Radio Drama
Science Faction

Vol #3, Issue 7
"Stand By For Mars!"
March 2006
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The Thunder Child: Bert Coules, radio dramatist
Interview by Caroline Miniscule

Bert Coules is a radio dramatist for the BBC with a long and successful career.

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A young Bert Coules
© Bert Coules
Radio drama in the United States (now referred to as "Old Time Radio") died on September 30, 1962, with the broadcasts of the last episodes of Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. While efforts to keep radio drama alive still continue among dedicated enthusiasts, it is, as a national institution...dead. Not so in England, where radio drama flourishes. Bert Coules, a well-known and respected radio dramatist for the BBC, is most famous on both sides of the Atlantic as head writer on the BBC project to dramatise all of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes episodes in radio form, for which he scripted all four novels and over half of the fifty-six short stories. However, his career has spanned mystery and science fiction. He graciously agreed to an interview with The Thunder Child.

General Questions

Where and when were you born?

I was born in London, on the same date as Stephen Hawking, Graham Chapman, Wilkie Collins and Elvis Presley, though not in the same year as any of those gentlemen.

When did you decide to become a radio script writer, and how did you break into the business? I was working in the music library at the BBC and hoping to move across into the radio drama department, so I was listening to a lot of plays. One day I heard a particularly bad drama and thought "Surely I can write something better than that". I tried and discovered that I could, so I sent it in and to my delight it was bought.

A Radio Times magazine cover from many years ago
The UK's "All-Channel TV and Radio Guide"
© Radio Times

What kind of training did you have? Do they provide radio script writing classes at university?

I don't know of any university courses. I never received any formal training as a writer, and I'm not sure it would have helped if I had, since I'm not convinced that "creative writing" can be taught: you can learn things like script layouts and other technical stuff and you get encouragement and so on, but when it comes to the actual content, either you can do it or you can't. For the technical requirements of radio and TV scripts, the BBC used to publish a guidelines book; these days their website has a section called the Writers' Room which has all the information a new writer would need.

What was the first script you had produced?

The one I mentioned above: a 45 minute drama-documentary called "Wagner in Hell" about the composer's disastrous visit to London in the 1850s. That was in 1977.

When your scripts are being produced, are you always at hand in the studio to provide rewrites, or additional material if needed?

Yes, I'm always there.

Is this the case with other BBC writers of radio drama?

As far as I know, yes. You're paid to be there: it's part of the job, part of the writer's responsibility. It's not just rewrites or extra pages: sometimes cuts are necessary, too, since it can be tricky to get a script down to an exact running time. You never know what will have to be done: in a sense, the play doesn't exist until the director, the actors and the technicians get hold of it and bring it to life. I've frequently learned new things about one of my shows when I've heard it performed for the first time.

When did the first Holmes episode first air, and then the final episode that completed the Canon?

The opening programme was a dramatisation of the first of Doyle's novels about the character, A Study in Scarlet. It's the story of Holmes and Watson's first meeting: both men are in their twenties, unknown, poor and struggling. That was broadcast in 1989. The series eventually finished, sixty adventures and nine years later, with the most famous of the books The Hound of the Baskervilles. The BBC is the only production company in the world to have made a version of every single story with the same two actors - Clive Merrison and Michael Williams - in the lead roles.

Bert Coules Radio Drama Ouvre

Science Fiction
Spaced Out - Drama documentary for kids: how to write science fiction.
Ray Bradbury - Feature for kids on the American fantasy writer.

The Caves of Steel - by Isaac Asimov.
A Wizard of Earthsea - by Ursula Le Guin.
Flowers for Algernon - by Daniel Keyes.

Arkship - Treatment and storylines for science fiction TV series.

Mystery and Other
The Distant Echo - by Val McDermid.
Rebus: "Resurrection Men" - by Ian Rankin.
Rebus: "The Falls" - by Ian Rankin.
Back to Control PaThe Laughing Policeman - by Maj Sj?l & Per Wahl?
A Magician Amongst the Spirits - Harry Houdini.
The Passion Flower Hotel - by Rosalind Erskine.
Fear on Four - "Every Detail but One", "The Journey Home", "Green and Pleasant."
Mutiny on the Bounty - by Nordoff and Hall.
Lost Empires - J B Priestley.
The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael - "Monk's-Hood", "The Virgin in the Ice", "Dead Man's Ransom".
The Eyes of Max Carrados - by Ernest Bramah.
So Much Blood - by Simon Brett.
The Thirty-Nine Steps - by John Buchan.
The Three Hostages - by John Buchan.
Plymouth in War - by Priscilla Napier.
Wagner in Hell
The Guns of Navarone - by Alistair Maclean.
The Women in His Life - by Barbara Taylor Bradford.
The BBC's complete Sherlock Holmes

Most of your work has been in the mystery field - Sherlock Holmes and Brother Cadfael.

