The academic year is drawing to a close (cue hysterical screaming for looming essays and exams!), and so is this year on Xpression Presents. Xpression FM’s scripted show has supplied brand new radio drama, alongside the flagship show Union Road, every Wednesday 5-6pm. Sophie Knight reflects on the year with Head of Scripted, Graham Eveleigh, and gets the lowdown on the exciting final play of the year, Eleven Angry Men…
Way back at the start of the year, the first show was the haunting, Halloween play: Murder at Washington Singer! It’s 1899, it’s All Hallows Night, and a séance is taking place in a familiar campus building. Why? Because the professor is gone…
It feels like ages ago now! I listened to it again the other day, and genuinely I think it’s my favourite. Which is bizarre because I wrote it very quickly, in only three days.
What’s the main selling point of the play?
It’s very ambitious! The edit was really complicated: there’s storms, there’s music, there’s action, creepy sound effects, spooky voices and echoes – stuff that any good Halloween drama has! The best recommendation I can give to anyone is listen to it because it’s just fun. Creepy too but… it’s bonkers! There are such massive revelations but it’s all very much the right side of melodrama. And I think that motif of “the Professor is gone”, works so well. Sarah Gough says it perfectly. But what could it mean…?
Next up was I Fought in a War, the special drama to mark Remembrance Day. It was written as part of a number of shows with which Xpression FM marked the centenary of World War One.
Yes, we all agreed it was vitally important to mark. Callum McLean and Aiden Cheng are the stars and they give absolute standout performances. It’s a claustrophobic setting and a small cast but we explored big issues such as the horrors of war and the complicated notion of friend and foe. The end of that play is the most emotional thing that we’ve done – it packs a punch.
The political thriller Westminster came next! It all starts with a Westminster high-flying MP opening a mysterious item of post at breakfast. What’s the inspiration behind it?
It came from an awful stage play I wrote a few years ago where one of the characters was a hapless, corrupt politician. He was the only good thing about the play so I literally just lifted him out of that and put him into his own radio drama! I’m a big fan of political thrillers… they’re all about the gradual unveiling of revelations, both private and public, and they sprawl out as the investigation gets bigger and bigger… So I thought I’d scale it down to a kitchen and see how it works!
It feels the most like a stage play of all the dramas that have been made…
It does! I could actually go away and write it for stage, I feel like you could imagine the performance around a kitchen table. But radio drama is a unique beast. It came from getting this job and thinking how could tell a story that is best told on the radio? Not a story that could work on any medium, but a story ideal for radio. Sound is what the radio is about and the whole climax hinges on that. Pay attention to the sounds!
With winter upon us, there was The Midwinter Shadow…
It was all James Alston’s story. He is brilliant! He worked so hard on it – basically the whole summer we were messaging about it. He had a very strong understanding of the sort of thing he wanted to make and the genre he wanted to situate it in. We talked a lot about how Christmassy it would be and I think one of the big successes of the play is that you can actually listen to it at any time of year. Ghost stories appeal particularly when the dark nights are rolling in, as his narrator says in the play, but actually, it’s a thumping good story, good enough for any time of year!
Who was involved in the making of this play?
James is essentially the sole performer, with guest actors adding a few one-liners. Obviously I’ve been the main writer this year, but I write them and hand them over to other people to read. This play has such a cohesive identity because it was all coming from him, the main voice too. And then the intermittent contributions from the guest actors, though more brief than we’re used to, open the play out, and give it a sense of scale.
Now it’s The Xpression Christmas Panto – Cinderella “Oh no it isn’t” “Oh yes it is!” (Sorry, couldn’t help myself). So why a Panto?
It’s a long-standing Xpression tradition actually, so we really wanted to go all out on it and make it a big thing for the society. It was nice as well to counter James’ very serious, very measured, very introverted play with something that was all out fun. We also gave a slight nod to Union Road, which I was desperate to get in!
There were more voices than ever before in this one!
Yeah we had tons of people in it. Even if it was just for one or two lines. Especially the sort of people that wouldn’t necessarily want to be in plays, which was great for variety. For the sing along everyone just piled into the studio to sing Fairytale of New York, which was funny because everyone went hopelessly out of time! What you hear is something like the seventh take – I don’t think we’ve ever done as many takes! And every time they’d stop and be like “Yeah, that was good, we liked that!” and I’d be like “NO!” That’s what makes the Panto so funny and lively, unpredictable and inclusive.
It’s quite a big tonal change from the other dramas…
So often the dramas have serious subject matter, which is important, as I’m a big believer that student media should take itself seriously. We have opinions – we are young adults! This perception that the product of students should be lightweight it disrespectful to everyone that puts in as much effort as we do. Having said that, for that very reason it was nice to have a big knees up at the end of term. When I went home my mum put it on when we were decorating the tree. It just epitomises that jovial Christmas tone.
Kicking off Term 2 we had anthology drama The Platform, which was designed to be a returning format to come back in the future!
I’m a huge fan of anthology series, by which I mean shows which have stories-of-the-week. It means listeners can jump on at any stage and be amused and entertained but there is a continuing reference point and reason to return. So hopefully this will run to more episodes, maybe in term three or even beyond, as the format is so versatile.
