Mike Tucker: BBC Copyright
Recording The Archers
Given that the Archers does not go out live on air, the recordings are made surprisingly fast, indicating just how good the actors must be. According to Terry, each 15 minute episode is allocated just two hours to record and as many as four are scheduled in a day, at 9.15, 11.30, 2.45 and 5.00. Scripts are sent to the actors so they have them four days to a week before they are due in the studio.
“We don’t normally have any communication with the director until we are there,” says Terry. “All recordings, unless they are a location special, are done in Birmingham. A set amount is paid for travel to Birmingham and my travel payments are adequate. But overnight stays in hotels are only paid if you are required for the 9.15 morning episode. I usually stay in a hotel the night before as my own expense regardless of episode start times, especially if I am in for several days running, as it is less stressful and tiring than driving back and forth to Norfolk.”
Most episodes require a great variety of spot effects, which can be anything from the rattle of a tea cup to the ambience in a room. A pub scene, for example will be backed with jukebox music, the sounds of glasses chinking, phones ringing and punters chattering. In film and television, these are mostly added in afterwards, but for The Archers the effects are played live alongside the actors by the Spot Effects Operator. “Ambience and music is also played in so we hear it all as we perform and everything is picked up by the studio mic,” reveals Terry. “When I joined it was all mono, so the actors would stand either side of the mono microphone facing each other. That was good, but now it is more difficult because we are sitting or standing alongside each other instead of being face to face, and focusing on an omni-directional stereo microphone. Working within a stereo sound picture means that you have to be very aware that you might need to speak and walk at the same time. You can’t just speak, walk, then speak again, otherwise you’ll have suddenly jumped 12 feet across the sound picture! The listener has got to picture that journey in their head.”
For Terry, one of the delights of radio drama is being able to read his part from the script and therefore not have to learn his lines beforehand. However, knowing how to turn a page without rattling the script is vitally important.
“Initially we used a special wood-pulp script paper, somewhat resembling blotting paper, which was virtually silent when handled. But that became too expensive so the BBC decided not to continue with it. Now we have a paper which is slightly heavier than standard printing paper. What you do is dog-ear the lower-right-hand corners of each page by folding them over to form a triangle for use as a lifting point.
“As you are coming to the end of the page, you lift the paper with the triangle and drop that sheet silently off the edge while you are talking. It doesn’t clatter to the floor because is stapled to the rest of the script, which you keep held in the other hand. Then you are on the next page. When you come to the end of that page you flip it over and you’ve got another one!
As for mistakes, Terry admits that the actors do still make them all the time.
“You just go back and do it again. In the olden days they used to record on wax disks and if the actors made a mistake they had to record a new disk. Then it went to reel-to-reel, and the tape would be sliced and spliced together in the edit suite. Now it is all done digitally and they can remove intakes of breath, slight coughs or extraneous shuffling, without us having to worry about it.”
What’s in a Voice?
Although it is impossible to know what the casting team wanted back in 1972 when they were looking for actors to play Mike Tucker, they obviously had a certain quality of voice in mind. Indeed, Anthony Cornish might never have considered recommending Terry if Gareth Armstrong’s voice and delivery had not been similar in some way.
“Actors can be fairly interchangeable, so it’s the quality of the voice as much as anything they are looking for,” says Terry. “They’ll be looking for an aural range in the sound picture from within which the characters are going to emerge. But they will also be concerned about getting right the balance of aural ranges within a piece. Otherwise you could end up with four male voices all sounding the same and the listener would be unable to distinguish the characters. So you have got to get a balance of age, experience, lightness, darkness, or whatever it might be, to delineate the various characters.
“A film producer will have a specific visual image in his head; a radio producer will have aural image which creates a visual image within the head of the listener. Everyone’s visual image is going to be different but the director knows the effect he wants from certain characters, having worked with the writer when developing the script. He will want a certain quality of voice for a particular character and will go to the bank of actors he uses or has seen to find someone suitable.”
Having worked in Radio for four decades, Terry has seen many changes. Naturally, as an actor, it is drama which he is particularly concerned about. “Radio drama has diminished over the last 20 years. There used to be a lot more slots within the scheduling for drama, but those days will not come again. Before control was centralized in London there were busy departments for drama in Manchester, Bristol, Leeds, Birmingham and London and they ran their own budgets and commissioned their own writers. They fed product into the national radio network and so there was a lot of different writing making it a much more complex and textured service.
“There was more of a sense of freedom then and directors were ready to take chances. Now decisions are made by commissioning editors, committees, accountants and focus groups, with managers looking over director’s shoulders and saying ‘That won’t work, you have to do it this way.’ But statistics kill creativity because people become scared to do things which don’t fit with the current thinking or statistical analysis.”
In terms of quality control, Terry also feels that cost saving has had a detrimental effect in some areas, and highlights the plight of the BBC’s pronunciation unit as an example of this.
“Everyone at the BBC had free access to the pronunciation unit so if they had a problem with a word that was coming up in a program, be it a news bulletin or whatever, they could ring up the unit and someone there would explain how the word should be pronounced.
“But management changes meant everything had to be accounted and paid for, so every time a producer called for a pronunciation it got charged to their programme budget. Producers working with tight budgets became reluctant to call up and, as a result, mistakes were made.”
But Terry has also recognised some changes which have been beneficial, particularly to The Archers, and once again, it relates to texture. “When I joined they didn’t have children speaking. There would be crying baby spot effects, or occasionally Judy Bennett, who plays Shula, did children’s voices. But usually nobody actually spoke in Ambridge until they were over the age of 18. They were always silent or upstairs playing games.
“Now they bring in child actors and feed into the storylines, which is key to the success of the programme. Mrs. Dale’s Diary stopped because there was no generational line of children to carry the story through. Once Dr Dale and Mrs. Dale had died – no diary! The Archers, on the other hand, has had another generation sitting in the wings or being brought forward to take over. Because of that there are now well over 60 members of cast, whereas when I started there were just 23 of us.” TF
See Part 2 of this interview, in which Terry talks about Doctor Who and Davros, his approach to acting and attitude to life.
Part 2 can be found here: Part 2