I've done quite a range of mystery and detective stuff: as well as Arthur Conan Doyle and Ellis Peters I've also dramatised works by Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Simon Brett and others. That's not a deliberate specialisation, it's more of an accident.

Yet I see you have developed a science fiction project: Arkship - and for television!

A Sampling of:

Old Time Radio Links in the US

Imagine Theatre:
When Radio Was, hosted by Stan Freiberg: - on Radio Spirits website.
Yesterday USA:
California Artists Radio Theater
SPERDVAC: The Society to Preserve and Encourage Radio Drama, Variety and Comedy

BBC Radio Links

Bert Coules Official Site:
BBC7 (Listen Again) :

Why the surprise? Actually, Arkship wasn't my only TV SF project: I was one of the writers on a short-lived series called Space Island One which never really took off, if you'll pardon the pun. It was a realistic near-future drama set on an orbiting science lab with a multicultural crew. I've written other bits and pieces for TV, too.

Is your main interest in mysteries, with a side interest in science fiction? Or do you prefer sci fi but just have more opportunities to do mysteries?

Professionally and personally I don't have a main interest or a preference: as far as work goes, I'll write anything that people will pay me to write, in any medium. What sometimes happens to a writer is that you get mildly pigeon-holed as a specialist just because something you've done in a particular genre has been a success. If the Sherlock Holmes series hadn't clicked the way it did, I doubt if I'd have been offered as many other mystery or detective shows.

What are your favorite science fiction writers. Sci fi Books? Sci fi Movies?

I like the golden age guys: Blish, Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Farmer, people like that. I reread the Foundation series recently and enjoyed it immensely all over again. With movies, I'm not so sure: I tend to sit there working out how I would have done them differently. I remember watching the first Star Wars film and wanting to rewrite all the dialogue.

You?re a ?jobbing? writer. Do you wait for the BBC to come to you and ask you to write scripts for a particular project, or do you write the scripts and approach them to produce it?

A bit of both. They do come to me with projects but I also make suggestions, though I don't write a complete script and send it in: one of the perks of being reasonably well established in a particular field is that you don't have to do that any more. Instead of a full script, I'll write out a proposal, a pitch document, and try to drum up a bit of interest that way. Sometimes it works and they bite; sometimes it gets rejected. A case in point is Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight which I've been trying to interest the BBC in for donkey's years; I've proposed it a few times but so far no-one's wanted to go with it. I think it would work really well as an audio spectacular: like a blockbuster movie but with no visuals.

Coules' Sherlock Holmes:
Clive Merrison and guest star George Coles
When Americans think about the Golden Age of radio drama, they think of actors standing around a couple of microphones, with sound effects men in a separate area, all of their sound effects props at the ready. The stories are broadcast live, and obviously, in a linear fashion. Is this the same way it was done in England?

In the early days, yes: dramas went out live and were done much like the US version, though without the live studio audience which your shows often had.

If so, when did it change to what it is now, which seems to be that the programs are recorded in non-linear fashion, presumably for costs savings?

It was when pre-recording became the norm that the production process developed into what we have today: like movies and TV plays, radio dramas are usually made scene-by-scene and frequently out of order. There's a lot of physicality, with the actors free to move around inside properly laid-out sets with doors, furniture, props and so on.

The main reason for working that way isn't costs, though: rehearse-recording a scene at a time, whether in sequence or not, is simply regarded as a better way to get a good result. It means that productions can be much more complex technically, since the crews can set up each scene individually with different acoustics and microphone placings. Having said that, there can be a budgetary benefit because you can often bring in supporting-part actors just for half a day, say, by scheduling all their scenes together.

The general rule of thumb is that we aim to record half-an-hour's worth of material in a day, so a sixty-minute play takes two days, from the first readthrough to the final takes. Then there's the separate post-production process, assembling, editing, adding music and any effects which couldn't be put on in the studio, and generally tweaking and polishing.

