The Listening Project: Yes, it's good to talk. But the real joy is in being allowed to listen

As the BBC airs intimate conversations, project deviser Tony Phillips finds he is deeply moved

'We've never really sat down to talk about this and it's very emotionally full-on." I was the only one left in the office late last week, and I unexpectedly found myself in an intimate embrace. A producer from BBC Berkshire had sent me a recording of a conversation between two men, urging me to have a listen. The two people, who had not sat down to talk this way before, were a young man, Matthew, and his father, Mike. Mike adopted Matthew in 1975, then a bandaged, scabies-ridden young baby, only months old, in Saigon, and in doing so saved his life. Reflecting on the heroism involved in saving an orphaned baby from the war in Vietnam and admitting that this was something they have never discussed was startlingly frank and honest.

Most of all, the young man's words felt real. This three-minute, edited conversation veered away from the mawkish, the saccharine and the clichéd, and caught me unawares. What I also experienced was relief: this young man's admission was the very reason I have been pushing to have the BBC launch The Listening Project, broadcasts that I hope will offer the unique chance to hear conversations that take place once in a lifetime. In today's remotely connected, tweeting, messaging and texting world, never has it been more important for people, family, friends, loved ones, to sit down, take stock and listen to each other. I found myself thanking the producer and thanking the father and son for giving me permission to listen.

It's not only modern technology that has given me cause to reflect on this. A few weeks ago, John Prescott was fessing up to never really hugging his sons. This felt like familiar territory to me, a Leeds boy from the wrong half of the 1960s. Matthew and Mike suddenly felt a long way from John and from me.

But I'm making amends, as more and more of the recordings we are gathering from around the country have arrived at my desk. I've spent the past few weeks immersed in this peculiar experience of feeling myself to be the unseen third person in numerous intimate conspiracies of two. I have silently to the side as a husband and wife, he in the early stages of dementia, have what will probably be one of their last conversations as equals. Alzheimer's is an illness that often results in the doors of communication and utterances of love being shut one by one. "I love you," says the wife, and he says the same to her. For Willie and Alison it's the recollection of those memories that are prized commodities – access to those memories is sadly fading, and it could be a matter of merely weeks or months before the possibility to say those important things to each other is gone.

The Listening Project will invite people across the UK to share an intimate conversation. Some of these conversations will be broadcast by the BBC and curated and archived by the British Library, building a unique picture of our lives and preserving it for future generations. What people talk about is their choice. It could be a moment of joy, sadness or reflection. This project is about creating the space for people to have that conversation they always meant to have.

Why do this? It is clear to me that this project is not about the BBC. It's about the members of the public who are willing to entrust us to record, preserve, and share their conversations. This carries with it huge responsibilities. The producers who are doing this across the country have risen to the task of taking themselves out of the picture, putting the public first, and in the process enriching us all with moments of extraordinary honesty.

This is an arrival, of sorts, for me. I've been on this trajectory of searching for the real, the authentic, for a long time. I can almost date it. Spring 1985. Middlesex Polytechnic bookshop. At the time I was living and working as a professional actor, but was more determined than ever to go to university in the hope of finding out what I really wanted to do. From day one of my training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, I had major doubts about whether I could sustain a career as a performer. Browsing in the history and literature aisles, one title leapt out. I picked up a slim paperback volume called To Be a Slave, by Julius Lester. It was clearly a novel aimed at teenage readers. It intrigued me, nevertheless. This book was based at least in part on curated stories of slave narratives, gathered in the US in the 1930s by the Federal Writers' Project, an initiative that aimed, at a time of economic and social depression, to capture the past in order to build a better future. A spectrum of American life was recorded this way, including elderly African Americans who would have sat down and told someone their experiences of being born into the institution of slavery. Like a punch on the forehead, one line struck me and has stayed with me ever since. The preface quoted one of them: "If you want to know what it was like to be a slave you need to talk to the person who wore the shoe."

And so this new curiosity about authenticity led me away from a moderately successful career as an actor to the University of East Anglia to read American History and Literature, where I fell deeply into the work of the great oral historian Studs Terkel and eventually to the realisation that radio could be a place I'd relish working. Real voices and real experiences.

I'm not the only one bitten by this bug. In 1993, the American radio producer David Isay trained up two little African American kids and invited them to record their lives in the projects of Chicago's South Side. This they did with brilliance and wit, and the result was his ground-breaking documentary, Ghetto Life 101. Who better to tell that story than those children who wore the shoe, LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman? Listeners were instantly given permission to step inside a shocking and unfamiliar world, but recorded through conversations between these boys who were clearly deeply fond of each other.

To record conversations between loved ones in all kinds of circumstances – seems like one of the things radio is made for. And yet it is so rarely done without the intervention of a presenter or a reporter in this often over-mediated medium.

What I wanted was to do something similar for BBC Radio. The Listening Project is unapologetically inspired by Isay and his charity, Storycorps, and by Studs and by the Federal Writers' Project. "Radio has become one sided when it should be two. It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. So here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life ... if it knew how to receive as well as to transmit, how to let the listeners speak as well as hear, how to bring them into a relationship instead of isolating them." Bertolt Brecht's observations about the future of radio in 1932 – just 10 years after the birth of the BBC – seem to speak for our time.

One senses that the words of another of our participant pairs, Jasmit and Jaswant, would speak for many: "The experience last night gave a new dimension to our lives and speaking to each other for 40 minutes continuously and recollecting memories and reflecting on them was simply magical .... Amidst our busy lives, we get so entangled with the daily routines that we do not realise how important it is to sit and give 100 per cent to the one who means the most. Thank you from our hearts."

The Listening Project starts on Radio 4 on 30 March, before the News at 1pm, 5pm and midnight; a 15-minute omnibus goes out on Sundays, 2.45pm

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
    RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

    RuPaul interview

    The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
    Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

    Secrets of comedy couples

    What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
    Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

    Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

    While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
    The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

    The best swimwear for men

    From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
    Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

    Mark Hix goes summer foraging

     A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
    Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

    With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

    Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
    Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

    Aaron Ramsey interview

    Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
    Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

    Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

    As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
    The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

    Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

    Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms