Why actors were told ‘give it a bit more duvet’

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Julianna Jennings recording in her broom cupboard

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Julianna Jennings recording in her broom cupboard

The story of how Bird in the Sky, a new BBC Radio 4 docu-drama, was performed, directed and recorded from home, with its radio workshops still shut, is one of skill, inventiveness – and a large dose of perseverance.

The run through has only just started, but in the hot broom cupboard somewhere in the French Alps, actress Julianna Jennings’ computer is already starting to overheat and to hum its discontent.

“Er… Julianna?” winces Keith Graham, the technical producer from his sitting room in London. “Your mic is picking up your whirring computer, I’m afraid. Can you open the door for a bit and let it cool down?”

Julianna’s flushed face backs away from the Zoom camera as she squeezes out of her claustrophobic closet to let in some air. Her mic’s pop shield, which she made herself from a pair of old stockings, a sieve and a hanger, judders a little as she spits out a swear word.

In the neighbouring Zoom window, Adam Gillen, aka Sgt Paul Meyer, her radio drama husband, is gesticulating wildly from a den of duvets and cushions in his bedroom.

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Adam Gillen in a tent of duvets

“Um… so I’m guessing Adam’s having problems with his connection again,” says Keith gently as director Sasha Yevtushenko puts down his script on his dining room table and folds his hands briefly across his face before clicking off his camera for a few seconds time out.

The problem with recording a 45-minute drama in lockdown is that however skilled an actor, sound producer or director you are, you’re only really as good as your broadband connection.

“Am I coming through now?” shouts Adam as the rest of the cast and crew uniformly flinch and tear off their headphones. “Hello?”

‘Sort of a miracle’

Bird in the Sky is one of the first Radio 4 Afternoon Plays to be made under lockdown. It’s a docu-drama which recounts the true story of an Awol US Air Force mechanic Sgt Paul Meyer, who in 1969 was based in the UK and stole a transporter plane to try to fly home to his wife in America. He disappeared mid-flight and neither his plane nor his body were ever recovered.

In the story, we follow Meyer in bed with his wife in Virginia, out shooting squirrels in the woods with his step-children, drunk as a skunk in a Suffolk pub and falling to pieces in the cockpit of a Hercules he doesn’t know how to fly.

It’s a rollercoaster of emotions for actor Adam to muster up, especially when he’s home alone with his head under a duvet, monitoring his own sound levels while reading the script from his iPhone and trying to ignore everyone staring at him on Zoom.

“It’s sort of a miracle that I managed to get through any of the scenes like this,” he laughs from the depths of his cushioned den. “But there is something about being in a cosy environment that helps you get lost in your own imagination.

“I know nothing about flying a plane and it is a real stretch of the imagination but I enjoyed the challenge and hopefully I’ve conveyed that.”

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Paul Meyer with his wife Jane

Normally, in the comfort of the radio drama studio, the director and actors’ imaginations would be encouraged by the Foley or sound effects that are produced alongside the scenes.

“Today I would have been chopping food, doing a bit of gun handling, flicking cockpit switches and knobs,” explains technical producer Alison Craig from her London home. “I’d even be juggling small light bulbs that we use for the sound of ice cubes in a glass – and all that helps the actors, helps bed the words into the environment we’re in… but now that will have to be done in post-production.”

But not quite all of it.

In her now slightly cooled Alpine broom cupboard, Julianna, who plays Sgt Meyer’s wife Jane, is reading through a scene in which she’s woken up by a phone call in the middle of the night.

The director has asked her to wrestle with a large sheet as she speaks to convey the sense of being in bed. As she does so, she almost knocks over the glass of water she had to use in a previous scene when she was supposed to be knocking back rye and soda in a bar, yet somehow she still manages to kiss the heel of her hand to perform, very convincingly, a radio embrace in lockdown.

“That’s a great take,” grins Keith from his mixing desk. “Could you try it again but on one leg this time?”

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Technical director Keith Graham worked from home on the programme

The Radio 4 soap opera The Archers chose to limit the headaches of lockdown radio by only recording monologues, but soliloquies aren’t really sustainable in 45-minute audio dramas.

So for the Afternoon Plays, it was a question of either braving it or simply accepting that listeners would have months of switching on their radios to hear that familiar (and slightly disingenuous) phrase: “And now, another chance to hear…”

‘Give it a bit more duvet’

Sasha is meticulous in the directions he gives actors; he seems to have an innate ability to hear how four performers who are actually miles apart can be made to sound as if they’re in the same room.

But it’s the first time in his career he’s ever given a note to an actor to “give it a bit more duvet” or “to really use that cushion”. And he’s had to be careful not to bruise any egos.

“Communication via a Zoom-like platform is very hard to do with any discretion,” he explains. “If one performer is giving too much or too little, normally in a studio you could go and have a discreet word but here that’s hard to do. It’s very public and quite hard to involve some of the subtleties.

“You can mute your camera and audio but that in itself can send the wrong signals! So everyone is embarking on this project with a massive amount of trust.”

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A video conference call during the making of Bird in the Sky

After a hurried tea break and a few computer reboots, it’s time to record the final act. Set in a Hercules cockpit, this is the final tragic love scene between our two star-crossed protagonists. In her stuffy broom cupboard, Julianna fans her sweat-beaded face with her bed sheet while Adam hunkers down in his duvets.

I close my eyes to shut out the absurd and try to suspend disbelief. The actors may be in different countries and there are no sound effects, yet by the time the scene has ended I cannot speak for crying. I look up at my computer screen and see I’m not the only one.

Whoever said lockdown drama wouldn’t work clearly had no imagination.

Bird in The Sky is on Radio 4 on Friday 31 July 14:15 BST.

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