On this week’s episode of Working, June Thomas spoke with audio drama writer, director, and producer John Scott Dryden. London-based Dryden started his career at the BBC and has created dozens of adaptations and radio plays there. More recently, his work has appeared in podcast form, including Tumanbay and Passenger List. They spoke about the evolution of Dryden’s career, his preference for recording audio dramas on location, and his recent “reverse adaptation,” turning Tumanbay into a book, The City of a Thousand Faces. This partial transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
June Thomas: You’ve made a lot of audio dramas outside the U.K. with a U.K. audience in mind—many in India, but in Egypt, Japan, Hong Kong, and lots of other places as well. Rather than recording in a studio in London, you make a story set in India, etc. Can you give us an example of a specific time when you’ve done that?
John Scott Dryden: One is the project I met my wife, Ayeesha Menon, on. It was an adaptation of the novel A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth. I could have made it in the U.K. There are loads of Indian-origin actors here, but somehow I felt that if I went to India itself, where a lot of the acting community speak English, there would be something more authentic about it.
The other thing with the actors here is that they’re British. Their origin is Indian, and sure, they can put on an Indian accent, because maybe their parents have slight Indian accents, but it just wouldn’t feel quite as real. They would be putting on the Indian accent that they think the British audience would expect to hear. Whereas if we did the whole thing in India, it would feel much more authentic.
And then the other part was the sound of India. If we’d done it in the U.K., we probably would have ended up using loads of sound effects.
It was a hugely complex production, because it’s got a very large cast. We decided to do it in a real location. So we found this huge house that was pretty run down, and we had the actors living there. We all lived there for three weeks, and we were recording there as well. But it was one of those experiences where we just became a community, and we’ve all stayed in touch since. The production team are still my producers in India. As a result of that, we probably do at least one project a year in India.
You mentioned accents, and I’d love to dig into that a bit more. One of your most popular adaptations was of Robert Harris’ novel Fatherland. It’s set in Germany, but obviously it’s in English. So how did you think through the accent question?
This is almost the opposite of working in India. There was no real benefit in making Fatherland in Berlin and having German accents. It’s a thriller set in a fictional future. Everyone is supposed to be German, except for an American journalist caught in Berlin. I was determined not to have any kind of German accents, because I thought it would trip up the actors all the time. We should just do it with all the actors’ normal voices.
We also decided to record it all on location in London. We said, “London is Berlin.” Simple as that. We went to real places, like, if it was set in a pub, we would go and record in a pub. If they’re walking down the street, they’d be walking down a London street. But we wouldn’t pretend. We would simply say, “This is Berlin,” and we’d do nothing else to create that illusion. That was enough. With a thriller story, that’s all you need.
We haven’t yet talked about your most recent epic, Tumanbay, which recently aired its final episode in the U.K. (Season 4 is coming to the U.S. soon.) How did you decide on the accents in that show? It seemed like many of the actors were doing a bit of an accent, but it wasn’t an Egyptian accent or a Greek accent. What was your thinking?
It’s a historical fantasy, so we didn’t have to be accurate to anything in particular. But it is loosely inspired by the Mamluk dynasty that ruled in Egypt between the 13th century and 1509. So there was always a kind of Egyptian tone to it. But I have to say, it was pretty random. It was down to the actors, and most of them are just speaking in their normal voices—it’s got a very multicultural cast.
The story works great for that because in the time that it was inspired by, Cairo was the most powerful city on the planet, and it attracted people from everywhere because of its wealth. Artists would come from Europe. There would be tradespeople from India. Mercenaries went there to earn their fortune. It’s a great setting for drama because you can cast anyone, and they’ll fit in.