John Berger is having a thought and, my word, it's a masive one. He's wandering around the room clutching his cranium, as if he's frightened to let it go, holding on to his head with an intensity that matches the process going on inside. I've seen this happen before but, when it occurs, it's always spectacular. I stand and stare, amazed at this conspicuous display of creativity. He's trying to solve a problem, his problem, our problem: how to re-create his novel To the Wedding as a drama for radio.
It's early March. The first workshop day. We're in an RSC rehearsal room in Clapham - a room big enough to try out chariot racing.
Earlier that day, John had Eurostarred in from Paris with an enormous basket of cherries - "picked from the garden this morning". Waiting to work with him are Lilo Baur (Lucie, in the last Berger/Complicite collaboration, The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol), Katrin Cartlidge (fresh from starring in Mike Leigh's Career Girls), a clutch of Complicite actors, director Simon McBurney, co-adapter Mark Wheatley and me. I can feel a creative charge in the air and almost hear the distant rustle of expensive leaps of the imagination.
Our first major problem is that both John and Simon want to change the character of the narrator. They feel that a blind Greek tama seller is not what is wanted. But what is? Sitting around the table, we kick around a few ideas punctuated by several longueurs, a few coughs, and no solutions. It's then we become aware of John circling the room thinking. He's on another planet, orbiting with his intellect, no longer aware of the place, the time, us.
Eventually he lands. He's back, only he's talking to himself. "I mean... [long pause] the narrator has to be a... [pause] - a river! The Po! The longest river in Italy!" Now, why didn't we think of that!
Having made three previous programmes with John, I knew it could be like this, but having never worked with Complicite before, I had no idea of the turns this production would take before it was finished. It was also the first time they had worked as a company for radio. Complicite has built a reputation on the triumphal physicality of its stagings: the hand- held bridge of bamboo poles the cast fashioned in their recent RNT production of Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle, created in seconds yet robust enough to allow Juliet Stevenson to walk across; the breathtaking interplay with the set that characterised Lucie Cabrol; the involvement by all the cast seemingly at all times; the insistence on teasing out ideas, testing things. Testing me.
Several months later, I found myself at 10 o'clock at night with a bunch of actors on the beach at Frinton-on-Sea, waiting for Mick Barnfather to run naked into the North Sea. The mere fact of this being radio in no way inhibits the Complicite approach to physical theatre. Mick has been dreading this moment all day and as he waits for Simon's "Action!" even the shingle is shivering. Mercifuly, no re-takes are required. The bad news is that, getting dressed afterwards, he can't find his watch. We borrow a torch from a Frinton night-fisherman, who asks us not to shine it on the water - "the fish don't like it". (The fact that they don't take too kindly to being hauled out of the water and bashed over the head with a cricket bat doesn't seem to worry him.) This unscripted surreal drama is brought to a sad conclusion when we fail to find Mick's watch. The wine-dark sea has claimed it, a gift from his father and the only casualty of a very long day that began 50 miles away at Audley End House, where we recorded the wedding scenes with 35 Complicite actors - the largest gathering of the company for many years.
In the same way that Complicite make strange things happen, strange things happen to them. For weeks prior to the recording, Simon and Judith Dimant, Complicite's administrative producer, have been trying in vain to cast Gino, the Italian who wants to marry Ninon. Good Italian actors are hard to find in London in July - they're all in Italy, if they have any sense - and Judith is struggling. Sandro Mabellini, a student from Florence, once saw a Complicite show and was impressed. He thought, while he was in London, he should get himself on their mailing list. With nothing better to do, he went and rang their doorbell. "Er, 'ello, I am, er, a student..." the Complicite intercom crackled with a distinctly Italian accent. "A drama student ?" "Yes, a drama student." "Can you read English OK?" "Yes, I reada English OK." And so Sandro Mabellini walked in off the street and into a leading role with Complicite. He couldn't believe his luck. Neither could we. The perfect Gino.
South-west France: a hot August night. Not Neil Diamond - and no Complicite. The original plan was to record the wedding scenes in the long quiet field behind the house. But that was just a plan and, if working with Complicite means anything, it means plans are made for changing. I get a phone call from Simon, who is working on the script with John in the Alps. They aren't happy. The script isn't ready. Complicite are not coming. Simon tells me that he wants this production to be one which, on our deathbeds, we can all look back on as something to be proud of.
I agree. But this is going to cost big money. The budget's going into orbit. I use the time to record background material. We need the sound of the motorbike that Ninon's father Jean rides across France and Italy to the wedding. "Nothing less than 1000cc," said John on the phone. Outside a cafe in a tiny village, a gift from the gods, a 1250cc V-Max Yamaha. "Oui," said Bernard, at 42 a seasoned Yamaha man. "BBC? Bien sur."
After doing the easy stuff - stops, starts, slow cornering - Bernard takes us to a long, hot road like somewhere in Easy Rider for the big take, the high-speed pass. We stop at a wayside garage and he explains that he will go to a point out of sight, wait for a gap in the traffic and then - "a l'attaque!" As he vanishes, we set up a DAT machine by the roadside with John Hunt, our sound designer, holding a mike on a fishpole. This has a miraculous effect on passing motorists, who assume we're a speed trap. We take great pleasure in watching a succession of sudden rear brake lights going on. Bernard disappears into the heat haze and we wait. A tiny yellow light appears in the distance. At 225 kph, he's up and at us and out of sight in no time, man and machine as one, like John in Clapham, in a world of his own.
We need to re-create a party in Grenoble circa 1970. Jane, our French fixer, has come up with a willing troupe of local amateur actors who, for a buy-out of supper and as much wine as they can drink, are prepared to party for us. Amateurs they may be but they insist on a full workshop first. Our neighbour, Michel, catches the mood and gives an impromptu seminar. We hear "Marie Quant... le Rollin' Stones... Alexandeur Dubchek... 'ippies" punctuating his French. The young aspirants catch on as pacily as he punches up the past and in no time they are able to transport us to swinging Grenoble. A great take, but one that eventually went to wherever digital sound bytes go when they are deleted. Around 1am our guests begin to leave. Last out is Michel, who five minutes later is back to tell us that our actors, fuelled with party spirit, have turned their car into a ditch. We go to their help and, as we get closer, see the moonlit lane strewn with a carnage of bodies. It's a full 10 heart-stopping seconds before we realise that the local thespians have used the opportunity to impress us with their acting skills by workshopping everyone's worst nightmare.
The Complicite approach is proving contagious.
Back in London, late September, and everything is finally recorded. In the BBC Maida Vale Studios, not only has Simon got a great sound designer to work with, he's also got the full might of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. For a director, this is like Christmas and Hamleys rolled into one. Delivery deadlines pass, clocks tick and bills mount. Simon edits on. The result is... out of this world. Listen for yourself.
`To the Wedding', 7.30pm tomorrow, Radio 3Reuse content