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.