In June 2013 (yes, the BBC does work that far ahead), the second week of fifteen minute episodes will again be broadcast twice a day on Radio 4, with an omnibus edition pulling all the episodes together, at the weekend. There is even some discussion of broadcasting an omnibus edition of the first series beforehand, to help bring listeners up to speed.
This is great news, but it is, of course, full of interesting challenges.
Some of those challenges are just technical and logistic. First, we had some wonderful actors and we want them back. Some were big-name actors and we were lucky enough to use them only because we organised our recording schedule, and to some extent even the scripts themselves, around their availability. This time we have lots of opportunity to schedule ahead but many actors, especially famous actors, are reluctant to commit to badly-paid radio drama much in advance – and if they’re offered a big film role, we can hardly expect them to give it up because they are pre-booked for an afternoon in a cramped underground studio with us. So there may well be a lot of last minute adjustments to our scripts.
The more interesting problems are creative. This summer we broadcast daily episodes of the daily soap, The Pulay Poray, but it wasn’t a question of just taking five Pashtoon broadcasts and translating them. We had to use the characters and storylines to weave a series which was both representative of the original and accessible to a western audience.
Now we’re returning to that Pashtoon village a whole year later. So should we simply set our storylines a year on? If we do that, we’ll miss out on some wonderful twists and turns of the plot. For instance, for western listeners the love of Zarlakhta and Wisal seems doomed (spoiler alert!) and a year later, without explanation, they would tune in to find the couple married. What a waste of the wonderful romantic storyline which, against all the odds, eventually brings the young couple together.
There are too many good stories and exciting character developments in The Pulay Poray for us to leapfrog over them. However, we can’t assume that everyone listening next June heard and remembers all the broadcasts from June 2012. Even with a second chance to hear the programmes, many listeners will be new to our Pashtoon village. Jeremy Howe, the head of radio drama, has told us to assume ignorance on the part of the audience. We will have to pick up the stories in a way which is interesting to existing listeners, while providing new ones with a gentle introduction.
We’ve decided to set next year’s soap approximately six months ahead of this year’s, while taking a few diabolical liberties with the timing of some storylines. We know how much our listeners enjoy hearing the bickering wives of shopkeeper Sardar Aka so we’re pursuing that storyline, although in the original The Pulay Poray the problem was resolved more rapidly. The love story of Wisal and Zarlakhta is an essential development. And the unlawful behaviour and arrogance of Akbar Khan and its effect on his family (particularly the independent Kashmala) and on the village remains one of the cornerstones of both the Pashtoon and the western soap.
We were amazed by the warm and positive response to our UK version of The Pulay Poray – and we know it was only so good because of the wonderful work by our Pashtoon originators. But it was more than just entertainment. Many listeners know the Pak-Afghan borders as a global political and military hotspot, a hotspot in which British forces have some involvement. Our drama took them into the heart of families who live in this faraway place and, at the centre of a very different and complex culture, they found people washing their dishes and worrying about their daughters – just as people do everywhere. No one should dismiss the power of soap to increase respect and understanding for people we might never normally meet, to raise political issues at a human, everyday level and to open a window between two worlds.
Liz Rigbey writes and ghosts scripts, novels and non-fiction. She is the former editor of the Archers, the prototype radio soap opera for other radio serial dramas – including The Pulay Poray – around the world. She is script consultant with the PACT Radio cross-border drama.