Also in the States, radio programs usually had a season of 20 or so episodes at a time, whereas in England it seems that five episodes at a time comprise an entire season. Has this also always been the case?

Actually, there's no fixed number of episodes. How long a series runs depends on a lot of considerations: subject matter, whether there's more than one writer involved, the overall shape of the schedules, that sort of thing.

Again in the States, I don?t think the actors themselves did any of the sound effects - they were always done by specially trained sound effects men. So it was a delight to see in your Holmes recordings that the actors did their own work in that regard.

Only sometimes; mostly the effects are done by a member of the technical team who weaves silently in and out of the action like a sort of surreal silent ballet dancer, making the sounds alongside the cast members. There are various reasons why actors occasionally do their own: sometimes the performer can time a sound in with the dialogue more precisely than an effects operator; sometimes the vocal delivery is affected by making the sound while speaking - like hitting someone, or digging a hole, or smashing something; sometimes an actor can feel the performance better if she's handling the props herself. And sometimes, the actor just likes playing with toys. I've been on shows where a cast member had to be tactfully (or not so tactfully) persuaded to let the trained operator do the effects, simply because the actor wasn't very good at it: it might look like simply rattling teacups or whatever, but actually it's a highly-skilled job.

Is this the case on all programs, do you know?

Pretty much.

I haven?t seen a Radio Times since 1995. In looking through my back issues, it seems that most radio drama are adaptations of written works, rather than original detectives in original drama. Is this a correct observation?

For detective shows, yes, it probably is. These days if a dramatist comes up with a really good idea for an original detective show, the instinct is to take it to TV rather than radio. Television gives you a bigger audience, better budgets, more critical attention and higher fees. There's also the fact that some writers don't even think about sending stuff to radio in the first place: they regard it as second-best. I don't know if this is still the case, but when I was on the staff, the radio drama department used to get sent an awful lot of scripts which had very obviously been sent to television first, and rejected. Sometimes the writers didn't even bother to disguise the fact: when you open what's supposed to be a radio play and the first page says "Fade up on a beautiful moonlit field with a looming castle on the horizon" or whatever, that's a bit of a giveaway.

Fortunately, a good number of writers still love radio for itself: the flexibility of the medium, the emphasis placed on the importance of the script, the excellence of the production and technical staff, and the loyalty of the listeners.

There are four BBC stations: Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3, and Radio 4. What kind of radio programs appear on each station?

Roughly speaking, the actual breakdown of the main four stations is this:
Radio 1: pop and rock music
Radio 2: middle-of-the-road music
Radio 3: arts, classical music, world music, jazz
Radio 4: drama, comedy, documentaries, news, current affairs

Actually, though, there are quite a few more stations nowadays, including local channels and national digital-only networks. For plays, the most important of these is BBC7 which broadcasts drama and comedy from the Beeb's archives: everything from 1940s sitcoms and sketch shows to big-scale drama series and serials from just a few years ago. What's great is that the entire output is available on the web, which is a superb way for people in other countries to sample BBC radio drama. BBC7 is at []. All the Beeb's radio networks can be heard online now.

For your Sherlock Holmes stories, you once stated that the episodes would begin broadcasting on the same day that the cassette tapes of the season would be available in stores. Is this the normal case for any BBC comedy or drama series - or only for specific ones?

No, that's pretty common. It's CDs these days, of course, as well as cassettes.

In addition, you once said that the basic desire of the BBC was just to air the programs, and that the sale of cassette tapes was, in essence, just gravy.

That's changed. The commercial side of the BBC is very important now, though the core activity of the Corporation is still broadcasting. In some ways the BBC isn't one organisation at all, but a lot of separate companies all operating under the same overall banner.

Where does the BBC make their money? Advertising during the last 15 minutes after a 45 minute episode?

nelWeb Site .htaccess Editor Archive Gateway Disk Usage FTP The BBC doesn't carry any advertising. The broadcasting side - radio as well as television - is wholly funded by the TV Licence, which is a bit like a tax on television sets: every TV owner has to pay an annual fee to the BBC: currently it's just over ?120 - about $220. It's illegal to own a television if you haven't paid: special detector crews in high-tech vans roam the streets, picking up electronic signals from switched-on TVs and checking the owners' addresses against a database to see if they've bought their licence. You have to pay the BBC even if you never watch or listen to any of their channels, a state of affairs which a lot of people don't like; every now and then there are calls for a different system, but they've never amounted to anything.

