Mary Cutler, longest-serving scriptwriter on BBC Radio 4’s The Archers
JAN: Hello, Mary. Lovely to be talking to you today in your sitting room in Birmingham, with your beautiful cat on my lap… Let’s start… I know you’ve dipped into other media during your long writing career – prose fiction, theatre and television – but your heart clearly belongs to radio drama and particularly, The Archers. Why is that?
MARY: The thing that I find easiest in the world is writing dialogue, I could write it forever; it’s the structuring that becomes the interesting part of it. Radio’s a very free medium for a writer who enjoys writing dialogue. The Archers is a very good example of this because, although it’s natural dialogue, all these people are so much more articulate than they would be in real life and yet it doesn’t sound odd. The first television I wrote was awful from that point of view – it sounded stagey, because I hadn’t learnt how you do that in television. It’s a great skill, I have a huge admiration for television writers.
I also love radio because I like what’s happening to the audience. It’s going straight into their ears and into their brain and they’re very close to it. The listener has to do a lot of the work and in that way it’s more like reading a book. I like to think of listeners in their cars or doing their ironing, I like the domesticity of it. Sometimes it makes me angry that radio writers don’t get anything like the credit other writers do, but on the other hand the anonymity of it is quite nice. I like credit and fame as much as the next writer but to think that The Archers means so much to people, does it matter that they haven’t heard your name? That’s what you want as a writer isn’t it, for your work to move people, to be important to people? I’m very lucky, I seriously mean that, I’m very lucky.
JAN: Everyone will want to hear more about The Archers, but first I want to talk about ‘Falco’, the Roman detective series. How did you approach adapting these books for radio drama? Were you given free rein or did you work closely with the author, Lindsey Davis?
MARY: I had a great advantage because Lindsey is a very old friend of mine from schooldays. We’re both Brummies and share a lot of the same sense of humour. She’s a wonderful novelist, but she was very generous in saying, “this is not my medium”, so yes, I had an absolutely free hand in it. I approached it in a very practical way. I worked out how many pages there were in the book, divided it by the number of episodes and basically looked around about that page number for a cliff-hanger and I have to say, it seemed to work out quite well. The only thing that was very funny from a dramatist’s point of view, was finding all these stories that went nowhere. But of course it’s a detective story, those are the red herrings. That was difficult from a drama point of view because you don’t really do that on the whole, you have subplots but you don’t really do the blind alley.
The other thing that was really interesting was Falco voice – the story’s told in the first person which is in modern English, but Lindsey uses her dialogue to point out that you’re in ancient Rome; it’s sort of more formal. But I couldn’t do that, the dialogue had to be in the same style as Falco’s voice. So actually I had a freer hand with the dialogue than I thought I would. I had to cut so much to get it to fit, and it was very upsetting because some of them were favourite bits of mine. But it was a wonderful thing to do, because Lindsey had done all the hard work and I was just doing the fun bits.
JAN: Are there any other books you’d love to adapt? What about original radio plays? Anything brewing or do you just not have the time?
MARY: I’ve been doing The Archers for such a long time, I get a bit cross when people say, “But what about your own work?” What do you think this is? This is my own work. I’ve had the opportunity to write about everything I would ever had wanted to write within it. I’ve certainly had the opportunity to explore most dramatic and emotional situations that I might have wanted to write, and there are some things you can only do in the long form.
JAN: At the Hay Festival recently, listeners were invited to ask Editor Sean O’Connor about The Archers. Surprisingly, I thought, given it was a literary event, the questions were things like, “Why did Matt go to Costa Rica?” or, “Will you ever let Jill retire?” as if the place and characters are real. There’s a huge sense of public ownership of the show. How do you deal with that in the context of your own voice, your own work which the Archers clearly is?
MARY: I feel the same as the listeners. They are in some alternative universe. Even though I’ve sat in the script conference so I know we’ve made this up, when I’m writing my scripts it’s real and I’m eavesdropping on what they’re saying and what they’re going to do.
JAN: So you’re channelling them.
MARY: Yes, I’m channelling them, I’m giving them voice. I remember my very first script conference – I said nothing because I was terrified – and the other writers were saying things like, “But Shula would never do such a thing!” And I did think they were round the bend, but actually they were right. They are incredibly strong characters. If a soap gives up character for a plot line they do it at their peril. We’ve all seen soaps do it, and I regret to say on occasions The Archers has done it, but it’s a big mistake. Not that people don’t do unexpected things because they do that in life, but the character must be your main concern because you’re making drama out of character.
I will give Nigel as an example, he’s exactly the kind of idiot that would climb onto a roof – you wouldn’t do that with someone prudent… It’s a little hard because I was the writer that pushed Nigel off – when I’ve said this at talks, people have hissed me. As if it was solely my decision!
JAN: What do you find the main challenge now writing the show and is it a different challenge to what it was when you first started?