What was the thinking behind setting the series in a train station?
It came from just noticing people at train stations or airport terminals, if you just watch other people reveals so much about relationships. You can invent back-stories from someone’s awkward hug or their body language. I think “Ooh, I bet they’ve just had a falling out” or “they’re obviously exes!” There’s something about that transitional period in a place that is all about people coming and going that reveals a lot about ourselves, and how we interact with other people. The Platform crystalizes those moments and relationships.
And then there was My Land, My Home, a series about a newly-elected Mayor in a period of great change, the 1930s, in Czechoslovakia. Give us some details about this three-part drama.
This was written by James Cunningham who is a fantastic new writer for the radio. It’s no easy feat to sustain a story for a series – I know from Union Road. I was impressed by how carefully plotted it was, the way the first episode builds to this brilliantly tense dinner party scene and the last line is really, really lovely. At the end of episode two you are shocked and then shocked in a completely different way at the climax of episode three!
What’s your favourite thing about the series?
James had this idea to put in radio clips from the time, and to be honest I wasn’t sure how it was going to work. But then his edit came through and it did, it worked fantastically, just to ease into them for a moment. It made the show (like Westminster) utterly fit for radio. It reminded you of the setting and the weight of the history behind it. It’s such a unique nook of history that we know so little about despite it being part of a wider thing that we all learn about, in World War Two. James found a niche and with it a really dramatic story that is both true to the history but not dry, it inhabitants the conflict and people of the time.
And finally, this week you’re rounding off the year with a new jury drama, Eleven Angry Men. What’s the idea behind it?
I’ve always wanted to write one of these. As Flo says in the play, the idea that a group of ordinary people sit in a room and decide if a lot of people’s lives are going to change… Stop and think about that for a second, forget our familiarity with is as a judicial process. That’s mind boggling. The title is obviously parodying the film Twelve Angry Men, which revolves around jury deliberations. I’ve never actually seen the film – probably a good thing, else I might be in trouble for copyright – but I wanted to do something in that vein. In dramas and soaps you are often shown legal cases but here I wanted to see the case through the deliberations. You learn a lot about the characters through the case.
It has a big cast, this one, doesn’t it?
Yes it does, but they’ve all got their little moments to shine even if it was quite a juggling act to show that they all had a reason to be there. For example there’s Dennis, played by Ed Cannon. The character is a bit dim and doesn’t believe that he can bring anything to the intellectual discussion, so he bakes cakes and brings them! It’s a very subtle part of the drama but I always thought, some people must sit in those jury rooms feeling like stupid, like a fraud. I also base characters on the excellent team we have at our disposal. Sophie Weeks is playing Brenda, who’s a really lively, comic character. That’s because Sophie is hilarious in day-to-day life but I’ve never given her a comedy part to perform before. Mary, who she plays on Union Road rarely has time for laughs, bless her!
Did you have to do any background research about the setting?
I always do a bit of light research but I never want it to bog down the dramas, as it’s not really the point. One inaccuracy here is that there are more female characters but this was due to the amount of actresses available, as I wanted to get a lot of new people involved. Gender then became a bit of a theme within the play so it worked really well.
How do you go about writing a script for a radio drama?
There’s a long period of sheer panic! With Eleven Angry Men a lot of it came from the specific way I wanted the whole year to end, which is (it isn’t a spoiler to say) on a happy note. Looking back, the panto aside, we don’t have a single happy ending – it’s always either been death or at least bittersweet in some way. But I do like those big, aspirational, hopeful endings where everything works out! It would have been easy to have a jury drama as quite a negative thing, and there are some really serious moments, but I was striving for a particular type of feeling at the end of this one. All the rest, the verdict, the details of the case, came later.
Now your University life is drawing to a close, and with it your student radio career, how do you feel looking back at your experience?
I always say Union Road is the best thing I have ever done and by extension that covers Xpression Presents as well. I guess there’s always a little part of you that says I wish I’d made that sci-fi or whatever, but thankfully there aren’t too many things I would change. Our biggest achievement is that we did what we set out to do. We gave scripted a weekly presence in the form of Xpression Presents so people could rely on us. They could tune in everyone Wednesday or look us up on Mixcloud for a new, good quality content. Hopefully that’s our success – the sheer variety.
But you know, it’s a team effort. You don’t all fulfil the same function but everyone has a clear direction of what they’re working towards – be that acting, writing, editing or publicising it – so it works really well. Input from everyone can raise a standard of a drama, often the writer drives the story but without contributions from other people they wouldn’t succeed. All of the dramas are a testament to the actors and those people who gave up their time.
So remind us, how is Xpression Presents culminating this year?
Let’s not forget Union Road! Coming up is the Union Road finale, which is HUGE! Everyone’s stories are coming to a climax and on top of that there’s Eleven Angry Men, coupled with the Union Road: Abroad special. In terms of ambition, in different ways, these are the biggest things we’ve ever done!
The final two Xpression Presents shows air on Xpression FM, 5-6pm, on Wednesday 18 and 25 March. Eleven Angry Men and Union Road Abroad are broadcast on the 18 March, with Union Road’s huge Finale following on the 25 March. Check out the Xpression Presents Mixcloud for all the dramas, as the curtain falls on this year.
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