My father, Anthony Jacobs, was an actor from the 1940s to the 1970s, who although seen regularly in character parts on TV shows at that time (Whovians always squeal at the mention of his name as he famously played Doc Holiday opposite William Hartnell in Gunfighters, the very first time Doctor Who hit the Wild West back in 1966) really excelled as a radio actor.
Thus Radio was in my blood as a kid, and I started listening when Radio 4 was still called The Home Service. As a child I was led on more than one occasion into the bowels of Broadcasting House to look at radio drama studios, and my brother and I would spend hours making radio plays on a pair of old reel to reel tape-recorders. Sunday dinner was replete with talk of the producers and actors my father worked with (often not very polite). It was a magical, mysterious, sophisticated and seductive world. I was fascinated by Round The Horne. I knew it was funny – my parents were laughing – but I had no idea why. And then, when I was seventeen, I heard A Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy….
So when, in 1991, at the age of 31, I finally secured a job in Manchester producing children’s and youth drama for the original – and true – Radio Five, walking into Studio 3 at the BBC in Oxford Road, still lined with Studer tape machines and grams decks, it felt like coming home.
The next three years were some of the happiest and most fulfilling of my professional life. Working closely with the redoubtable Chris Wallis, the pair of us beavered away making a quite fabulous array of imaginative drama and readings for young audiences. My personal highlights included It’s My Life which had to be rescued from a slightly shaky adaptation by the late Robert Leeson (thus kick-starting my radio writing career) and starring a young Jane Hazelgrove and Sue Johnston; and My Supply Teacher’s an Alien and My Dad’s a Boring Nerd (winner of a Writers Guild award) by Joe Turner and featuring Jack Klaff and Alastair MacGowan; Octopus Boys by Judith Johnson with a young Sunetra Sarker and many, many more. During this time I also struck up a long term artistic association and friendship with Kerry Shale who did my reputation no harm whatsoever by a captivating rendition of The Cricket in Times Square.
Chris and I were busy plundering the youth theatres of the North West for radio talent – all our plays were centred around young actors – and we had the great privilege of working with early incarnations of names such as Jane Danson and Alan Halsall who went on to become mainstays of Coronation Street, amongst many others inspirational young performers. Jane took one of the leads in another of my favourite series, Crimewaves written by Dave Simpson and Dianne Whitley.
What made this period in my career particularly magical was that the Birt era had only just kicked into gear, and you could still get a show commissioned with a verbal pitch and the briefest of offers documents. Chris and I were up in Manchester, doing our own thing, and outside of our immediate bosses at Radio 5, we were largely ignored by the rest of the organisation and left to get on with it. Oh to be so invisible. The sheer freedom of it…
Coupled with this, I found myself surrounded by a brilliant and generous technical team. The formidable doyenne of Radio Drama grams, Maggie Richmond, after initially eyeing me as if I were somewhere below the kind of pond life that other pond life don’t invite to family functions, abruptly decided I was ‘okay’ and took me under her wing and gave me an unmatchable education in the techniques of radio drama rooted in decades of experience. She even let me fiddle with the tape machines – after having sternly reprimanded me that ‘producers don’t touch tape’. Those were, indeed, the days.
I also had the good fortune to work with two young panel SMs – Steve Brooke and Paul Cargil. Steve was a slightly terse young man, who had the techy poker face down to perfection (You know what I’m talking about; that look that says: ‘You don’t know what you’re doing, and I know you don’t know what you’re doing, and even worse, this look I’m ‘not’ giving you tells you – and everyone else in the room – that I know that you don’t know what you’re doing’). He wasn’t being rude… he was right. Luckily for me, I did very quickly make sure I knew what I was doing and struck up a fantastic creative partnership with Steve, who I considered to be something of a genius, playing the sometimes unreliable kit of Oxford Road’s Studio 3 as if it were a stradivarius. There was no problem Steve couldn’t tackle, no sound that he could not recreate. To this day I always put something ridiculously difficult in the scripts I write in the vain hope of catching him out one day. Paul Cargil was pretty amazing too, but never did the dubious techy poker face thing.
I can’t think of a time in my professional life when I have learned more from the people around me, and will always be grateful for that, and like I say, their incredible creative generosity.
My time with Radio Five Drama culminated in a 90 minute multi tracked extravaganza, with Kerry Shale playing over forty parts in a dramatisation of an epic boxing poem from the 1920s, The Set Up, by Joseph Moncure March which picked up a Silver Sony award back in 1992. This was before digital editing and took eleven days to mix onto the old twenty four track machine used for rock bands and involved creating ten foot loops of quarter inch tape, some of which I still have in old tape boxes (WHY????).
