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Radio

The sounds and nuances of the English language brought joy to Julia, so just as her lyrical poetry was suited to live performance, her stories were brought to life by radio. She first became involved with local radio in 1991 when Rivendale, a rural soap opera, was piloted by Weardale Community Radio in County Durham. Rivendale was set in a fictional village and Julia led a group of writers, who were encouraged to use their personal experience to formulate storylines. At the time Julia commented: ‘We’re coming up with all sort of controversial characters – it should be really juicy.’

Her BBC Radio 4 breakthrough came with Write Out Loud, a training week in sound and radio techniques for published writers. Her first radio play Snapping (1996) stemmed from the Write Out Loud project. This was followed by the half-hour play She Hadda Fly (directed by Melanie Harris) about the relationship between two sisters from New York descending on Whitley Bay with ambitions to run a cafe together. Interviewed for Caroline Mitchell’s book Women and Radio: Airing Differences (Routledge, 2000), Julia said: ‘I have always had an interest in radio, but never did any specific unpaid work relating to it like volunteering in a radio station. I always liked messing around with tape recorders though.’

Messing about with tape recorders entailed carrying out detailed interviews in order to research her chosen subject matter. Julia was a particularly sensitive interviewer, as radio producer Sue Roberts appreciated while working on the documentary Home Truths in 1997. It was also part of Write Out Loud and explored how elderly people felt about giving up their independence and moving to residential care homes. The ideas behind Home Truths stemmed from an Equal Arts collaboration based in Gateshead, with photographer Sharon Bailey. The publication Home Truths, edited by Julia, featured poems written using residents’ words including those of Sophia: ‘And if you ask me to sing, I’ll be with you in apple blossom time.’

Writing in Julia’s Eating the Elephant and Other Plays, Sue Roberts commented: ‘I remember the endless patience Julia had with the people we talked to, and the strong attachments she made with them. There are many older characters in Julia’s radio plays, all embracing life as fully as their younger stage partners. Julia had real empathy with these characters. They are sharply observed and drawn with great respect, often taking us by surprise. They celebrate life. They are defiant.’

One sharply observed older character is Edith in The Women Who Painted Ships. The play concerns Edith and her friend Edna, former riveters’ assistants, whose jobs were to paint ships red. Writing about The Women Who Painted Ships Julia said: ‘It was the first time I had used such poetic language and sensibility in a piece of drama, and though the play is very short, it marks a changing point in my work. For some reason, it always makes me cry. I am not sure why.’ Written for a Live Theatre play cycle called Twelve Tales of Tyneside, the play was commissioned by BBC radio producer Kate Rowland for a live broadcast. The event took place as Julia described, ‘on a very exciting, nerve-wracking evening’.

Radio 4’s Scraping The Sky featured four short stories by Julia read as monologues and broadcast in 1998. These focused on people who live their lives high above the ground and were entitled ‘Safety’, ‘The Stonemason’, ‘The Window Cleaner’ and ‘Virtue and Mercy’. The stories were read by Kevin Whately, Barbara Marten and Rashid Karapiet. Julia’s association with Radio 4 continued that year when her first novel Crocodile Soup was chosen by Radio 4 as The Late Night Story.

A joint commission by Live Theatre and Radio 4 led to Sea Life, based on the ideas of the renowned moral philosopher Mary Midgley, who taught at Newcastle University. Her books include Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1978) and Are You an Illusion? (2014). She spent much of her career in a philosophical battle against scientism: the belief that empirical science is the most authoritative world-view. At the time Mary lived in Jesmond, not far from Julia’s home in Heaton. Julia wrote in 2005: ‘Mary talked to me about her theory of the world as a kind of aquarium, where we can only see events through one pane of glass, when we need to be looking at the whole picture. I mulled over this idea, spending some time at the Sea Life Centre at Tynemouth, thinking about an octopus. It seems to me that plays often emerge from a gathering of image and ideas.’ Produced by Sue Roberts, Sea Life was broadcast from Live Theatre in 2001 during a live performance.

Working alongside writer and poet Sean O’Brien while they were both in residence at Live Theatre in 2001 led to the story ‘Vermin’, which was serialised online at BBC Tyne & Wear. A second collaborative work with Sean was The Black Path, which was broadcast on Radio 3 in 2002. The Black Path concerns a dying woman who returns home to make peace with her grandfather, formerly a fiery trade union leader. It is a play of truth and reconciliation, intercutting powerful human stories of the North East’s industrial past with the uncovering of family secrets.

Posties was a series of five 14-minute pieces written for Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour in 2003, broadcast again in 2016. These extremely popular plays included Old Letters (adapted from Venetia Love Goes Netting), Letters to God and Letters to the Dead. Posties included two new themes: the idea of an undelivered letter which could have changed the course of events in Lost Letters, and that of letters being used therapeutically to aid a teenager suffering from anorexia in Letters Home. Writing in 2005, Sue Roberts commented: ‘Writers often find these 14-minute plays difficult to write, but the form seems made for Julia, appealing to the poet and short-story writer in her…A generosity of spirit infuses all her work, creating heroes out of those who win everyday battles against the odds. She speaks upon behalf of the silent and the unsung.’

Radio 4’s Off the Page invited Julia to take part in a discussion about The Great British Public in March 2004. Presented by Matthew Parris, the programme also featured columnist Giles Coren and author Terence Blacker. In addition to the discussion, each writer was invited to read an article on the subject. Julia’s piece began: ‘We are self conscious, island people, afraid that we can be seen from all sides. This is why we wear hats. We are safest in our cars. We like to be philosophical. We like to be un-British, and to tell ourselves that we are different to the rest. We fear water. We look dubious on beaches. Things must be fair. You must not jump queues.’

Julia’s radio drama Appointments was inspired by her own increasing number of appointments with hospitals, masseurs and acupuncturists. Written for Woman’s Hour, Appointments comprises five radio plays about the life of Maureen, who on a Monday is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. Featuring Live Theatre founder and actor Val McLane, the story follows Maureen’s various meetings as she tries to make sense of her condition. Haunted by her former football team The Byker Belles, Maureen finds solace with her friend in the Turkish Baths and is ultimately reconciled with her daughter Carla in the beauty rooms of a department store. Appointments was first aired by Radio 4 in February 2005 and again in its entirety in 2015, continuing to resonate deeply with listeners.

As part of a Radio 4 series called Borderlands, featuring work by different writers, Julia’s story ‘The Debatable Lands’ was broadcast in 2005, read by Gina McKee. The story is set in Reiver country (north Northumberland), a place of no lampposts, where Julia would sometimes find solitude to write. In the story, the character of Rhona, a restaurant manager, is coming to terms with a Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis and considers the boundaries between health and sickness. ‘l could see the distant horizon of sickness ahead of me with its laws and advantages like a land where I could lie back and be sick with no responsibility at all. Then on the other side of the border was the first colourful country of health with bright lights and the throbbing vitality of a thousand hearts all beating in time. And here I was in the middle, I belonged in neither.’

Julia’s short story ‘The Street’ was featured as part of a live Radio 4 event for the Durham Book Festival in October 2005. The story was read by the actor Madeline Moffat as part of Live from Durham (produced by Pauline Harris) – a set of five short stories by different writers including Alan Plater.

Julia’s poignant blog, which she began in September 2002, was adapted for Radio 4 by her friend, the writer Jackie Kay. Her blog was an intimate web diary in which she shared her thoughts on (among other things) health, the process of writing, travelling, family and friends. Jackie Kay, who described the blog as ‘devastating and enlightening,’ edited it into an afternoon play called The Waiting Room in 2007. The 45-minute adaptation, performed by Charlie Hardwick, was produced by Sue Roberts with musical settings for Julia’s poems by Tim Dalling. Writing in March 2004, Julia describes meeting her oldest friend and visiting a woodcut exhibition at the British Library. ‘In the end we decided that 1. Everyone is alone 2. Life is suffering 3. You may as well be happy.’

Copyright Tamzin Mackie

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