Joan Griffiths, producer of BBC Radio’s Listening and Reading series, on how the programmes are made.
The headteacher is trying to think of a story. Exuberant children race around the school hall, clutching bags of treats given by the owner of a Chinese supermarket. It’s the end-of-term prize-giving party at the Harrow Chinese School, and my last chance to find a story for a dual-language broadcast in Cantonese and English.
‘What about this one’?’ she asks. ‘A farmer worked in his field every day growing food for his family, until one day he saw a rabbit run into a tree, knock itself out, and fall down dead. That night his family had rabbit for supper. So after that he spent every day watching the tree instead of growing his crops; his family starved.’
‘The moral’s clear,’ I reply, ‘but isn’t it a bit short?’
‘Well, then, how about this one: there was an apothecary, a businessman and a teacher . collecting money for a temple . . .’ Five minutes later, I’ve lost the thread: ‘Isn’t it going to be a bit long’?’
We start to leave. In the corridor, she suddenly says, ‘There’s a story about water displacement. It’s about the first elephant that ever came to China. It was so huge, the Emperor insisted on knowing how heavy it was, but nobody could think of a way of weighing it, till this little boy had a bright idea. It’s a true story from history…’
And it turns out to he just right for a ten-minute Listening and Reading broadcast, which we call How Do You Weigh an Elephant? – even though water displacement doesn’t come till a much later Key Stage!
All our stories have to he the same length to fit a regular weekly broadcast slot of ten minutes, that’s about twelve hundred words. It’s not an easy length for folk tales: too long for a proverb, but too short for the adventures of three princes, or the slaying of many monsters.
Each broadcast is recorded onto a cassette and printed in a book. Children can listen to the story separately first, gaining a context and clues before starting to read the book straight afterwards. Many children find they can tackle texts after hearing them with a success that seemed dauntingly remote when they were confronted with just marks on a page. The pace is designed for listening to, rather than for reading along with. Spoken and written words match, with additional clues from lively coloured pictures.
Each of the twenty-eight stories is different, with its own different writer, illustrator and broadcaster. They are grouped into three sets for age and difficulty (One for 5-7s, Two for 6-8s and Three for 7-9s) but without rigorous grading of vocabulary or structures. These are real books, offering the strategy that triggered most of us who have become successful readers: being read to in front of an open book that we’d chosen to hear again and again because we liked it. Repetition over a period of time is vital, but it has to be for pleasure.
How arc the stories chosen’? – On the advice of teachers, through our series consultants Ruth Ballin. Myra Barrs and Sue Ellis of the Centre for Language in Primary Education, Southwark. About a third of them are already well-loved in longer versions, in collections or in books out of print. Our format can make them accessible to a wider range of children. About two-thirds of them are new, specially commissioned from writers already popular, such as Rose Impey, Douglas Hill and Catherine Storr. There’s wide variety, including school stories, animal fables, a pony story, folk tales, stories about everyday life nowadays and poetry.
Poetry works particularly well, as it gives readers the support of rhyme, rhythm and repetition in short complete bursts, without requiring them to follow one thread through the whole ten minutes. James Berry and Michael Rosen each present a broadcast of their own new short poems about everyday family life. The voice tunes are easily echoed by children – but is this too limiting? Does Michael Rosen’s stress on ‘I don’t like custard’, which they mimic with relish, pre-empt their ownership of the line as ‘I don’t like custard’ or ‘I don’t like custard’? He hopes not, and was delighted to hear that a poem he wrote for the series ten years ago, Bath Times, was received with explosions of rapturous laughter by hundreds of teachers when Jack Ousbey read it to the UKRA Conference last summer. On the other hand, George Layton insists on always reading his Northern Childhood stories such as The Fib and The Balaclava Story himself.
Both these popular authors came into children’s writing through radio, both writing in the first person for their own strongly individual voices. When I was handed Michael Rosen’s early poems in his mother’s kitchen while he was still a student, I couldn’t see what they were. They were too different from what we had already. Only when heard could they be recognised, like clothes taken off the peg and put on. George Layton I heard in my own kitchen as I was ironing to Woman’s Hour. ‘Might children enjoy that story about a Gang Hut, too?’ I wondered.
From the Asian oral tradition came Beulah Candappah, who has so often opened her mundane shopping-bag on the studio floor and poured out an enchanted landscape of little figures for children to handle as her story unfolds. Her wide classroom experience shows in her dramatic pauses, leaping rhythms, cunning dialogue and convincing animal voices.
But choosing actors to read what others have written can be a challenge. How Do You Weigh an Elephant? was easy – a Chinese voice, obviously, and who better than David Yip, TV’s Chinese detective? But what about The Nung Guama, a piece of chinoiserie that has delighted children for years, in a radio dramatisation of Roger Lancelyn Green’s version, to be found in a collection so long out of print that it could only be read in the British Museum Reading Room? Stephen Fry’s latest play had closed unexpectedly. I grabbed my chance. In his fastidious Jeevish tones, the eponymous monster sounds even more galumphingly horrible and Mabel Yeung assures me that it’s not much like the hairy Wild Man in the original, anyway. The Teacher’s Notes suggest that any Chinese children in the class be invited to tell it as they know it: a story to be shared as well as owned.