At the same time as I was getting my head around the challenges of radio production, Joe Turner and I were commissioned by the network to write two series of the topical comedy show, Nigel & Earl Sort Out The World, which featured Finetime Fontayne and Andrew Dunn as the eponymous sorter outers. The show was a surreal thirty minute journey through the week’s news, which Joe and I would storyline on a Monday, write on a Tuesday (yes, that’s a thirty minute script written by two guys in about fifteen hours every week), record on a Wednesday (produced by Liz Anstee, these days heading up radio comedy at Celador) to be transmitted on a Thursday. It was an insane project, and indeed did drive me a little insane as I was simultaneously maintaining my producer output up in Manchester.
Insanity or not, there could have been no better way to learn about the limits, disciplines and infinite possibilities of radio comedy and drama.
When the Radio Five was replaced by Five Live in 1994, Nigel and Earl were given the great honour of signing the network out.
After a short stint on Radio 4’s never-quite-successful media magazine programme Mediumwave, I concluded that I never wanted to work in live radio ever again, an experience that frequently emulated the experience of flying an F-16 jet fighter into a rock face.
And then we were all out on our collective ears.
As luck would have it, my friends Dave Simpson and Diane Whitley had recently set up a production company to make a feature film, and when that production faltered, I hooked up with them to form an indie radio production arm just as that market was being opened up in radio drama for the first time. A few successful years followed, where highlights included Wormholes (co written with Peter Kerry) featuring Tim Pigott Smith; Deadly Echo by Joe Turner; Deep Station Emerald, also by Joe, a blissfully over the top submarine sic fi romp boasting a cast including Ricky Tomlinson, Danny Webb, Maurice Roeves, Lorelei King, Maureen Beattie, Tom Georgeson and Chris Pavlo; and Weird Tales From The Slip-Road Of Urban Paranoia a series of satirical extrapolations of urban myths which I wrote and produced and starred Andrew Lincoln, Marc Warren, Cathy Tyson, Jason Done, James Fleet and Brigit Forsyth – I couldn’t have wished for better acting talent. There were many more exciting productions, too many to mention them all here, but we also ventured into documentary radio, producing the award winning feature Melanie & Esther’s Story detailing the traumatic months experienced by a family when a child is struck down by an aggressive brain tumour.
Running an indie opened up a lot of new opportunities. For a start it was a lot easier to write and produce my own work. And without the direct public service remit, we were able to form what loosely became an informal mini rep of actors who we loved to work with, a distinctive high end production style, and to commission original music, notably from the very talented Paul Cargil. It was great to have a ‘sound’ – and we wanted that to be not far off from a movie soundtrack. ‘Crunchy’ as I liked to call it. Panel SM Steve Brooke claims to this day that he still has no idea what that means, although he always managed make our productions ‘crunch’ for England.
At the same time I was freelancing for a variety of other companies, the highlight of which was a four part adaptation of HG Wells’ First Men In The Moon for Mr Punch Productions which featured the vocal talents of Donald Sinden, James Bolam, Tom Georgeson and Kerry Shale playing hundreds of ant like moon creatures.
And then I chucked it all in.
I loved radio more than anything, but I wasn’t sure where else I was going to go with it as a producer, except to make ever more extreme and eccentric programmes.
So off I went to telly writing. But the radio bug never leaves you, and it’s been my great honour to have been regularly commissioned by Radios 4 and 3 and 4Extra. And so began the third phase of my radio career, working exclusively as a writer in the medium. And the joy of doing that is unparalleled. In no other medium could you be writing a Manchester based police procedural one month, and an eighteenth century highwayman adventure the next, and a satirical topical sic-fi drama the month after that. And so here’s a little summary of the work that anyone reading this is most likely to have heard over recent years – and if you click on the highlighted titles, you should be able to download them for a small charge:
City: A thirty minute, darkly comic topical drama written with Joe Turner (in a day, of course) about an ambulance crew struggling with dwindling resources during Manchester’s ill fated Olympic bid. Produced by Kate Rowland.
Ice: A three part science fiction re-working of The Snow Queen for BBC Radio Four. Starring Miles Anderson as The Bandit and produced by Sally Avens, it was recently repeated on 4Extra.
King Matt: A radical dramatisation of Janusz Korczak’s extraordinary naive 1923 fantasy ‘King Matt the First’. It tells the story of a child-king somewhere in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the century. In this adaptation the fantastical events of the book are paralleled with the true life occurrences twenty years later when Korczak refused to desert the children he had cared for in the Warsaw Ghetto, and perished with them in the gas chambers of Treblinka. It was a Christmas special for BBC Radio Four starring Clive Russell as Dr K. Producer was Jeremy Mortimer.
The Third Class Genie: 90 Minute adaptation of Robert Leeson’s children’s novel about a genie trapped inside a drinks can. Radio 4. Produced by Celia De Woolf.
Back Home: It’s 1945 and 12 year old Rusty returns from the US where she was a war time evacuee. However, she has now spent half her life in the States and adapting to life in post war austerity Britain is a lot harder than she expected. A four part dramatisation of Michelle Magorian’s moving novel for BBC Radio Four, starring Nicholas Farrell and produced by David Hitchinson.
