Saturday, 10 May 2014

The Boy From Brazil

 The cover of the Eastern Daily Press "Weekend" supplement for May 3rd 2014, promoting the tie-in feature I wrote for them.

It was back in April last year, before I’d even done much work on what was to become Far From the Fogs, that my boss David suggested that for my next documentary project, we should tackle the story of the racing driver Ayrton Senna’s connections to Norfolk, where he spent much of his early career.

With the 20th anniversary of Senna’s death on the 1st of May 1994 approaching, it seemed an obvious and fitting one for us to do. Indeed, credit for the original idea must go to my colleague Edd Smith, who had first pitched the notion of such a programme for the anniversary some time before this. For whatever reason, I ended up being the one asked by David to make it, which has ended up being a fairly extraordinary experience.

The first bit of work was done last summer, when David went to interview Martin Brundle about his new book, and took me along with him so that I could also record an interview for the documentary, about his famous battle with Senna for the 1983 British F3 championship. But most of the work has been done since January, recording interviews with those who worked with Senna when he drove for Norfolk-based teams, and tracking down what archive might be available for use.

 Slightly-unsuccessfully posing for a photo with ex-F1 driver Martin Brundle after I'd interviewed him for the documentary... I didn't go through the whole thing with my eyes closed, I promise!

It was an occasionally frustrating experience, when not being able to speak to interviewees who could really have added something, and being unable to use any F1 commentary archive due to rights issues, but the positives far outweighed the negatives. I think I managed to come up with a programme which told a good story in an effective way, and certainly all the feedback I have had on it has been pretty much universally positive.

But it has also been a very important programme for me personally, because it’s the first thing I’ve made as a producer that I have managed to get onto a national BBC radio station. Once I had a first edit of the programme done, I submitted it to BBC Radio 5 Live, who to my absolute delight and amazement said they’d consider running a shorter, 25-minute version of the programme.

Given the Radio Norfolk edit of The Boy From Brazil, as I’d titled it, was 55 minutes long, this seemed like quite a daunting prospect, but it actually only took me three runs through to get it to work. My first attempt at a cut down was about 37 minutes, another pass through got me to about 29, and then finally I’d taken enough out to make the cut. Their requests for a more defined ending and “upping” the production with some incidental music beds in places also gave me ideas I was able to take back to the Norfolk version to make the whole thing stronger.

5 Live liked it, and it was quickly scheduled for a spare half-hour slot on a Sunday evening the weekend before the anniversary of Senna’s death. Indeed, it seemed to go down so well with them that they ran it again on the anniversary itself. And they had to scrape me off the ceiling with excitement when I found that the 5 Live broadcast was selected as a “Today’s Choice” in the Radio Times.

 It may sound a bit sad and a little old-fashioned, but I have been a Radio Times reader for as long as I can remember, so having my work highlighted in the pages of the magazine was an enormous thrill.

I am proud of the work I do at BBC Radio Norfolk, but to have something deemed good enough for broadcast on national radio is extremely pleasing, and really makes you feel a part of something bigger, the great BBC stretching all the way back to 1922. Something else that contributed to that was actually getting the chance to go to Broadcasting House in London for the first time, the spiritual home of the BBC, to record the voiceover narration with Rob Bonnet.

David and I had been trying to think of a suitable voice for it – David wanted someone who resonated with the material, whereas I wanted a voice that had the right sort of familiarity and, more importantly, authority. One morning it suddenly struck me that the best candidate for the job might be Rob Bonnet, who worked for the BBC in Norwich in the 1980s, had reported on Senna’s career at the time but was now known nationally as a BBC sports reporter of long standing, currently on Today on Radio 4.

David wrote to Rob, who agreed, and last month I had the very great thrill of travelling down to Broadcasting House to record the narration script with him after he’d finished a shift on Today one Friday morning. I’m not ashamed to admit that I got quite emotional as I walked from the tube station towards that famous building, sitting like a mighty battleship anchored at the top of Regent Street. Rob was very nice, and had only tiny tweaks to suggest to the script I’d written, which from someone of his great experience in network radio and television was also very satisfying.

 Another great thrill was getting to go and do some work at Broadcasting House, the headquarters of BBC radio since the early 1930s, and very much the spiritual home of the entire Corporation.

After the programme was complete, it all began to snowball. The Brazilian desk of the BBC World Service saw the “Today’s Choice” feature in the Radio Times, and phoned to ask me about the programme. This ended up with me providing them with the script and raw audio elements to make a Portuguese-language version of the 5 Live edit for broadcast on the Brazilian radio network CBN – which I suspect will be the first and last time any work of mine will grace their airwaves!

As with Far From the Fogs, there was also a tie-in article for the Weekend supplement of the Eastern Daily Press, which they again kindly made the cover feature. David is often nagging at me to try and pitch more feature article ideas to people (rather than, as I suspect he sees it, wasting my time trying to write novels), but really, there’s only a very select range of subjects that I feel particularly qualified to write about, and could with any enthusiasm. I’m not a journalist, and I couldn’t write non-fiction copy week after week after week on a regular basis about things that didn’t really interest me.

 My EDP feature. Very gratifyingly, as with the Sherlock Holmes piece I wrote them last year, they didn't have to change a word.

It is always nice, however, to get my name in professional print. My colleagues at BBC News Online were also kind enough to give me a co-author byline on a tie-in piece they put up related to the programme, although in this case the credit wasn’t really deserved. I did write a possible article for them (and felt quite proud of myself for having managed to write completely different pieces for them and the EDP), but they didn’t use it, instead taking another angle on the story and just using some of the quotes I had provided. The resulting piece by my colleague Zoe Applegate managed to reach No. 1 in the “most read” charts on BBC News Online on Bank Holiday Monday – all good publicity for the programme, the full-length BBC Radio Norfolk version of which was broadcast that day.

 Top of the charts for BBC News Online, on the morning of Monday 5th May 2014.

I’d also sent the possible article I’d written for News Online to the Brazilian desk, who ended up publishing a version in Portuguese that, in terms of content, ended up being closer to what I’d written than the English version, oddly enough. Certainly the first time that any of my prose has been translated into another language!

So it has all been a very exciting few weeks, good for my ego and possibly good for my radio career as well. However, I am well aware of the fact that none of this would be happening were it not for the fact that a man died in a horrific accident twenty years ago. At times during this whole process I have worried about the fact that I am getting career benefits based purely on another man’s death – while it’s possible we would have done a programme about Senna’s early years in Norfolk had he lived, the fact he died gave an anniversary to hang it on, and possibly gave him an almost mythic status that added to his legend.

But I take comfort from the fact that those I have interviewed and others with whom I have communicated during the process of making this programme, who all knew Senna, seem comfortable and happy with celebrating his legacy, and perhaps drawing attention to a part of his career not often lingered over in other broadcast programmes about him.

Overall, then, a very satisfying spring, both creatively and professionally. Where it all leads is another question… I’ve been lucky enough in recent years to make programmes for the BBC about several of my great interests – Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes, The Beatles, and now Formula One motor racing. I do wonder whether my luck will run out at some point, but I’ve had a great run.

Now, though, I think it’s time to turn my attention back, at least for a short while, to the business of novel-writing, and finally getting Another Life submitted to some agents and publishers.