A Certain Age – Piece from The Sunday Times, May 8, 2005
From a piece about radio, written for The Sunday Times in 2005
Having just written a series of monologues for Radio 4 (my third such series), I will admit that it’s mainly a sophisticated form of self-torture, and it may be time to see a specialist, because the constraints of the radio monologue are even tighter than are those of normal radio drama. The story is told entirely from one person’s point of view, and addressed to a non-specific person who doesn’t exist. Dialogue can be present, but it has to be in the form of “so-he-said-and-then-I-said”. In an unfolding story, the character undergoes traditional dramatic discovery and change – but there is something else, another layer to pay attention to. Does this person actually know what’s going on? Of course, it’s very annoying if the narrator is idiotically unaware of things that are obvious to the listener. But at the same time, it adds to the magnetism of the character if his testimony lacks total authority; if every word needs weighing.
First reactions to the idea of my new series have been a bit strange. In A Certain Age, you see, each of the narrators is a 42-year-old man. One is a father, one is a son; then there are a husband, a brother, a “married man”, and a pedant. Each speaks for half an hour. And the instant question I’ve been asked is: how can you write about men? I explain that this is a set of monologues equivalent to the first series of A Certain Age (2002), which comprised a mother, a daughter, a sister, and so on. As far as I’m concerned, writing monologues for men has been an identical process.
But it’s no good. “Are you skewering different male types?” they ask. And I just can’t answer; I’m too confused by the question. “Did you speak to any men?” someone asked me the other day, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Forgive the grandiose comparison, but I kept thinking, “I wonder whether people asked Henrik Ibsen or Tennessee Williams whether they spoke to any women before they wrote A Doll’s House or A Streetcar Named Desire.” The thing is, I didn’t set out to write about men as a species, or to make points about men in general. There was no agenda. I am not a writer of the aren’t-men-awful school. I just wanted to present male characters who were the equivalent of the women in my first series. During the writing, it never occurred to me that I was performing some sort of trans-gender party trick.
What absorbed me far more than the gender of each character was the key relationship at the centre of his story. In The Father (played by Douglas Hodge), John is a funny, slightly obsessive and startlingly well-read working-class bloke who works in a call centre. His wife Kaff died a year ago; his 12-year-old son David seems to be coping by practising the cello night and day. The piece is about grief and love and doing your best. By contrast, the Brother (Simon Russell Beale) is a successful, rather prissy art dealer who loves his life but hates his name (Tim); he goes into a comical panic when his older brother Julian writes from Australia to say that he’s flying home to take his rightful place as “head of the family”.
How does John feel? How does Tim feel? In each case, it seems an odd suggestion that I should have gone out into the street with a clipboard to ask an expert. “Excuse me, you’re a man, aren’t you? I thought so, I could tell by the socks and sandals. Perhaps you can help me. If your wife died and your son wouldn’t stop practising the cello, how would that feel?”
The actual difference in writing for men was revealed to me only during the last part of the process, on studio days. Because it did feel starkly different to sit and listen to a man talk about himself for half an hour. With no disrespect to the great performances in the first series, the male voice in confidential mode turns out to be very powerful. On the whole, I think the tone of this series is generally lighter than the first, with more laughs; but when these characters got angry or upset, they were electrifying. Recording the (Glaswegian) Husband, the soft-spoken Peter Capaldi tried one scene at a pitch of such scorching anger that I was a) very glad there were two thick doors separating us; and b) alarmed at how easy it was to write proper verbal violence. Afterwards he apologised, “That was a bit Billy Connolly, wasn’t it?” and explained that he knew a lot of people like that in Glasgow. But the point is: to me, it sounded real. At the end of the recording of “The Father”, we opened the door to Douglas Hodge’s studio and found him actually in tears. And again, while I was grateful and impressed, I was also frightened. What had I done? Surely it’s wrong to make a nice man cry? Especially when Dawn Ellis, the producer, asked him to do it again, so he had to cry twice.
But we are back with the purity of radio, the thought-transference, where it all comes down to a word in your shell-like. There is a saying about radio that “the pictures are better”, but I’ve always considered this utter rubbish. Radio 4 is currently airing an adaptation of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, and I refuse to believe the listeners are all feverishly imagining period frocks and distant foot-hills, and floating palaces and khaki uniforms drenched in posh British sweat. If they are, they’re surely missing the point of the whole exercise, which is to concentrate on a story told through spoken words. To me, the world of radio drama is a bit like the ancient notion of the afterlife: a place of shades. It’s a consoling world of babbling murk, where just one of your five senses is singled out, and it’s perfectly reasonable for Brian suddenly to spot Adam in the lambing shed because you can’t see him there for yourself. When radio grabs you and pulls you in, the words don’t serve to conjure up pictures. The words are pictures. And long may that continue, I say.