talkie the character holds. I could feel the actions affecting my voice, making Shane much more panicky and engaging. I had imagined him as being laid back but it turns out he isn’t. I just didn’t want him to sound all sneery and patronising the way middle-class characters in radio shows often do. I knackered my voice in the screaming war cry bit, but didn’t care; besides, it helped Shane sound even more clapped out at the end.
Finally, the recording was complete and it was time for us to leave the studio, aware that there will be another two performances in there tomorrow but also secure in the knowledge that for this afternoon at least the magic place has been ours. I thought about the time when I was 17 and Michael had taken me to that BBC play recording in Aldwych and now here I was, featuring in my own show.
Ben has got to do a load more work editing what we have recorded but I know he will do a good job. I don’t feel apprehensive about hearing the result, just curious. Fingers crossed for a good result in the competition. Either way I hope it won’t be another 12 years before I do this again…