Roberta, Peter & Phyllis: A dramatic sequel to The Railway Children set 13 years after the action of the original novel – in 1919, just after the First World War. Produced by Gary Brown for Radio 4, Roberta Peter & Phyllis was later developed into a family mini-series by itv/Granada kids. Unfortunately Granada Kids was then dismantled by itv. So it goes.
Night On The Town: This 60 minute Friday Play for BBC Radio 4, was one man’s nightmarish account of twenty-four hours kidnapped by north Manchester crack addicts. Based, as they say, on a horribly true story, it starred Tim Dantay and was produced by Sue Roberts.
Ralph: A ghost story rooted in Victorian Manchester, but is the past haunting the present, or is it the other way round. Producer Janet Hampson.
Deia: A psychological ghost story set in Majorca in the 1960s and 1990s. Produced by Tracey Neale it starred Neil Pearson, Haydn Gwynne & Katy Cavanagh.
Radio Daze: Inspired, as they say, by stories my father told me, this was a cold war thriller set in the eccentric and claustrophobic world of Golden Age Radio drama at Broadcasting House in the 1950s. Immaculately produced by Jeremy Mortimer.
The First Day of the Rest of My Life: For Radio 3’s 2009 Wire season, Jonathan Keeble excelled as four interweaving manifestations of the same person, caught up in an existential comedy nightmare. Produced by Gary Brown.
The Night They Tried To Kidnap the Prime Minister: Starring Tim McInnerny, this Afternoon Play was a fictionalised account of the little known kidnap attempt on Prime Minister Alec Douglas Home in 1964. Producer was Jeremy Mortimer. TX 2009
Can You Tell Me The Name Of The Prime Minister: Continuing the theme of long titled plays about british politics, this 45 minute Rapid Response drama for Radio 4 was conceived, written and produced during the election campaign of 2010. Starring Amita Dhiri as Liz De Souza a psychiatrist called in to deal with a man who believes that Tony Blair is still Prime Minister. Producer Jeremy Mortimer. TX May 2010.
Devil In the Fog: Two part adaptation of the Leon Garfield children’s classic from the age of the highwayman. It starred Joe Dempsie and was produced by Marc Beeby. TX Christmas 2010 BBC Radio 4.
Stone: Episodes for series two, three, four, five and six of the Manchester detective drama starring Hugo Speer and created by Danny Brocklehurst. Underpinned by dark humour and moral ambivalence, episodes have tackled combat stress, random killings, and child on child murder. Series four culminated in an edge of the radio two hander with William Ash as a desperate white van man, driven to the edge, by his lack of a van. Produced by Nadia Molinari, the eighth series is currently in development.
From Fact To Fiction: The Cleansing: Topical drama for BBC Radio 4, produced by Pauline Harris. Starring Brigit Forsyth in a futuristic satire on the breakdown of trust with our national institutions. May 2013.
Angel Pavement: A two part adaptation of JB Priestley’s 1930 novel satirising the capitalist dream on the eve of the great depression. Starring Jeff Rawle, Henry Goodman and Marcus Brigstocke, Angel Pavement was produced by Chris Wallis.
The One About The Social Worker: This five part Woman’s Hour Thriller about a disgraced child protection social worker who decides to take the law into her own hands, starred Claire Skinner and Lacey Turner and was produced by Jonquil Panting. TX: September 2013. A second series was broadcast on Radio 4 in January 2016, featuring the amazing Theo Barkley-Biggs as dysfunctional care-leaver, Devon Sutcliffe.
Emil Zola: Blood, Sex & Money: In the middle of 2014 I started work on a major project for Radio 4 – a 24 hour dramatisation of Emile Zola’s twenty novel Rougon-Marquart saga. The twenty books were divided into three one week series, spread over eighteen months, and I adapted about a third of it. Hailed as exciting, innovative radio – it starred one double Oscar winning Glenda Jackson making her return to acting after twenty three years as Labour MP for Hampstead & Kilburn.
The final season – Money – was broadcast in October 2016, including, from yours truly, a two part re-imagining of Zola’s masterpiece, Germinal, and a feature length adaptation of The Debacle – Zola’s truly great war novel, telling the story of the Franco Prussian War. In January 2017, the series garnered a Best Adaptation gong at the BBC Audio Drama Awards.
So what’s currently on the Marmoset dial? After wowing Radio 4 listeners with the ten part Scandi style epic that was season seven of Stone (I wrote the two season openers), you can currently immerse yourself in the imagined chaos of civil war breaking out in the UK any time during the next five years at 2.15 (strategically after the lunchtime repeat of The Archers) every weekday afternoon or on the BBC Radio iPlayer.
Starring Jeremy Swift (Septimus Spratt from Downton Abbey) and Maureen Beattie (Staff Nurse Sandra Nicholl – Casualty) First World Problems will be available online until 11th July. I promise it has jokes, but be warned… it is a little unsettling.