THE GREAT LOS ANGELES OPPORTUNITY:
Writer's Diary: originally published in New Playwrights
Trust Newsletter #105
William George Q is a young writer and singer. Here he
tells how his first radio play, The Great Los Angeles Opportunity (LAOpp), came
to be produced.
Late 1993 in Edinburgh, I wanted to write but had few ideas and little
confidence. My best friend, Dallas, set me a topic: "Los Angeles? Great
opportunity! Any chance you could help me out?" In a week I had the full
synopsis and the opening scenes of a film script: how would LA react if Jesus
turned up now (especially an ingenuous, black female Jesus)?
Then something else came up and I put it aside. Around this time I went
along to a Writers' Guild Open Radio Day. A BBC producer there was most
encouraging; I soon sent him an old over-written play from my college days.
1994, now in London, I saw a leaflet for the London Radio Playwrights'
Festival. Timidly I went to an open workshop, where Tim Crook, founder of
Independent Radio Drama Productions (IRDP) and Goldsmiths' College Head of
Radio, spoke engagingly and encouragingly, and played us some classic radio
I went home and took out my LAOpp notes. It was massively visual. But
couldn't I turn that to my advantage? I chose a deadline: I'd enter it for
IRDP's Woolwich Young Radio Playwrights' Competition in November. I scribbled
the final scenes on the train back to London after a visit home, and got it off
just in time.
The leaflet also advertised script surgeries: apply with story outline and
sample dialogue. I sent off my favourite scene, where an old black blues singer
preaches to the young heroine, not knowing that she is Jesus. I felt unusually
confident. It was the best I could do. If they didn't like this, screw them.
But I heard nothing. Disappointed, I took a train to visit my girlfriend in
Edinburgh. When I arrived she looked glum: IRDP had phoned to say I'd been
chosen for the workshop. I phoned back, all prepared to be angry. Marja, their
administrator, politely apologised for the late notice: the workshop was for my
benefit, but if I couldn't be there, they'd set up a phone link with the studio.
Elated, I decided to go back down.
I arrived just in time to hear the two actors (brought in specially) reading
it through. Tim Crook joked, "Any play called The Great Los Angeles
Opportunity must be good." In the studio, I was all ready to explain
motivations etc. But they needed no help. A couple of comments from Tim, and
the second take was even better. He taped it for me, we all had pizza together,
and I went home feeling like a writer.
March 1995, I got my old script back from the BBC producer: Not Interested.
He made some withering, though accurate, comments.
LAOpp came back too. This was more disappointing. But the crit from IRDP's
reader was fabulous: he'd loved it, picked up all the Dylan and Tom Waits
references, and made shrewd suggestions: to cut a scene and go easy on the
directions. He wrote, "Actors and producers can be trusted to interpret
without excessive guidance, and they can reward a writer richly when allowed to
Time to rewrite! A discipline I needed to learn. With a few friends, we
held an unprepared reading. They liked it, found it surreal and amusing, though
one of the characters (GABE) didn't seem to work as I'd envisaged him.
I sent it off, both to IRDP's other competition, The London Radio
Playwrights' Festival, and to the same BBC producer up in Edinburgh.
The IRDP result was due in June. I had nothing else in the pipeline, and I'd
finished the acting course that had brought me to London; if LAOpp came to
nothing, maybe I should move on. I became nervous waiting for the postman each
day. It was the end of June. I'd given up hoping. Then Marja phoned: I'd won.
The presentation. Wine and cheesey biscuits. Excerpts from the five winning
plays: Tim has put an LA soundscape at the start of mine. Did I write this?! It
doesn't seem funny to me, but people clap. They broadcast the feature on London
Radio that week, including my excerpt and a little interview with me.
I put the cheque into the bank (full payment for 46 minutes worth of radio.)
Now I really feel like a writer.
In August, I meet Tim for a business lunch, clutching notes on the
blues/jazz music I wanted. I'm too nervous to order anything interesting. But we
hardly talk about the script, instead chatting randomly about politics,
creativity, the empire, etc. Wonderful. I like Tim.
Over the next few months, I start to doubt that it'll ever happen, though
IRDP drop me occasional notes saying they haven't forgotten me.
April 1996. Finally Tim has dates for the broadcast. We discuss casting
over the phone. He says it's perhaps the best script he's ever worked on ...
Is this just his natural enthusiasm getting the better of him? I can't tell.
I send out notes to all my friends, telling them to listen in.
June 19. Three days to record it. Not possible to do the usual
read-through, because we never have all the actors together. I hadn't realised
I'd created a monster: 30 characters to be played by 10 actors; myriad
different settings, some only for one line. I really had envisioned it as an
aural movie. And, perhaps because I knew nothing about radio recording (beyond
reading the Hitch Hiker's Guide radio scripts), I've not hesitated to include
complex, ambitious sequences.
