The Midlands generally doesn't tend to get much exposure on the radio. Why do you think this is?
It doesn’t get much exposure on TV either, or in the national papers for that matter. Partly it’s to do with the fact that there are comparatively few production companies and publishers in the Midlands. And the region generally has an image problem – which is that it doesn’t have an image. Now the North: that has an image. The idea of these essays is to try to remedy the general ignorance about the country’s overlooked middle.
Tell us about the process of having the programme accepted for radio.
There are various ways of getting an idea accepted by the BBC, which actively invites ideas from non-BBC people that the Corporation might then itself make. It also commissions programmes from independent producers. The way it worked with In Praise of the Midlands was, basically: I sent the idea to Ashley Byrne, the head of Made in Manchester (the independent producer); he liked it enough to submit it to the BBC as part of a commissioning round (there are regular commissioning rounds for all the different stations); it was shortlisted so I went to Broadcasting House in London to do a pitch; several weeks later we were told the idea had been accepted.
Patience is important…
If you think you’ve got a good idea, don’t give up if it’s not accepted first time around. I think I’m right in saying I’ve been circulating ideas about the Midlands for at least three years. Sometimes you just to have to wait for an idea’s time to come.
What tips would you give writers thinking of reading their work for radio?
Enjoy yourself; don’t speak too fast; don’t worry if you’re asked to read a particular line several times. One contributor to the series said he’d found the executive producer’s advice to "smile while you're thinking of something as it changes your mouth and the emphasis of words" really useful. You certainly do have to make a conscious effort to vary your delivery when you’re delivering a monologue.
The Midlands is a broad area. How did you go about selecting the writers and topics?
The series is being broadcast as part of the BBC’s Shakespeare season, so Old Will was a non-negotiable inclusion. In fairness, he’s a good writer so probably worth his slot. Beyond that, we wanted to make sure that the East and West both got reasonable representation, and that history and literature both got their share of coverage.
Second is Henry Hitchings on Erasmus Darwin, the ‘Leonardo da Vinci of the Midlands’. Darwin was a remarkable inventor as well as poet, and a major figure of the Midland Enlightenment – about which we don’t hear half enough.
Third is Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, on Shakespeare the Midlander. This is a lovely piece on the way that the distinctive Midland landscape fed Shakespeare’s literary imagination. All of which goes to prove that Shakespeare wasn’t really a cover for that Southern softie Christopher Marlowe.
Fourth is James Walker on Alan Sillitoe and the Nottingham spirit of independence. James – I think he’s from Nottingham, isn’t he? – does a great job, swears more than any other contributor and has the best sign-off line. It’s appointment-to-listen radio, as they say.
Finally comes Katherine Jakeways, writer of the Radio 4 sitcom North by Northamptonshire, on the experience of discovering that she is, in fact, a Midlander. Despite growing up in Northants, and writing three series of a sitcom about it, she’d actually never realised she might be of this parish. Her essay is very funny.
In light of the essays what do you think you've discovered about the Midlands and do you think the region has a particular identity or set of traits?
For the latter – modesty; independence of spirit; gritty, self-deprecating humour.
For the former – what I mostly came away feeling is how fresh the material sounds. We need to hear more about the Midlands; there are lots of unexplored angles and unheard stories.
Robert Shore is the author of Bang in The Middle: A Journey through the Midlands – the Most Underrated Place on Earth, which is reviewed in the current issue of LeftLion Magazine.