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I back the baroness: Annie Caulfield on the real Sound of Music

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After starting her career creating fringe theatre and then scriptwriting for television series such as This Life, Annie Caulfield has found that radio might just be the perfect fit. She talks to Matthew Hemley about her latest radio drama, The Von Trapps and Me

Television drama productions may have the bigger budgets, but when it comes to earning a living, radio can be a writer’s paradise. Something the writer Annie Caulfield has clearly discovered.

Although starting her career writing for the stage, before making the move into television and writing for series such as This Life, it is radio to which Caulfield eventually turned.

And it would appear to have been a wise move on her part, as Caulfield is today one of the most prolific writers of radio drama, and as far as she is concerned at least, business is booming.

As well as being one of the original writers on the BBC World Service soap Westway, her credits include Won’t Change My Life, a drama about the first lottery winner, and The Member of the Wedding, an adaptation of Carson McCullers’ novel. More recently, she has penned the dramas Your Only Man, based on the life of the writer Flann O’Brien, and O Margate, a comedy about art and political asylum at the seaside.

This month, she returns to BBC Radio 4, with a production called The Von Trapps and Me.

It stars Helen Baxendale and James Fleet, and tells the story of the Von Trapp family singers from the perspective of Princess Yvonne, the woman Captain Von Trapp jilted in order to marry Maria, and who inspired the character of the baroness in The Sound of Music.

The baroness, Caulfield says, is a woman she always pitied.

“I always felt sorry for the baroness,” Caulfield explains. “I felt that what happens is not nice for her. She is jilted for a teenage nun. But when I looked into it and read Captain Von Trapp’s memoir, I discovered he was not at all like he is in the film. His family were musical before Maria came along. The play then sort of became more about looking at what really happened and what the characters sidelined in it were really like.”

Caulfield, sister of the stand-up comedian Jo Caulfield, a regular on shows such as Mock the Week, says she always knew she wanted to be a writer. Growing up, she wrote poetry and stories, and after being educated at a convent in Derbyshire (which, she says, was run by sweet but eccentric nuns, who were nothing like those depicted in the film The Magdalene Sisters), she attended university in London, reading English literature, and found herself writing plays to be performed by drama students she was friends with. This led to the formation of what Caulfield describes as a fringe theatre group, which performed her work in venues such as pub theatres.

And looking back now, Caulfield is amazed at the energy and enthusiasm with which they all attacked her work. “I don’t think I could do now what I did when I was younger, which was to be gung-ho enough and poor enough to put on my own plays up above the Old Red Lion,” she says. “We were very cheeky and would get part-time jobs and use the photocopier, that kind of thing, which takes a lot of energy. Energy you have in your twenties. We would go trailing around London at night putting up our own posters.”

Evidently, it paid off.

Caulfield eventually found herself being picked up as a writer in residence at the Riverside Studios in west London and as fate would have it, comedian Lenny Henry lived near by and rehearsed at the venue, leading to the pair to be introduced and to Caulfield becoming a writer for his stand-up shows.

This helped put her firmly on the road to success, particularly in the field of comedy. Caulfield describes it as a “very lucky collision” for her, but admits it wasn’t easy to begin with.

“I had to learn quite a lot,” she says. “You can take a lot more time to be funny in a play, but in stand-up you have to get to the funny bit very fast. That was useful in learning to be concise and knowing that one word out of place can make a line not funny. I was also writing the world from Lenny’s point of view and that was useful as a dramatist – to get inside somebody. You were basically writing another character.”

From here, Caulfield continued to write stage plays, before moving into television, working on series such as Grim Tales, with Rik Mayall, and eventually creating work for radio after being asked by Jeremy Mortimer, a radio executive at the BBC, to pen a play for the Corporation.

Today, despite having written plays for theatre, television and radio, and worked as an author of travel and children’s books, it is radio on which she is most prolific. And while the current downturn in advertising revenue seems to be taking its toll on the amount of television drama being made, radio drama seems to still offer writers stable employment opportunities.

Which is not to say that radio drama hasn’t suffered.

Certain parts of the BBC’s radio schedules have seen reductions in drama and Caulfield admits budget cuts have impacted on conditions attached to writing drama – particularly relating to how many cast members a play can have.

But the fact is, as Caulfield also points out, BBC Radio still broadcasts hundreds of drama productions annually and, with its fast turnaround times, the medium can prove to be a more lucrative market than, say, television or theatre for writers with the talent and know-how.

“I do very little theatre now,” confesses Caulfield. “Partly because it’s very long-haul. What is nice about radio is there is a fast turnaround and more likelihood that, once a play is commissioned, it’s going to be made, which is very satisfying. Radio constantly needs drama. No one else does, but they do in radio.”

Caulfield is currently working on a play about the activist Paul Robeson, which will see her reunited with Henry. She is also working on a new travel book, but once she has completed it, she wants to do more radio.

Writing a book, she says, tends to leave her feeling “isolated”. Not only that, but with writing books, she misses the excitement of hearing actors bringing her work to life.

“A play is only part of the process,” she says. “It’s nothing if it’s not performed.”

She adds: “I really enjoy hearing what actors do. That is why I could not just write books. It’s very exciting when someone does something you did not quite expect and it sort of makes it better.

“What is nice about radio is it happens very fast. The actors get the script and do it in a couple of days, and it always amazes me that they can become so absorbed in a character.”

Having taught herself to write by going to see shows “indiscriminately” and having become something of an expert in her field, Caulfield is regularly called on to give advice to young and aspiring writers.

The best piece of advice she can give, she says, is to write something and finish it.

“Start something and don’t keep fussing about the first pages,” she says. “It’s about getting from A to Z. Then you can fiddle with the middle bit.”

And even though she didn’t do a creative writing course, she says a degree in creative writing can be helpful in teaching up and coming writers shortcuts to do with the industry and the way it works.

“You learnt a lot about how the system works and that is the most important thing about a creative writing course,” she says. “You learn about agents and what their tastes are. All of which is great, because you can waste a lot of time trying to learn these things yourself.”

The Von Trapps and Me will be broadcast this Saturday, October 3, on BBC Radio 4 at 2.30pm

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