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Three Questions: an interview with … Dirk Maggs February 6, 2007

Posted by William Spear in >> Radio Drama, >> Three Questions: an interview with ....

(By Spear) “Three Questions” welcomes writer and director Dirk Maggs to its interview column.

Dirk has won awards and distinction by fusing Radio Drama with modern storytelling techniques, combining dynamic scripts, cinematic effects, evocative music and cutting edge technology (he pioneered the use of Dolby Surround in BBC Radio). He was among the first ever nominees for the Directors Guild Of Great Britain Outstanding Achievement in Radio Award, and was elected an Honorary Fellow of the University of Winchester for his work in the dramatic arts.

In radio, Dirk’s work covers many genres; The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (author Douglas Adams personally chose him to complete the saga in its original medium), Ben-Hur, Batman, Agatha Christie Mysteries, Spider-Man, Johnny Vegas’ Night Class, Horrible Histories, Superman, The 50th Anniversary Goon Show, An American Werewolf in London, Judge Dredd, and many others. In the year 2004-5 Dirk’s creative efforts helped add 10 million hits to the BBC website.

Dirk has directed many outstanding artists in award-winning productions, including Leslie Nielsen, Christian Slater, Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Jonathan Pryce, Hugh Laurie, Juliet Stevenson, Jim Broadbent, Maureen Lipman, Johnny Vegas, Patricia Hodge, Russell Brand, Steve Coogan, Jasper Carrott, Alison Steadman, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan. He is an acknowledged master of dramatised audio.

. . .

LIT: Thanks for stopping by; we appreciate your time.

DIRK: Thanks for having me.

LIT: Given your work crosses media, how do you see radio drama similar to, and different from, stage, film or television?

DIRK: For me radio/audio shares the storytelling potential of stage, film or tv, but goes much further – thanks to its flexibility and because it harnesses the incredible power of the human imagination. Here’s my old dictum – Audio is THE visual medium.

LIT: Wait a minute. How can voices, music and sound effects – the components of radio drama – be considered a visual medium?

DIRK: Because it bypasses the clumsy optic nerve, sneaks in the side door and hotwires the screen inside your head.

LIT: Then how can radio dramatists and producers “hotwire the screen” inside the heads of listeners not currently enjoying radio drama? Or, to use your storytelling metaphor, how do we tell our stories to new audiences?

DIRK: We all need to remember that as storytellers we are obliged to find only the best stories and tell them in ways that grip and compel and entertain and make people stop in their driveways to listen to the rest of the production rather than go inside the house after their drive home.

LIT: With so many entertainment choices, how can radio drama deliver the best?

DIRK: We need to find ways to transport people to worlds they did not realise they could visit, to bring the future and the past and poetry and storytelling alive in ways that pictures could never do. That requires huge amounts of skill and endeavour. It’s not enough to write something with sound effects instead of visual effects and hope it will do; this is a serious storytelling medium.

LIT: Does that rule out my screenwriting career?

DIRK: Of course not! The rules of good storytelling aren’t confined to the movies. They’re globally applicable. Audio entertainment needs writers with Exactly The Same Skills – and many of those writers become great movie writers and then complain they miss the fun of working in pure audio.

The best audio scripts are written by people who understand that if it’s fun for the actors to play, it’ll be fun for the audience to listen to. (I’m talking tragedy as well as comedy here, just substitute ‘gripping’ for ‘fun’.) Approaching the telling of a good story is like hiking a piece of challenging and beautiful terrain – the best tour guides don’t ruin it by forcing their followers to trudge through the valley floor, hot and tired, forever craning their necks – they leap from crag to crag above it, carrying their willing audience, finding the most exciting and informative vistas from where the whole thing comes alive and reveals itself.

LIT: How do we get to those vistas of brilliance?

DIRK: Radio dramatists and producers must never make the mistake of the big broadcasters who undersell spoken word production because they underestimate its power. So many times I hear people in the business say, “Oh you’ll never do THAT in sound”, and it makes me laugh because they’ve evidently not been listening to the right material! From making men fly to destroying entire worlds, from hearing the sound of a butterfly’s wing to the most intimate words a sentient being can utter to their partner in life, audio can go anywhere, do anything, at a fraction of the cost and effort and sheer hype of the picture business. In fact our downfall is that we don’t make enough fuss about how great it is. We should all have bumper stickers saying ‘switch off your tube and LISTEN to something tonight’!

LIT: Here’s your chance to make a fuss about radio drama. If a reader was to ask you what one piece of radio drama they had to listen to this evening, what would you say? And why?

DIRK: Gosh. I have enjoyed so much I don’t think I can choose – there’s a lot of scifi – the classics back to Welles’ 1938 War Of The Worlds, then the great stuff from the 50s – in the USA “X-Minus One,” “Dimension X”, and so on, written in the days when radio was still seen as THE medium to limitlessly create in, by names like Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein – Can you imagine that happening today?

Also in the UK we have such a great heritage of audio drama – my particular favourite is the BBC’s deceptively simple UNDER MILK WOOD, recorded in 1952, Dylan Thomas’s “Play For Voices” featuring a young Richard Burton as First Voice. Almost no sound effects but filled with the music of Thomas’s use of language – magic.

More recently of course, the achievement of the first two series on the BBC of The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy – and thus I count myself extra privileged to have been asked by its late author Douglas Adams to finish the saga in its original medium. And I’m contantly inspired by work of current radio talents who USE the medium as if it had no bounds – like John Dryden here in the UK, Tom Lopez’ ZBS and Jerry Stearns’ Great Northern Audio in the States, or Roger Gregg in Ireland, all of whom are linked by organisations like National Audio Theater Festivals and Audiofile magazine. This kind of support system is vital for the resurgence of great Audio.

And finally I’ve drawn so much inspiration and pleasure from a lot of radio comedy, from the Firesign Theatre and Stan Freberg’s work in the USA to the Goon Show and Round The Horne in the UK. It’s a wonderful medium, and though it’ll never make us rich, the creative fulfilment is much more than a lot of people in much more hyped and supposedly glamorous media ever are lucky enough to experience.

. . .

Dirk has setup, with Paul Weir and Richard Adams, Perfectly Normal Productions Ltd (PNP) to create compelling high quality popular audio product for broadcast, personal digital players and cellphones. PNP has releases planned for 2007. For further information, contact PNP.

Dirk Maggs

Perfectly Normal Productions

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