Science Fiction Questions

Can you give me a time frame for when each of the productions below aired on BBC? How did you get each ?gig.?

1) The Caves of Steel: Science fiction murder mystery from the novel by Isaac Asimov.

That was in 1989 and it was my first SF sale. I proposed it myself: I sent in a pitch document outlining the story and the characters and telling the BBC what a great show it would make, and happily someone agreed with me. I was surprised as well as pleased, because science fiction was a hard sell: the radio drama people didn't believe there was a big enough audience among their usual listenership.

2) A Wizard of Earthsea: Science fantasy from the novel by Ursula Le Guin.

They approached me with that one. It started life as a five-part serial for the schools radio department: I wrote the scripts but then it was shelved for some reason - to do with the rights, I think - and shortly after that the producer who had set it up retired. I thought the show was dead but some years later a producer in the main drama department dug it up and wanted to do it as a two-hour one-off, so I got paid all over again to restructure it. It finally went out in 1996.

© Radio times
3) Flowers for Algernon: Science fiction tragedy from the short story by Daniel Keyes.

In 1991 the BBC asked me to suggest some SF material for a short season. I drew them up a list and at the same time put in a claim to do Flowers, which I think is a tremendous story: it completed knocked me out when I first read it as a kid. I was delighted when I got the commission.

In doing your adaptions, do you change things from the author?s original story, or do you stay as close as possible to the source material? If you change things, why? Can you elaborate on some specific examples of what you changed in the scripts above and why? (I?m trying to get into your creative process here).

You have to change things. A radio play, just like a TV show or a movie, isn't a book, and what works well on the page doesn't necessarily have the same impact if you just transfer it bodily to a different medium. It can actually be false to the original to keep it the same: it does no favours to a novelist or short-story writer to take a moving, exciting and emotional work and turn it into a slow, uninvolving play, but that's exactly what can happen if the dramatisation is too literal or too faithful. It's far more important to preserve the spirit of the original than to reproduce the letter.

There's also the point that a lot of novels simply contain too much material to be shoe-horned into a restricted time slot. The Caves of Steel was a ninety-minute drama: a lot of subplots and sidetracks from the book had to be jettisoned. The same with A Wizard of Earthsea at two hours.

In fact, though, this is no bad thing: both of those plays would have been incredibly convoluted and hard to follow if I had been given enough running-time to include every element from the books. A dramatisation should distill the essence of the original; it can't cover everything, nor should it. It's hard to recall specific changes, but general examples would include making some supporting male characters into females, both for aural variety and to help the listeners keep track of who's who.

I seem to remember changing the details of the climax of The Caves of Steel a bit, because the novel uses a very visual plot-point to solve the mystery: I moved the emphasis over to something more sound-orientated. In Flowers for Algernon the central character keeps a diary - in fact, the entire story consists of his diary entries. I changed the diary into a series of audio recordings made on a personal tape machine, and interspersed them with dramatised scenes which are mentioned or implied in Daniel Keyes' original but which don't actually appear in the story at all. When you're writing new material like that, the challenge of course is to keep it consistent with the stuff that does come more or less straight from the book.

Flowers posed a particular problem: if you've read the story you'll know that Charlie Gordon, the central character, goes through some huge changes which are brilliantly depicted by the way his diary entries are written: as he develops, so does his spelling, grammar and punctuation. I had to find a spoken way of reflecting the same journey.

You?ve done two non-fiction documentaries about science fiction (a feature on Ray Bradbury for kids, and Spaced Out, a documentary for kids on how to write science fiction: 1) Again, what dates did they air. 2) How did you get the gig.

The Bradbury came first, in 1991, with Spaced Out two years later; they were both commissions from the specialist schools radio department, so the programmes had to be basically educational in nature, without being too heavy-handed about it. The schools people came to me with the subjects and asked if I was interested, and when I said yes they left me to tackle them however I felt best.

The Bradbury included clips from a superb US LP recording I found of Leonard Nimoy reading extracts from the stories. I was so pleased that we were able to get the rights to use it: professionally speaking, it's the nearest I'm ever likely to get to Star Trek.


