Sitting down to write The Chatelaine, episode 2 of our Persons of Interest audio dramas with co-writer Amanda Huxtable, we had one purpose – to create characters that sparked our listeners’ imaginations. This was a comfortable place to start, we’d written together before and had carved out our best writing journey. Laptops on knees, notebooks ready, we agreed a five-act structure, dialogue, peppered with songs and great sound effects.
In The Chatelaine, we reimagine Josephine Baker delivering the performance of her life to possibly the smallest audience she could ever imagine, as she fights to save her guests; a group of Jewish refugees in danger of being forced out of the safety of Josephine’s home in 1940’s occupied France, where Josephine has offered up as a safe harbour to those in need.
We knew Josephine Baker’s shoes would be large ones to fill and we wanted her to be a compelling and complex character who held her own, regardless of what danger she was in. We knew she was no-nonsense and could get things done.
Josephine needed to go on her own journey in the story, and to finally recognise the mistakes she was in danger of making and use her talent, wits and charm to win over the hearts and minds of the German officers. Meanwhile, her confidante and maid, Etta keeps her cool with the escape party who are starting to unravel within the confines of her the cellar nestled in the Dordogne. During a very tense time, the soldiers patrol right outside the door where Josephine’s guests are hiding. Soldiers who can break down the door at any moment.
Fundamentally, the story revolves around the trust and bravity between the two friends, Etta and Josephine. Exposing moments of honesty and confrontation between the pair whilst Josephine’s partner Abtey tries to keep his head, as the soldiers close in on the truth.
We wrote Josephine away from the glamour of the clubs she performed in and her usual adoring audiences. This is a story set in her own refuge, her beloved chateau, in the Dordogne with only two companions. Paris has fallen and the Resistance is faltering. She is exposed, unprotected and in possession of state secrets that she is passing on to the French Resistance. As the stakes get higher, trapped in just one room, we create the tension of hide and seek. Josephine versus the German army, who have descended unannounced.
Writing in sound
An audio-drama with no visuals, we had the task of writing in sound, imagining the conversations and actions as a film running in our minds. Discussions are hushed as not to alert the soldiers to the whereabouts of the ‘guests’. The contrast of the urgent escape, set against Josephine’s muffled singing in the upstairs chateau drawing room, capturing the performance to save her guests. Here, with only a piano to accompany her, she distracts the soldiers sent to search the Chateau. We use the sound effect of a faint cry of an unsettled baby to nearly give the game away. Throughout the episode, the voices and characters are brought to life by the talented voice actors and singers who helped us to tell this story.
BBC Writers Room tells us that ‘an audio drama script lives or dies by the strength of the writing’. It’s an exposing true statement, but also liberating, as for the writer there is no hiding place.
Understanding the context
While writing The Chatelaine, I realised that the less work the audience had to do to recognise what they are listening to, the more chance they have of being comfortable listening.
In this story, we give the audience the pieces that they need to assemble the scenes in their own imaginations, like writing only half a conversation and using what the listener already knows to shortcut filling the details that time constraints cannot afford us. The context in which the conversations flow helps the listener to understand the real meaning behind the words and enables the words and sounds to achieve their impact.
Writing The Chatelaine allowed us to delve more deeply into the story of an incredible woman, showing a different side to the person who, as readers and listeners, we all feel we know from popular culture. The process of writing an audio drama is one we find ourselves in more and more, enjoying the opportunities that using sound and space essential in this writing form to create exciting work and endless potential.
We invite you to listen to our audio dramas, The Chatelaine and You’re Somethin’ Else, Gladys, available on our website. We hope you are inspired to listen and start your own journey writing for audio drama.