Friday, July 25, 2014

Audio killed the video sta... oh wait, I think I got that wrong...

By Russel D Mclean

Since coming back from the Harrogate Crime Festival (the reason I missed last week's post - I was, shall we say, tired and emotional from being in the bar), I have been laid up with a horrific cold. Its the third in a row (this apparently can happen to asthmatics and its a pain in the arse) and it really hit me for six. Or twelve, to be honest the way I was feeling.

I could barely read. I could barely write. I was just tired. Exhausted. Even watching movies was a little too much. But what I did have was a pile of audio plays reccomended to me by DSD's very own Jay Stringer.

You will know of course that myself and Jay (and Dave White) are DSD's resident geeks. So of course these audio plays were Doctor Who audio plays produced by a company called Big Finish. In the years when Doctor Who was off air, Big Finish gained an official licence to produce audio plays featuring characters from the show including many past actors who had played the Doctor. In my other life, I know one of the Big Finish scripters, but had never really had the chance to listen to them. And besides, I wasn't sure the show would work in audio.

But listening to them, I was amazed at the power of audio. Something I had long ago forgotten.

We all know audio books of course, but an audio play is something very different. The use of dialogue - and more importantly, sound - to convey a story is extremely impressive. And rather than being limiting, what it seemed to do was open up words that we could not conceive on television. The proper use of voice acting and sound could was able to convey deeply complex and bizarre stories. Of course, within the mix of plays I had, one was able to realise that when audio play is done badly it can seem stagey and unreal. It takes a clever script to make characters sound natural and not like they are describing things for the benefit of a listening audience. One of my favourite moments was the opening of a Paul McGann adventure when his Doctor has been reacting to lots of things happening while he is alone in a room. "You really do need to stop talking to yourself!" he says, and the delivery of the line evokes a very wry smile from the listener as it manages to puncture the increasingly unreal idea of someone telling himself everything that is happening.

As comics are different to movies which are different to prose which are different to poetry, so audio plays are again different from anything else and they require another way of thinking from the writer. The good audio writer is able to create situations which sound natural even when they are artificial. They rely on dialogue and sound to paint a picture. They require a whole different skill set. But when they work they can be something spectacular.

I'm going to be listening out (pun half intended) for other ewxamples of audio plays, I think, maybe even trying my hand at a few just for fun. I remember as a child listening to lots of audio plays on tape (one of my favourites was an adaptation of Kidnapped) and just hearing these plays as I lay in bed unable to do much of anything else (except cough and pathetically ask The Literary Critic to make me another hot Ribena*) reminded me of the power of audio dramas and of the fun that they can be. And I have to wonder in this age of ebooks and rising audio book sales, could it be possible that the radio play, while no longer neccesarily being on radio, could be due a comeback? Its the ideal medium for that long commute or while you're pounding the treadmill down at a the gym.

*she really has been remarkably patient as I have acted like a wimp these past few days


John McFetridge said...

One of my first paying gigs was radio drama for the CBC, a fun experience.

And I've heard a rumour that Audible is branching out from audiobooks into plays, so you may have a market there, Russell.

Kristopher said...

What a timely post. I just posted my first ever audiobook review. I didn't feel like I was qualified to judge the production values of the audio portion, but it was fun to review a book I had listened to and include an audio sample on the blog with the review. Always good to venture into new territory.

As a huge theater fan, I can see where listening to a play would be perfect. I just received the 2-CD set of Audra McDonald's performance as Lady Day on Broadway. Having seen the show, I was amazed that they included every bit of dialogue on the disc. It will be a cherished possession for a long time to come and will re-call the memories I have of seeing that show live.