The twenty-seventh special episode of the Bailey’s Writing Tips podcast was released on 13th June 2011 and featured the fifth day of five as a volunteer at Oundle Literature Festival here in Northamptonshire, England. The content has never been released other than links on my website.
Sunday 20TH March @ 2.30pm: Katherine Jakeways
Despite having not arrived at the Queen Victoria Hall (my first visit) until 2pm, I was one of the first people to arrive (although the last volunteer), and could hear the rehearsing for that night’s Murder Mystery taking place in the main hall. As I was a member of the public for that event, I was forbidden from entering. So as members of the public started arriving, they joined me in the foyer.
I remained there until just before the event started at 2.30 so I could sneak in the back, armed with my laptop so I could take notes. The hall itself seated approximately 100 people and was pretty much full, with some having bought tickets on the day.
The event was introduced by writer Nick Perry, who explained that he’d met Katherine as a barmaid over 20 years previous and listed some of the other things she’d been in. Katherine introduced Nick Dunhalf (her husband and BBC Radio 2 Arts & Entertainment Correspondent), Paul Foster (director and actor and involved in S1 of North by Northamptonshire and actress Felicity Montagu who I’d recognised immediately and who Katherine said was a hero of hers and mentioned that she’d been in Alan Partridge and Doctor Martin amongst many other things. Katherine then introduced a short audio clip of the beginning of the first episode of ‘North by Northamptonshire’; predominantly a monologue, female narrated (by the great Sheila Hancock) with occasional intersperses from other villagers (played by McKenzie Crook and Felicity). Nick then started interviewing her:
Q: How did ‘North by Northamptonshire’ come about?
A: She went to drama school, started doing comic characters on the comedy circuit in London then did two solo Edinburgh shows and it spawned from there.
Q: Did you come up with the characters or location here?
A: Katherine thought of the hall as being Wadenhoe village hall (a nearby village) and characters who were isolated from each other (played only by Katherine; mostly women and a young boy) and she finds a link between the characters. She said she creates them then finds a reason for them to be together (hotel, family etc) so her idea was they’d met in the village hall (in classes, groups, performances etc). As a result she was asked to put a proposal together from an executive of BBC Radio 4 who’d been in the audience. She’d had dealings with the BBC before (previously submitted once). It was then a joint effort for them, coming up with something that would work in the radio. It was commissioned 2008 then it took two years to write it, being performed in 2010 (draft 15 – first drafts were for stage sketch show and were completely different). She’d originally written it for late night comedy clubs and was told early on that it was going to be aired at 11.30am which restricted the material she could use and she’d planned for her to play all the parts but Radio 4 staff suggested using famous actors which she was more than happy to go along with.
Q: Was it a difficult process changing it all?
A: Yes, she said, but added she’d see what she could get away with in the early drafts but it had been heavily edited to form the final version.
Q: Nick said that her work had always had dark elements but warmth to it and perhaps middle class.
A: Katherine explained that at the beginning, she was finding her feet and had found Edinburgh quite challenging as really she’s more of a warm writer. Wanted ‘North by Northamptonshire’ to be warm.
Q: How did Wadenbrook become a town rather than village?
A: She said that a village was too restrictive and as the town grew it allowed for different ages, backgrounds etc. Having one location, e.g. a hall, would be incredibly boring. She picked Oundle to ultimately base it on as she knew it so well. She didn’t want to call it Oundle as that would be too weird, she said so picked the name Wadenbrook from a mixture of local villages Wadenhoe & Polebrook). Felicity asked her whether the Co-op is now Tesco (to which Katherine explained that the Co-op still existed and said that Tesco would always be ‘Amps’ (obviously a previous name) to her to which the audience agreed). Katherine said that she’d tried to ‘homogenise’ Oundle as she felt that Northamptonshire (Northants) doesn’t have a stereotypical image whereas Yorkshire, Essex or Cornwall do have stronger identities. She went on to say that Northants is the 24th biggest of 48 counties so definitely average.
Q: Nick said they were about to play a clip with a narrator and said there hadn’t originally been one.
A: Katherine explained that as sketches became scenes a Radio 4 employee suggested it should be narrated like Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, which Katherine found extremely useful as she loves Under Milk Wood and the narrator is the audience’s way into the programme.
