44 Scotland Street to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4

Alexander McCall Smith: author of 44 Scotland Street. Picture: Jane Barlow
Alexander McCall Smith: author of 44 Scotland Street. Picture: Jane Barlow
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ALEXANDER McCall Smith’s “daily novel” of life in Edinburgh’s New Town, first published in The Scotsman, is to be turned into a radio series for the BBC.

The adaptation of 44 Scotland Street, written by McCall Smith, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 from Monday, 30 April at 10.45am, during Woman’s Hour, with repeats at 7.45pm.

It is expected to attract an audience of about one million.

The scripts for the five 15-minute episodes will be based on the first book in the series, written for The Scotsman eight years ago. If the first batch prove popular, other books in the series could be adapted.

The project is led by radio drama producer David Ian Neville, who asked McCall Smith whether he would be interested in writing a radio version in October last year.

He said: “I’d seen 44 Scotland Street in The Scotsman and read the books and wondered why we hadn’t already done something on them for radio. 44 Scotland Street might seem very local and particular to Edinburgh, but actually there’s a universal quality to it.”

McCall Smith had written two plays for Radio Scotland even before the worldwide success of his No1 Ladies Detective Agency books. He has now written 22 radio plays based on his Botswana-set series.

“The 15-minute dramas are slightly different,” said Mr Neville. “Not everyone may hear all five of them yet the listener has to be able to work out what is going on even if they only catch one episode.

“But then the same thing applies in a newspaper too.”

One of the ways in which the radio version of 44 Scotland Street will differ from the print one will be the enhanced role that Mr Neville suggested be given to Domenica MacDonald, the freelance anthropologist who lives at the top of the stair above Irene and Stuart Pollock and their prodigiously gifted six-year-old son Bertie. In the radio version, Domenica will also be the narrator.

While critics throughout the world – and even in Glasgow – have warmed to the charm, wit and wisdom of the series, won’t it too gently-paced to be compelling drama?

“You don’t need big story movements for good drama,” Mr Neville pointed out. “Sometimes those dramas can be the most engrossing. Think of Alan Plater or Jack Rosenthal, those masters of gentle, moving stories. There’s something of that in the way in which Alexander McCall Smith deals with his characters.”

McCall Smith said writing radio plays is “relatively straightforward once you have grasped the convention that the listeners can’t see anything and that none of the scenes can go on for hours. It’s really just a question of cutting and reducing things to a smaller compass”. He added: “David has been hugely helpful and I am grateful to him for giving me the chance of looking at Scotland Street from a slightly different angle and seeing whether I could bring those voices – which from my mail I know mean a lot to many people – to life in a different medium.”

Mr Neville, who is a playwright himself, as well as an experienced radio drama producer, has an excellent track record in adapting much-loved novels: in 2009, for example, he produced Gerda Stevenson’s version of Sunset Song, also for Radio 4.

He is in the process of casting for the lead roles in Scotland Street – where of course the actors needn’t have the slightest physical resemblance to the fictional characters. On Radio 4, 44 Scotland Street’s Bruce Anderson, for example, needn’t even be remotely good looking.

“It’s odd,” he said. “I used to work on The Archers, and I could be in the studio for hours on end directing the cast, and yet a couple of days later I could have the radio on and instead of seeing their faces I’d be visualising the world of Ambridge as I had always imagined it myself.”

At the end of April and the start of May, a million people in Britain will be doing just the same with a certain address in Edinburgh’s New Town.