Goldsmiths' College studio. Coffee with a few of the actors; everyone is
very complimentary about the script . I teach a song to one actress. She
learns it straight off and we record it a capella; I'll sing the doowop
backing vocals behind it later.
Shelaagh Ferrell, the main actress, arrives; I know her from our script
surgery last March. To my relief, her scenes with GABE seem hilarious: the
actor, Rupert Degas, has the clownish timing perfected; and his Jewish-New York
voice is superb.
Tim likes to do things semi-realistic: we record lots outside, often
waiting for British Rail trains to pass. The most complex scene is the Jazz
Bar: Shelaagh and Rupert talk in an anechoic chamber; next door, with two
musician friends I've roped in (Jamie West on guitar and Stik Cook on drums), I
play live backing to some performance poetry; and Peter Guinness, the devilish
Maitre D', moves from one room to the next. We do this in just two takes: it's
not quite how I imagined it, but it's certainly fun.
How much input is expected from me? Tim says, if I have any comments, I
should address them through him; this makes sense, though I'm used to talking
to actors and have to hold myself back. I'm impressed by the way he lets the
scenes flow, never correcting actors, but carefully choosing a few guiding words
if he thinks they're missing something. He has cast all the roles perfectly,
and he now gets fantastic performances out of the actors.
I've been listening to radio plays more recently. My main problem is with
actors trying too hard, explaining everything through tone of voice. When we're
allowed to work things for ourselves, it often seems more powerful.
The first and third days are immense fun; the second is full of tiny bitty
scenes. With all the instruments lying around, the cast display their talents
while waiting between scenes: we could have made it a musical ...
At the end of the third day, I ask if I can put the doowop backing vocals on
that first song now. The studio manager says it's not possible; well, it's
possible but very awkward; doesn't really need it, does it? We'd have had to
Ah. Without the backing it won't be a doowop chorus, and won't work in the
Rocky-style montage. My heart's sinking, but maybe it isn't important; and I
hate to end on a note of complaint. It's late, and we all go home. Everyone
has worked hard.
London Radio is changing its name back to LBC. Tim's IRDP hour is being
shifted to medium wave. We've told lots of people to listen out to the last
stereo fm slot on June 30. This leaves Tim just a week to edit, for most of
which he's at a radio festival in Italy. Not ideal, but he says he'll do his
So the broadcast is my first hearing.
My brother is visiting from Australia; my mother's down in London to see
him; we're with several of his friends and his baby daughter. While tuning in,
we miss some of the set-up, and it's halfway through before they catch the
thread. The adverts interrupting the flow are infuriating, but by the end the
pace hots up nicely. Except ... some of the end is missing! The final tie-up
has been cut, and the climactic sound effects don't convey the intended
Everyone is very congratulatory. But as far as I can tell, only those
who've read the script actually know what's happened. One friend even says to
me, "Well done. I didn't understand any of it, but well done." Oh,
no: it wasn't meant to be confusing! I had been worried it was all too
There's congratulations from Tim on the answerphone, with apologies that he
had to make last minute cuts to fit the slot. But he thinks it's been a great
I'm not convinced, but decide to leave it a couple of days. Then I listen
again to the tape I made off the radio. Some bits are better than I could have
imagined, but others aren't as sharp as what I wrote. Am I being being too
precious? I know writers shouldn't expect scripts to be followed exactly.
I call Tim. He says people are saying it was marvellous. Problems
understanding? No! He's planning to repeat it on the new LBC 6pm Sunday
Playhouse slot, in a fortnight's time. This seems to make it worthwhile
commenting in detail. Can I send him my notes?
The more I listen, the more I'm amazed that he managed to edit it at all in
such a short time: it's hugely complex. But I send off my notes anyway. Am I
overstepping my place as a writer by voicing criticisms? To hell with it: I am
trying to be constructive, I still think it's good; just, it could be better.
I meet with Tim. He goes through my notes, and says he'll tidy up a few
bits if there's time. Most importantly he'll play it in two episodes, so no
need for any cuts.
I tune in both weeks. Tim has created a fun new slot on LBC, "interviewing"
Orson Welles as he introduces the plays. This seems to set up the atmosphere
much better than before. And somehow, now that the whole thing's done, I feel
happier about it. I listen more dispassionately and find it rather enjoyable.
I phone Tim and thank him for all his efforts. Apparently the Evening
Standard reviewer loved it, but can't fit it into the paper. That's radio
While working on my next play, Tim plays me the LAOpp Dolby Surround Sound
mix. I have to admit, it sounds good. Except that most people listen in
And in September, that BBC producer returns my LAOpp script. I'd forgotten
they still had it! He says: "I beg leave to suggest that the principal
purpose of the script is to provide a vehicle to display your love of "The
Blues" - and this is not the basis, I believe, for the writing of any play."
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