Felicity, Paul and Katherine then performed a scene from episode 2 which was hilarious; starting with Mary (played by Katherine) calling in on Jan (Felicity) narrated by Paul. The humour was hilarious with so many play on words (inc Jan asking Mary what her husband Graham did before his heart attack, meaning for living, but Mary replied “well he clutched his chest…”) and that the town was not missed by anyone other than the A1(M) (www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00sp454 lists episode / characters). Knowing that there had been 15 drafts did make me feel better but it was so clever that I could imagine the first draft being very skilled.
Nick then resumed the question and answer session by saying that there is a great variety of character ages, although predominantly more mature.
A: Katherine said that she was very fond of the characters she’d made, which I’m sure we can relate to.
Q: Nick then asked her that, once a narrator was decided upon, whether she’d always planned having a woman?
A: Katherine said that as she started writing, she had, mainly because the main characters are women; Jan and Mary.
Q: She was then whether it would have been odd for a man to talk about their relationship?
A: Again she agreed saying that a woman makes it more realistic, and that a man may have seemed sarcastic.
Q: Nick then asked her how Sheila and the other actors became involved?
A: Sheila was perfect, Katherine said, as her background is very working class, although she has a middle-class accent; she’s an ‘every woman’, and she’d had Sheila’s voice in her head when she was writing her, before she was even approached. While they were recording Sheila was doing Sister Act in the West End and a TV programme so they were very lucky she said “yes”. Felicity added it that it was so surreal that she was there during recording which made me laugh that a famous actress (by sight anyway) could still be in awe of the other (I’m sure it would be reciprocated as Felicity is a great actress).
The conversation then turned to the opportunities available and how difficult was it letting go of characters that you’d played – Felicity said she’d really hoped that question was going to be asked.
A: Having brilliant people to play it, Katherine said she could see their interpretation. She was heavily involved in the notes process which a writer normally isn’t and Felicity said that it had really been useful as Katherine knew the characters so well. The conversation went to how the recording was done; an episode a day so there was no time to make mistakes (and no rehearsals or director!). Katherine’s also been involved in Armstrong & Miller on TV where they have a week per episode and because the timescale was so tight with ‘North by Northamptonshire’ she’d requested that everyone meet beforehand. Mackenzie and Sheila recorded their parts separately and apparently Sheila didn’t like it and wants to be there for the whole recording next time, which is great.
Felicity, Paul, Katherine performed another scene from episode 2, which was hilarious; set in the village hall at a karate lesson lead by Esther (Katherine) calling in on Jan (Felicity) narrated by Nick. Esther’s husband Jonathan was played by Paul.
Q: Afterwards, Nick said that she’s working on series 2 now and asked whether she finds the writing process easier now?
A: She said she found it easier starting from scratch, except now knows the characters well so she knows what they’d do. They have a 2-year-old daughter so it’s difficult finding time but can be productive when she can get chunks of time.
Q: So as a writer you need no distractions, Nick added.
A: She said that it’s great working from home but there are too many distractions. So she went to the library for a week (9-5) and did really well.
Q: Nick then said that Series 1 was recorded with no audience; would she do the same for Series 2?
A: She said there were discussions but it was really useful hearing the feedback today with an audience as we laughed at different places to those she’d expected. Felicity said she prefers to work without an audience (for which she apologised) as there’s less pressure. Paul said that they had talked through the script in a meeting with about 12 people with some feedback. Katherine added that radio is guesswork, quite often without an audience.
Q: Nick then asked that having done other work did she glean advice or experience from colleagues?
A: Katherine said one of the most useful experiences was on Extras with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant; they work really quickly and only weekday daytimes. They were excellent at direction, knowing exactly what was required, and gave the advice that if you’re having trouble, go back to original thought of the character and BIN it! So perhaps the character isn’t how it was originally expected. Paul quoted that the 1970s / 80s (1978–83) TV series ‘Butterflies’ (which I watched and loved) had 24M viewers but Wendy Craig spent most of the time in her kitchen, although apparently the scenes people most remember were the trysts with Leonard.
Felicity and Paul performed a further scene, again from episode 2, where Jan and Jonathan meet in a coffee shop. Katherine played the narrator this time and one of the highlights for me was the rather wimpish Jonathan being a volunteer for the Leicestershire Infertile Male Project (LIMP) and wearing a top with the acronym on it.