I’d be the first person to say I’ve never found the Agriculture easy. I’ve become much more knowledgeable, but I’m a very urban person, I don’t want to go and live in a little village in the country. That’s always been a personal challenge to me because I don’t share that vision of The Archers with some of the audience and I can get impatient with it. This very morning there was a very interesting piece about how there aren’t as many women in agriculture as there are on The Archers, so good for us, but the entire farming population is so tiny – only 23,000 women and 120,000 men. It’s very interesting that we give it so much importance – we should because it’s about food, the most basic thing in the world, but it isn’t my natural bent, it never has been. I’m not going to say I’ve been in the wrong job for such a long time because to me The Archers is about a community and everyone lives in little communities – their suburbs, their work communities, their families – so in that sense it doesn’t matter that it’s farming.
JAN: I’ve worked on lots of scriptwriting teams in children’s television. It’s hard sometimes to write in ‘one voice’ and it doesn’t suit everyone. How does it work on The Archers?
MARY: In The Archers we completely work as a team on the story and the plot and that’s so lovely… I don’t think I have particularly have good original ideas for plots but I can help them along. I get quite cross – normally with writers who’ve left – who say “that was my story” because it’s never their story. They can legitimately say, “I had the original idea for X” but after that it’s not their story, it’s everybody’s because we work on the plot together.
The other good thing about The Archers is that the writers can have their own voice. If you listen it’s perfectly clear that different people are writing it but it doesn’t take away from the validity of the programme, it doesn’t make you think, well this is weird. I think you can also see it on Corrie. It’s because the characters are so strong. Writers give you different views of the characters which is fine.
JAN: And listeners certainly can distinguish between writers. How do you think they might guess it’s a Mary Cutler week?
MARY: (laughs) I’d like to think that it’s funny, witty, verbally witty… And I’d like to think, without pushing any line, that women play quite a prominent part in it. Because I’m one of five, I love writing anything to do with siblings so they might guess from that. But they might know from the dark stuff – I’ve had some early bereavements and I think I do death quite well; I’ve often done funerals. Ironically, because I wouldn’t have said this was my strong suit, I wouldn’t expect them to turn on waiting for a romance but I just did Ed and Emma’s wedding and was quite pleased with it.
JAN: Can you briefly take us through the process of writing a week of episodes?
MARY: This has changed recently but this is how it’s going to work in future. You will be given a storyline before the weekend and you’ve got till Tuesday to write a pitch. There are five writers, it’s just changed from four, but now there are five writers that are going to write five weeks. All the writers will come to the Wednesday script meeting (not just those five) and the writers will give their pitch. We’ll all make suggestions and adjustments and we might talk about what’s going on in the next month. The writers then have till the following Monday or Tuesday to write a scene-by-scene breakdown of the entire week in great detail. It was the hardest thing to do when I first started, I now love it because actually that’s all the hard work done and then you just write the dialogue. We have to do that because we’re all writing at once, and we also have to cast the actors. And then you’ve got about ten days to write the scripts. People who come from telly soaps are knocked out by how quickly you’re supposed to do things. You get some rewrites which again are not like the telly soaps because they don’t tend to be extensive. You have a few days to deliver the final draft and then you’re back at the script conference on Wednesday. It never stops.
JAN: There are many examples of Archers writers going on to write other things, take Sally Wainwright (Scott and Bailey, Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley) for example. What does writing on a radio soap teach you about writing for other media?
MARY: I think you learn from the other writers, it’s very good to be on a team. Because even if they do things you’d never do in a million years it’s very interesting to see how they do it and maybe it can improve some of things you do – I think Sally has said that. I also think there’s a kind of freedom about being in a team, there’s less responsibility, you can probably play around more…. And therefore you can find yourself… it’s a very good thing to do for somebody starting out and you can experiment. You’ll be given lots of things you’ve got to do, if you were just alone in your garage you might never try them. There are also these very strong limits and you learn to work within them, which is what good writing comes out of.
JAN: Thinking about somebody interested in writing radio drama – what would you suggest they do in order to knock at this door?
MARY: That’s a very hard question because it’s become a harder and harder door to get through I’m afraid to say. It’s currently a big problem that radio drama is very centralized and that didn’t use to be the case. In the old days I’d have said, listen to lots of radio plays, find the producers and directors that you think are on your wavelength and send stuff to them. It’s still worth doing that, but the producers don’t have that power anymore. It’s very London-centric; there’s also Manchester and Bristol, but it’s not particularly great in the Midlands which I’m very sad about.
The good thing is, there’s now the possibility of Independent Radio and internet radio. I’ve very recently been working with someone who is doing a drama for a community radio in Birmingham set in a hostel with local actors. There’s no money of course, but she’s learning things about radio and she’ll get it on and it’s a calling card. There are many more courses for people to go on that there ever were and it’s easier now to do it yourself… Like self-publishing or music or podcasts. I’m now really quite old and I’m not in the mind-set but these days there are possibilities that I would never think about. It’s a bit doom and gloom on the traditional side but on the other hand, people are always writing off radio and it hasn’t died yet. I don’t think it ever well, so if you want to write for radio, don’t give up, find a new way.
JAN: Thanks so much Mary – that was fascinating.
You can listen to The Archers on BBC Radio 4 every weekday afternoon (2pm) and evening (7pm). Omnibus edition every Sunday morning at 10am. And of course, you can catch up on BBC I-Player Radio.