Arkship: Treatment and storylines for science fiction TV series. When a global experiment to melt the polar icecaps and bring life to the deserts goes catastrophically wrong, the last remaining human beings are trapped aboard the giant zoological space station Gaia One.

© Radio Times
This sounds like a great idea! When did you get the idea, how long did you take to write the storylines...any plans on turning it into a book if you can?t get it produced as a tv show?

I was invited out to Pinewood Studios to pitch ideas to a producer who wanted to move into science fiction. Arkship was just a throwaway title I mentioned right at the end of the meeting, but it was the one concept that excited him. I bashed together the basic outline for the pilot and brief synopses for sample episodes in a couple of days, but though the producer still liked it, it never got anywhere. I've hardly looked at it since, to be honest. Maybe sometime in the future its day will come.

Did you get the actors you wanted for your science fiction scripts? How much input do you have into who is cast?

Quite a bit. I'm almost always consulted, which is pleasant, and if I have a specific suggestion it will be considered. But the Beeb's producers and directors inevitably know more actors than I do and are far more in touch with the acting community - there have been lots of times when someone

absolutely brilliant and perfect for a role has been cast, and my reaction has been that I never would have thought of them at all. And there are times when I don't have any specific preference anyway, though obviously there's always a type, a particular sort of personality I have in mind for each character.

People outside the business don't always realise that there's a lot more to casting than just deciding on a name. Actors aren't always available, or sometimes simply aren't interested, or maybe cost too much. I get mail saying "Why didn't you use so-and-so for that part?" as if all we have to do is pick up the phone and that's it. It happens sometimes, but usually it's not that easy.

What are the specific technical demands of the medium? Anything more than being able to turn pages quietly!

A lot more. A radio actor has to get the whole of the performance into her or his voice: what can be conveyed on stage or film or TV with body-language, movement, gestures or even just a look, all has to be vocalised. It's not easy to do, and it's possible for even a fine actor to go too far and overdo it, or not far enough and end up sounding flat and uninvolved. And then there are specific things like microphone technique: there are many different ways of speaking into a mic according to the exact emotional and dramatic effect you want to produce.

Is the BBC financially successful, or are they subsidized by the government? Except for the BBC World Service which broadcasts overseas and is partly funded by the government, there's no subsidy involved at all: the Beeb is independent and self-financing.

?An ideal sound balance for a listener in a car on a motorway would sound very strange for someone in a quiet room with a top-of-the-range audio setup - and vice versa - but the finished programme must satisfy in both situations. Not easy.? You sound very familiar with the technical aspects of getting radio programs recorded. Did you take classes in this bit as well, or did you pick it up ?on the fly??

I worked for several years as an audio technician at the BBC, recording, balancing and editing radio programmes right across the whole range of the output. The training and experience was enormously useful for my writing.

What do you have to do in writing your scripts that allow for such sound balance - or do you leave it all up to the technical boffins?

Basically I write what I want to hear and leave it to the producer/director and technical crew to achieve it. If they think I'm asking too much or suggesting something that's just not a good idea because it's simply not workable, they let me know about it pretty quickly. Mind you, it's a point of honour with them to try to achieve the impossible on a regular basis, in a limited time and within budget.

In general it's my job as a writer to imagine the whole show as I want it to sound, and the script is the way I pass that image onto the people who have to make the programme. So a script is like a music score: it contains all the information about the general soundscape, aural perspectives, sound effects, moves, music and moods, as well as the words the characters say and how I think they should say them. Of course the producer/directors, the technicians and the actors then all contribute their own creative input into the show, and they often bring things to the production which I would never have thought of.

There's very, very little that can't be achieved when you're working purely with sound. The great strength of the medium is that it suggests rather than shows: each individual listener is free to imagine the settings, the characters and the action exactly as he or she wants to: as the old clich?as it, the scenery's always better on the radio.

And finally:
What questions haven?t I asked that you?ve wished I?d asked?

How about "It's very good of you to answer all these questions - where should I send the cheque?" I hope I've covered everything you wanted. Thanks for asking.

Bert Coules, 7th December 2005

All photos and magazine covers retain their original copyright and are shown here as fair use for purposes of reference and review. Thanks to Bert Coules for supplying his photo and one from a Sherlock Holmes radio broadcast.

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