Susan Marling at The HWS 0ctober 8th Meeting...

HWS Chairman, Barbara Large, opened the evening by saying it was the Society's intention to help move members closer to their writing goals with an exciting programme.  She welcomed Susan Marling who she had met at the Society of Authors and apologised that Sasha Twining from BBC Solent could not come due to a work commitment.  She will be part of another evening in the future when she will bring a small crew with her for a short session on producing for radio.  

David Eadsforth, Events Secretary, introduced Susan Marling who set up Just Radio in 1995 and is consistently producing programmes for radio with original approaches on Ernest Hemingway to Salvador Dali and Pete Townsend.

Susan started her career as a Head of English in a London comprehensive school before she started writing for national newspapers and radio.  She approached producers with the offer “I’ll give you five ideas if you let me do one of them.”  After working in TV, she decided to move to radio as she recognised that women have a short shelf life on television. 

She said ideas are the currency of a writer and they need the ability to adapt their texts to appeal to a wider audience for radio.  Writers need to be able to mine the treasure they have e.g. a travel writer needs to create a number of angles on a trip to be able to sell the idea to a number of outlets.   Commissioners want writers to draw their work into the present day and to have a fresh look on history and historical events.

To that end, Susan worked with Jenny Uglow on taking her acclaimed book on Hogarth and reframing the material as Hogarth, the modern moralist, by overlaying the Rake’s Progress on Soho.  She also produced Uglow’s The Lunar Men about the Lunar Society of Birmingham who shaped and fired the modern world under the leadership of Erasmus Darwin.  James Bond, the Last Englishman written by Professor David Cannadine who theorised that Fleming invented James Bond as a consolation to the British for loss of empire after World War II, was also one of Susan’s Just Radio Productions.

Last year she produced Lawrence of Arabia: The Man and the Myth, presented by Allan Little.  This positioned Lawrence as the father of modern guerrilla warfare and as the man who predicted future strife in the Middle East in the wake of WWI and the Sykes-Picot agreement.

In May this year, she produced Food: A Scandalous History when the horse meat scandal was on everyone’s thoughts.  It was recorded at Borough Market and fronted by Giles Coren who interviewed Rosalind Crone, writer of Violent Victorians on what was used as food fillers in Victorian times.

We heard that the BBC commission twice a year and a tender document is used for both in-house and freelance producers.  These outline slots that are available from 15 minute pieces that might run across the week to longer pieces.  

An idea needs to be captured in 200-300 words and the commissioner will explore a dozen ideas and then the pitch takes place.  Often you don’t get the result for a long time and there is usually a delay on getting your work on air.  Currently Susan is working on a programme which will not be aired until March 2015 at the earliest.  In house producers at the BBC have their work guaranteed as there is a quota system.

Susan's recommendations on how to pitch were as follows:

1 Identify a producer

2 Think about what you want to say

3 Refine it

4 Be clear on what you can bring.  Is it: untold story?  b. special access of some sort -[story of family etc.]?  c. talent?

5 Be aware of when to stop selling - don’t spoil a potentially good relationship!


She said it was impossible to patent ideas but worth testing them on people you could trust before approaching the BBC.  Commissioners welcome comedy but it needs to be clever and witty.

This interesting talk gave the audience plenty of food for thought and a number of writers went home considering how they might adapt some of the work they had already written.