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How the BBC adapted J.G. Ballard’s classic novels The Drowned World and Concrete Island for radio

12 June 2013 | Tom Hunter

Tom Hunter talks to Graham White about adapting J.G. Ballard's classic novels The Drowned World and Concrete Island for radio as part of BBC Radio 4’s new Dangerous Visions season of dramas exploring future dystopias.

London Calling: How did you come to be involved with the Dangerous Visions season?

Graham White: I’m interested in finding ways to adapt challenging fiction for radio and always thought J.G. Ballard’s novels had great potential as drama and as soundscapes. The ideas in them are really provocative – and I think there was a feeling among the editors at Radio 4 that his work resonated with the contemporary world in interesting ways.  The two novels we’ve adapted, The Drowned World and Concrete Island, were commissioned to bookend a series of original plays with Ballardian influences - and, just for London Calling, there are echoes of the capital in both of them – the first takes place in a drowned London of the future, the second is set in the present on a patch of wasteground under a motorway junction somewhere in the Western suburbs.

LC: Are you a fan of J.G. Ballard’s work?

GW: Yes, very much. He had a really powerful and prescient imagination, both in terms of the scenarios he explored – sudden collapses of order, new technology changing human inner space as much as external reality - and the obsessions which drive the central characters.  And yet he’s a difficult writer to get into the mainstream, even now, so it’s exciting that these books have been picked up for radio. Very little of his work has been adapted there.

LC: Was it a particular challenge adapting these two novels which both feature very interior–facing central protagonists for radio?

GW: It was, but one that plays to the strength of radio – drama that takes place in the listener’s head. The Drowned World is set in a future where atmospheric change has sea levels rising, humanity retreating to the poles and what seems like evolution reversing and it’s full of wonderful, cinematic landscapes which you can suggest in sound as fully as with any CGI. It begins as if we’re in a conventional SF disaster scenario, among a UN mission sweeping the abandoned cities, but it heads to somewhere very unexpected, and the central character’s journey is played off through a  cast of characters who are all facing the same choices and dilemmas – how to respond to this massive change in everything familiar? Concrete Island is kind of the reverse vision – a man driving home crashes off the motorway onto an area of derelict ground and, somehow - to his astonishment and despair – he can’t get off. It’s an everyday world gone horribly wrong, Robinson Crusoe on the M4.  That scenario needs a brilliant performer to engage the listener, and it has it in Andrew Scott, who grabs your ear and doesn’t let go. One of the joys of the work is that the stories don’t head where you might expect, and radio is fantastic for intimately following a character’s obsessions, hooking  you and worming its way into your imagination.

LC: Can you tell us a little about the process you go through when approaching a work?

GW: I tend to develop a Ballard-style obsession with the work itself, its voices and imagined landscapes. Books I’ve adapted, like Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy or Franz Kafka’s America, tend to spark off a sense of radio possibility – I could hear the soundscape of Concrete Island, the incessant presence of the motorway, as I read it – but also of ‘how can we do that?’ It’s always a real pleasure to work on an adaptation, like translating your own imaginative response to the book. The work tends to unfold on the structure of what’s there mixing with my own imagined take on it, finding a radiophonic way of doing things. Characters grow in significance, perhaps elements slip into the background, there’s always a real sense of working to the rhythms dictated by holding an audience. There are time constraints, and actors need things they can play – for example, dynamism is very important in Concrete Island, keeping Maitland active and engaged with his predicament.  And particular questions come up - we had to think carefully about setting Concrete Island (written in 1973) in the present – does modern technology undermine the scenario of this guy stranded in the middle of a motorway junction? In fact it doesn’t, it almost makes the character more isolated.

LC: Would you ever return to more of Ballard’s works, for instance some of his Vermillion Sands short stories or maybe his experimental novel The Atrocity Exhibition?

GW: Yes, there are other novels  and stories which light the same spark. The Atrocity Exhibition might not seem like something which could be adapted - with its ‘compressed novel’ structure it’s almost like a series of word paintings - though I’m sure there are ways it could be approached. A couple of years ago myself and Mary Peate, who directed Concrete Island, produced an adaptation of BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates for BBC Radio 3 – a shufflable ‘book in a box’ which can be read in any order and which was broadcast in a randomised order. It also existed as an online interactive version you could shuffle yourself. There are possibilities in that sort of fragmented structure - though I’m not sure who’d broadcast it!  Ballard’s work, like that of Philip K Dick, is so full of brilliant scenarios that much of it is tied up with cinematic adaptations, which never seem to quite arrive (there’s internet rumours of a Christian Bale-led adaptation of Concrete Island, and plans for The Drowned World). 

LC: A lot of people read Ballard very straight, but having heard him read his own work out loud it’s surprisingly full of humour, even if it’s often fairly dark or satirical. Did you find comedic potential in the two shows at all?  

GW: Yes, it is funny, often satirical, often rueful, sometimes the actors in the two shows bring that out beautifully, particularly Tim McInnerny as Strangman in The Drowned World, or Andrew Scott again, as Maitland in Concrete Island, ranting at his situation and at the world racing by.

LC: And finally, if you had to be stranded somewhere in London as the protagonist is in Concrete island, where would you choose?

GW: Great Londoncentric question!  Norwood Park, SE27. Best unknown view of the city - but don’t tell anybody.  

 

The Dangerous Visions season starts on Saturday 15th June on BBC Radio 4. Details of the full season can be found online here

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