Mould breaking nine part thriller ‘Tracks’ recently completed it’s successful (online first) broadcast last month. The BBC drama’s ‘JJ Abrams-esque‘ style has caught the attention of many who don’t usually tune in to Radio Four (mumsnet for one), or the occasionally patchy afternoon play.
So how did this foray into the binge-listen genre come about? What was the creative process, and how did Tracks creators convince Radio 4 to take on a serial format?
We spoke to BBC Producer James Robinson at length to find out more about how the series was created, commissioned and produced.
“Certainly from the beginning artistically we wanted to make it sound, as with everything I like to make, I like to make it sound like it would appeal to the same sort of people who are watching drama on Netflix. We talked about a series which was ambitious in scale and we talked about the various ways we would ensure it sustained over nine episodes and the story would be gripping.
The different things I’ve done before with the writer Matthew Broughton have always been on the edgier side of things. He writes very strong sound ideas. He writes a lot for TV and film, and so he writes very visually which I think… works best on the radio, paradoxically, when you’ve got those really strong images, and he likes to use the voice over as the camera to guide you through the story.”
Anyone who’s listened to Tracks can certainly attest to it’s powerful imagery. A distinction of Robinson and Broughton’s collaborative power. There is no watershed in the world of British radio, and longer term the constraints placed upon BBC audio drama via it’s day time home may well be eclipsed by an online audience hungry for thrills. Tracks certainly pushed those boundaries with its grisly imagining of an airplane crash site, amongst other vivid and occasionally gory moments.
But how long did it take for Radio Four to commit to the nine part season? The network’s caution in testing new formats is well known, and once historical dramas, adaptations and stuff starring Bill Nighy (❤) is removed from the listings, exciting dramatic programming is more sparse than many would like.
Robinson continues, “They were keen on the idea of doing something ambitious but it did take a long time. What was really great was Radio Four were prepared to commission… initially the first two episodes as scripts. So they sort of piloted the scripts which is pretty unheard of. I think the understanding was that if it they didn’t think it would make nine episodes they would, you know, just ask us to do it in two. Which is quite common. You go to Radio Four saying ‘I’ve got this great idea it’s going to be thirty parts’ and they say, ‘Ah. Could you do it in two? ‘
They were hanging around for a long time with those first two scripts. I think me and Matt [Broughton] looked up the email chains recently and we first started talking about this series in 2012. So it’s had a long old road, but those first two scripts were going back and forth for probably at least a year before it moved on.
So then once we were happy with those scripts, once Radio Four was happy with those scripts… Matt then wrote a sort of series bible, a series outline and the rest of the story kind of came together. Those initial first two scripts changed enormously. I think its fair to say when he started writing those two scripts he didn’t know how it was going to end. But pretty early on then, in the next stage of the process we worked out exactly how we wanted it to end and a lot of that was then reverse engineered.”
Writing aside, an increasingly important element of successful drama is the use of recurring motifs and tropes throughout a series development. Sound design being such a critical element to the overall atmosphere (and reception) of any audio drama, how did that process occur, and where did the sonic feel of Tracks originate?
Studio manager Nigel Lewis was a significant influence in that process, along with sonic stage direction from Matthew Broughton‘s script.
“Nigel [Lewis] is our studio manager here in Cardiff, so he engineers and edits everything that we make pretty much. He’s fantastic.” Says Robinson. “Whats great about Matt’s scripts is they are very much written with sound in mind. There are very clear sonic stage directions in his scripts. So you know, things like the recurring motif of the falling plane, that was something that was in there from the start. And Matt also writes with lots of music in mind. So he puts all that music in the script. It’s not always music we can use in the end. We are limited by what the BBC can use in agreement with the music publishers.
So we sort of have a rough blueprint for the sound design in the script. Then obviously we go into the studio and we record all the voices. Because this was such a long recording process, it was a total of two days recording the actors per episode so a total of eighteen days in the studio… We had to split the eighteen days into two chunks because of Romola’s [Garai] availability…. We recorded the first two episodes in the first week and then in the second week we had another guy operating the desk in the studio and Nigel started editing the first two episodes… Nigel in one room editing and the recording was happening in the other room.”
He continues, “We had three producer directors working across the series, there were two others as well as me. So I did episodes one, two, five, eight and nine. Helen Perry did three, four and six and then Abigail Le Fleming did one episode.
And so in terms of the sound design, basically Nigel does a rough mix of his sound ideas, and then the producer director of that episode will sit in with him and play around and hone the sound really.
We had a sort of series style guide that we put together which was to do with making lots of hard cuts and I think we had a stipulation that unless there’s a good reason for it, it should always be raining, that kind of thing. And also, as the series was put together there were certain bits of music or certain sound things that became motifs throughout the series. So at the end I did a pass with Nigel over all of the episodes sort of making sure that everything was consistent and that these bits of music or sound were strung through and were developed across the series.”
The online release of Tracks (each episode was released online a week in advance of the FM transmission and the series finale was broadcast online and on radio simultaneously) also sets new precedents. Tracks has struck a chord with younger listeners and in combination with the availability of the show as an mp3 until early 2017, unlike the more restrictive nature of the BBC’s 28 day Iplayer releases, it’s plain to see that Radio Four intend to crack ‘the internet podcast thing’ one way or another.
James agrees. “It’s been an ambition, obviously there’s the drama of the week podcast that Radio Four does as well, there’s the comedy of the week podcast and… it’s been a long struggle to be able to get the rights to do it because of all the rights tied up with copyright and the equity agreement with the actors. But I think what’s… worked particularly well with Tracks… is that you can really build up a loyal audience with a single story.
[D]oing something like Tracks but a story which is plotted over five or ten series and literally just growing and growing and growing that audience would be really interesting I think. It’s all relative as well because obviously the network has this balancing act because even when we’re talking about eighty thousand, a hundred thousand downloads, is massive but it always sort of pales in significance to the on air figures which tend to be the more traditional listeners.”
Tracks wrapped in June this summer. The team spent eighteen days recording the series and post production was completed at an approximate rate of one episode every three to four days. The budget was £7000 per episode which does not include BBC overheads. An article speculating on the possibility of a new season of Tracks is here.
Tracks is available to download here until Spring 2017.
More information on the goals of this blog, Broadcast Sound is available here.
The full interview between Broadcast Sound and James Robinson, featuring budget details, character development, James’ biography and influences as well as the teams future projects is available for download and stream below.