As we had heard the beginning and saw three scenes from Series 1, a clip of the end of the final episode was then played, ending with Jan coming home from a holiday (which she’d hoped Jonathan would join her on but he’d chickened out) and saw that life was pretty much the same, she just had photographs from the trip to remind her of it. The narrator, Sheila Hancock, then said that everyone has a dream and compared it with real life which was nice note to end on. There were then questions from the audience:
Q: To what extent did you base your characters on real life?
A: They’re inspired by but not based on. Names are similar to or sections of (Jan Baynard’s name was based on a school friend Emily Baynard).
Q: I asked: You clearly enjoy writing scripts, have you ever been tempted to write prose. I’m more of a prose writer but have dabbled in scripts and found them really hard.
A: Katherine explained that she had an acting background and found dialogue and characters easy rather than description and plot then went on to talk, in quite a lot of detail about script layout etc.
Q: Another member of the audience then asked how much editing is done, and whether there a stereotype for Radio 4?
A: Don’t go for anything wildly different. TV is a minefield; too many people doing it. Felicity thinks that Radio 4 has a strong reputation. Katherine doesn’t listen to much Radio 4 but her experience was that she was being pushed to middle class / middle of the road; Felicity agreed that it did tend to be like that but added that she feels that it’s a terrific channel with a wider demographic. Katherine said that she felt that the show was still hers and wanted it to stick to her idea.
Q: Committee member Paula Prince then requested that the Literature Festival featured in it and then asked when Series 2 was going to be released?
A: Katherine said she’s writing it now and said that whilst Series 1 was just four episodes, Series 2 was likely to be six). Felicity championed her writing and said she would have a long career. Paul joked that the extra two episodes would be dedicated to the lit fest, which raised a laugh.
Katherine then said that if anyone in the audience had ideas for Series 2 to let her know, so me being me, waited in the (rather long) queue to speak to her (most of the others having known her when she was growing up in the village) and I asked if she was serious, which she was, so gave her my card.
On cloud 9, I then headed to the remaining coffee shop (of four in the town) that I’d not frequented during my 5 days but found it didn’t open on a Sunday so headed back to ‘Beans’, where Denny later joined me until it was time to go to the evening event; the ‘Rhymer’s Revenge’ murder mystery evening.
Sunday 20TH March @ 7.30pm: Rhymer’s Revenge
One of my Monday nighters, Denny and I were one of the first to arrive and armed with a picnic (the food mostly thanks to Denny) we had a choice of tables. Like the literature quiz the previous Thursday evening, I was attending as a member of the public so didn’t have a clue what was to be expected. Denny, however, had been the previous year so filled me in on everything other that the plot of the story, which differs each time. This one featured a small group of actors in a village including a Lord and Lady of the manor, unscrupulous vicar, a conservationist, a not-so-rich playboy, a tart with a heart and rivalling sisters. As you would expect, there were several threads going through the short play (written by local author Nick Perry) with the aforementioned sibling rivalry (both dating the vicar), a large disputed building project which had the conservationist and Lord of the manor at loggerheads as well as threatening to disrupt the stability of the village. The evening was split into two, in between which we could ask the actors questions to which they could only answer “yes” or “no” – harder than you might think). It turned out that they didn’t know who had done it until they lined up on stage at the end and opened envelopes and read out from cards.
One team guessed the murderer and motive, although it had been suggested during our discussions (by me and another member of our team) but it wasn’t the winning (although it would have been nice) but the whole atmosphere that made for a very enjoyable evening.
Conclusion of volunteering at the Oundle Literature Festival
As you can probably tell by listening to any of these five episodes, I had a wonderful time and despite being the ‘new girl’, I felt very welcomed and would have no reservations assisting again in whatever capacity they would like and that time affords me.
According to the 2001 census (thank you Google) Oundle had 5,345 residents to Northampton’s 194,458 and despite both being towns, it’s hard to imagine Oundle as anything but a village. As Paula said in our interview (special episode 12 – listed on https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/bwt-podcast) its residents are incredibly friendly and I can imagine that if I lived there I’d see someone I knew every time I went out, something which Northampton couldn’t possibly guarantee. Whilst I live in one of the older and greener parts of my town, I did feel like I’d stepped back in time when visiting Oundle and am already looking forward to next year’s Festival, in whatever capacity that might be.
So, that’s what happened on day 5 out of 5 – links to the transcriptions of the other days are here.