LOST Letters, for BBC Radio Scotland, follows journalist and broadcaster, Paul English, on a personal quest to track down his old pen pals, whose letters he’d rediscovered 30 years after he lost touch with them.
The programme, is an one-off, 30-minute commission for new Scottish indie, Gusman Productions, run by Gus Beattie.
It is the first collaboration between the pair, after both struck out on their own following long spells at the Daily Record and the Comedy Unit, respectively.
It is being broadcast tomorrow – Tuesday July 25 – on BBC Radio Scotland at 1.30pm and repeated on on Saturday.
Here, Lost Letters writer and presenter, Paul English, answers the questions…
Who commissioned the programme?
The programme was commissioned by head of Radio at BBC Scotland, Jeff Zycinski, around the turn of the year, at a point when both Gus and I had little or no knowledge about the whereabouts of most of the pen pals we’d identified from a box of lost letters I’d discovered in my parents attic at the family home in Kilmacolm.
Explain the thinking behind the production’s ‘look and feel’.
It was seen as a chance to explore the ‘lost art’ of letter writing, at a time when the immediacy and accessibility of digital interaction is maybe seen as both a blessing and a curse.
The letters represented a ‘go-slow’ habit which has been eroded by things like email and Facebook, but also provided a portal into not only my own past, but the past of my lost pen pals.
When I found the letters in an old shoe box, I succumbed to nostalgia and spent an afternoon reading through them.
I thought about them for weeks afterwards. I wanted to know what had happened to the people, and whether they remembered me and our letters. It was while on holiday in California last year, sending postcards to people at home, that the idea to tell the story of tracking them down started to form.
We felt it was important to capture not only the meetings with my own pen pals, but also their reaction when I first made contact after all these years.
Nothing was too ‘set-up’; it was basically me with an Olympus digital recorder and a microphone, traipsing around the country, capturing the moments as they happened.
Who are the key personnel? How were they recruited?
Gus Beattie produced and I wrote and presented. Dave Murricane was our sound editor and actors, Tom Urie, Kate Brailsford and Michele Galagher, were brought in to put voices to the letters, which they did brilliantly.
Gus and I have both recently struck out for new adventures, having spent many years working for our respective previous employers.
I was with the Daily Record as a feature writer for 17 very enjoyable years, before taking redundancy at the end of last year.
I’d written and presented for radio before, on the series Comedy Heroes and the one-offs, The Choir and The Real Fairytale of New York, as well as regularly contributing to a variety of programmes across BBC Radio Scotland. I also presented two series of Scottish Passport on STV in 2012 and 2013.
Gus has a long and successful history of producing some of the best radio comedy to come out of Scotland over the last 20 years, including Fags, Mags and Bags and Sketchorama for Radio 4, and Lewis MacLeod’s Wired News for Radio Scotland.
He also reunited the classic sketch show, Absolutely, for The Absolutely Radio Show on Radio 4 and won Best Comedy at the Audio Production Awards 2016.
He left the Comedy Unit last year to set up his own production company, Gusman Productions. We bumped into each other in the street, arranged to meet to knock some ideas about, and firmed up the basic structure for a Lost Letters pitch.
What kit and software?
I used a notepad, a phone, an Olympus digital recorder, a microphone, my ancient 12 year-old PC and my knackered laptop.
Gus worked on Audacity to edit the interviews at home, and we teamed up with David Murricane for sound editing, using Protools at Murricane Studios.
What were the main production challenges?
Finding people. I tried to avoid social media when it came to tracking down my old letter writing pals.
Somehow it didn’t seem appropriate.
One of them was a family friend, so was very easy to reach as we’d met each other over the years but never discussed being pen pals.
The other three ranged from word-of-mouth research, to deep-diving on electoral registers, census and the likes.
At one point, I pursued a girl called Maria who had the same name as my old pen pal. She turned out to now be living in the house next door to my godson.
That would have been a coincidence I’d have struggled to comprehend had she been the ‘right’ Maria.
What did you most learn and enjoy from the experience?
When I was putting the letters together for the pitch, I discovered a £10 note, sent to me in 1994 by Patsy, the landlady of the holiday home my family had rented for several summers in Jersey.
By then I was growing my list of correspondents and I adopted her as a pen pal. She last wrote to me in her late 60’s when I was 18, ten years after we’d first met, before our exchanges fizzled out when I went to uni and email started to erode the need, or desire, to write letters.
The tenner was an 18th birthday present. I’d missed it at the time. That was a very sweet moment, as I’d never heard from Patsy after that.
Meeting two of my pen pals for the first time was interesting and also a wee bit emotional. I suppose I learned what I already knew: pen pals form a bond. It might not be the strongest bond, but it’s there, and it remains. It was a very personal quest, and turned out to be one of the most fulfilling experiences of my career.