This choice of reader is typical: a voice familiar on the television at home – a friendly voice. But when Listening and Reading was started twenty years ago by Philippa Pearce and Moira Doolan, their choice couldn’t have been more different. It had to be ‘the voice of the words on the page’: anonymous, easing the children into the story with unobtrusive skill, never interposing a personality to be noticed. A Lion at School is the best known of the stories Philippa Pearce wrote for the series then, and as reader they chose the consummate radio actor John Hollis.
Nowadays, famous voices are a powerful way of harnessing the colossal pull of the media into the service of reading: Phillip Schofield of Going Live, Bruno Brookes of Top of the Pops, Timmy Mallett of Whackaday, Nerys Hughes of Bazaar – all stars, but stars children feel comfortable with.
Gender has to be watched, of course. I was going to try for Michael Crawford of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em to read James Riordan’s folk tale The Nagging Husband, about an accident-prone house-husband, when I was reminded that this must have been a tale told by women, either to their menfolk or about them. So I asked Thora Hird instead. And I had to call back David Yip to record How Do You Weigh an Elephant?, again, after Mabel Yeung pointed out that we’d referred to ‘workmen’ throughout, ignoring the proud tradition of strong women doing all kinds of tough work in unisex blue trousers.
Class is a particular hazard when stories are to be read aloud. Contrary to the BBC stereotype, we shun Received Pronunciation, especially in favour of accents as expressive as the Black Liverpudlian of Craig Charles. Children find regional and transatlantic accents warmer and slower. Bob Barton was recorded for us by CBC in Canada and Diana Wolkstein by our BBC studio in New York (where she tells stories sometimes at the foot of Hans Andersen’s statue in Central Park). I joined in the recording sessions by telephone, sitting in my office. But when it came to The Porcelain Man, Alan Bennett’s voice seemed to suit exactly its quirky, wry, wistful mood, even though it was written in the United States. We were already in the studio when Mary Rayner suggested that her dragons at the dentist in Open Wide could be Welsh red dragons. Luckily, Welsh dragons are well within the astonishing vocal range of Miriam Margolyes.
Each ten-minute story takes about an hour and half to record. I sit in a cubicle with the equipment, the studio manager who drives it, and my production assistant who times every page with a stopwatch and keeps an eye on the text. In the studio, on the other side of a soundproof glass panel, sits the reader, whom we can contact by hand signals, over an intercom if we press the key, or by flashing a green light on and off. Most of our time is spent making sure the voice sounds as if it’s talking to you quite naturally at home. Some actors like to record the story straight away to keep the freshness of the first telling, and then re-record any retakes for editing in afterwards, if necessary. Others prefer to rehearse a few times before recording. Some arrive with scripts in which they’ve highlighted every character in a different colour, to remind them when to switch accents.
Sound effects are added separately afterwards. We used to put in a signal for turning the page. It was surprisingly effective: the sound of a page turning. But now that we know, from Ruth Ballin’s classroom research, that it’s best to listen first without reading, we’ve left it out, except in the dentist’s waiting room. Elsewhere, there’s just a pause.
Not many of the stories have sound effects, largely because ‘Crash’ and ‘Cor’ and ‘Grrr’ and ‘Meeow’ are fun to read. But some writers have deliberated created opportunities for sounds, such as Kathleen Hersom in her story of a class visit to a farm, or Hilda Offen in her story of a magic baby’s rattle that turns a traffic warden into a duck and magics the sweets to fly out of the sweet shop (hail slowed down and played backwards). Dick King-Smith has written songs for two competing choirs of cats, created by multi-tracking the single voice of Bill Oddie. I’m wondering, if we vary the tape speed, could it sound even more excruciating? The voice of Martin Jarvis playing a gamut of characters from an old woman to a cliff to a sailor, his boat and a graveyard full of dead people, has been speeded up to sound like a bell and then sent to the Radiophonic Workshop where it was turned into a haunting evocation of sea, sky, past and present for Kevin Crossley-Holland’s new prose poem Sea Tongue, which closes the series in the summer term…
Listening and Reading can be heard on Thursday mornings in term time on Radio 5 MW for Schools at 9.35 – 9.45, repeated the same night on Radio 3 at 1.35 – 1.45 night-time. They’ll be repeated next year.
Books and cassettes can be ordered by schools from BBC Educational Publishing, P 0 Box 234, Wetherby. West Yorkshire L23 7EU (tel. 0937 541001). Or they can be bought in bookshops as Read and Listen books and cassettes. (Reviews of some of these cassettes appeared on the Audio Tapes page of BfK No.66, January 91.)