On Monday, BBC Radio Norfolk – for whom I work in the day job! – broadcast a documentary I made called Radio in a Roundabout Way. It was all about a programme called Roundabout East Anglia, which the BBC broadcast from Norwich for the eastern counties in the 1970s, in the days before there were BBC Local Radio stations in the region.
It’s a subject that appealed to me because it was a show that had been forgotten by a lot of people, a story that hadn’t really been told on-air before, and even in published sources only mentioned as the occasional footnote in histories of Radio Norfolk. I’m something of an enthusiast of the history of broadcasting in general and the BBC in particular, and the opportunity to explore one of its lesser-told tales could not be resisted.
I worked hard on the programme, interviewed various people who were kind enough to give up their time to dig into their memories, did a lot of research and managed to turn up a reasonable amount of archive material that probably hadn’t been seen or heard by anybody for decades. I was rather proud of the finished result, have had a lot of nice feedback about it, and should anyone reading this fancy a listen, it’s still available online until next Monday.
The reason I mention it here is because I have found over the last couple of years that I rather enjoy making radio documentaries, and I think I’m rather good at it. They’re not something you regularly get the opportunity to work on in local radio, usually only cropping up on Bank Holidays and over Christmas, things like that. But one of the advantages of the small scale and informality of local radio is that, if you have a good enough idea and go away and make something well, you can usually make a good case for it being broadcast at some point.
I think I like making documentaries for much the same reason I enjoy writing – and there is some writing involved, of course, in scripting the links for a programme. (Although I think you should always have as little narration as you think you can possibly get away with – which isn’t a bad rule for writing either, when you should write as little as you need to in order to tell the story). It’s all about piecing together a narrative, and in making a documentary it’s much easier, for the simple reason that once you’ve recorded all your interviews or found all your archive material, it’s all laid out in front of you. You don’t have to write or create or struggle over anything yourself – it all exists, you just have to cut it down, move it around and put it into an order that works.
I can – and have – worked for hours at a time, sitting down cutting interviews and archive into a series of fragments, then working out what to discard and what to keep, and in what order it should all go. One of the advantages of a radio documentary is that, also like writing, it can be something of a solo pursuit – you don’t need teams of people to make a documentary for the radio. You just need you and some editing software and some patience and time.
I think, if I weren’t able to ever be a full-time writer, I would happily take making radio documentaries for a living as a second choice. Neither is particularly likely at the moment, but at least as things stand I do occasionally get paid for documentary-making. I suppose you could say a drawback of documentaries is that you’re always telling somebody else’s narrative, not your own... But if your characters feel alive and real to you, perhaps that should be what a novel is like anyway. Telling someone else’s stories, and working out what to keep and what to discard, and how to tell the story in the most economical but affecting fashion possible.