How a tense audio series came together during lockdown – and how you can find out more about, and listen to, Circles.

At time of writing, I have not been outside in 208 days. No trips to the shop, no walks in the park, no meeting friends – and that counts in reverse, too, with no friends coming into my flat. I had one short visit from a friend, during which we spoke at distance through the open door. For various health reasons, I really have to take the Covid-19 virus very seriously.

But I’ve been very busy in this time, and that’s maybe one reason why I’m coping pretty well.

Out now is a new audio drama podcast – basically a radio play without the radio, and broken into episodes. It’s called Circles, and it was created by me, then co-written, recorded and produced by lots of other talented people. Not only was all of this done in the 208 days since I’ve been in my flat, it was done as a result of me being forever in my flat. Circles is not only a product of my self-quarantined, lockdown existence but it has very much been inspired by it.

In a way this is my pandemic story – though, really, it’s a character-driven tale about old friends who hurt one another and now need to heal.

In late March, we were all told to stay home by the government. I was already staying home by then, but suddenly, we were all in the same boat. I heard that my friend Jack Bowman, who has worked as an audio drama producer for the BBC, Audible, the estate of Agatha Christie and plenty of other sexy places like that, was looking to do an indie project under lockdown. He pitched is as an Avengers Assemble of fiction podcasting – a way to prove that our creativity wouldn’t be stifled just because studios were closed and nobody could record together.

I started thinking about what the right story would be, and very quickly, I had the germ of an idea. I pitched this to Jack, and here’s what he has to say about that.

“When this was pitched to me, the concept, the story, and the core idea for executing Circles, I thought, “This will be brilliant.” I could hear how it would sound. So I said, “Let’s do it”, which was the easy part… then I had to work out how to make it happen afterward. That was much, much harder…”

 

Circles is the story of four old friends who have drifted apart. Years ago, they confronted an evil, supernatural force and managed to defeat it – but only temporarily, and not without cost. Now time is running out and, whether they like it or not, the old friends will have to learn how to relate to one another again… or die. Or worse.

The crux of the plan involves ritual magic circles, drawn in salt or chalk. What you’ll hear when you click play on Episode One is that the friends are scrambling to get safe after years of not knowing when the threat will return. They’re setting up the Circles of the title, and being sure to stay safely inside them – which means the only way they can communicate is through their telephones.

The circles are a good plan, and the magic behind them is sound, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some serious problems. For one thing, the evil demon from the friends’ past is not happy about losing the last time. Worse than this, one of the friends seems to have gone missing. Will they be able to contact him and raise the alarm in time, or will the demon find him first?

Pretty soon it turns out that the friends have more problems than expected, and that the plan is definitely more dangerous than anticipated.

I’m trying to keep the story description spoiler free – our twists and turns are best experienced. A word to the wise, however: listen very closely.

Structuring the story as a series of telephone calls not only ties into the set-up of a supernatural lockdown where everybody stays in their circle to remain safe, it also brings the audience very close to the characters, When you hear the sounds of a character on one end of a phone line, you’re hearing exactly what the character on the other end is hearing. Hopefully this intimacy will help us build both emotional engagement and creepiness as the episodes go by.

Like the characters, the actors were isolated and this is not usually considered the ideal way to make an audio drama. It’s a bit above my paygrade, but I think the technical gist of how we pulled it off goes like this: everybody recorded their audio separately, even though the cast were acting together, reacting to one another, over a Zoom link.

I was also on the Zoom call too, to answer any ‘writerly things’ that might come up, and so was Jack, as he directed the scenes. Thanks to a simple clapperboard, it was ‘easy’ to sync everybody’s takes in the edit.

Then came the complex job of sound-designing, and creating the subtly different audio spaces required for the different scenes. Some FX are no more sophisticated than having the actor do the thing that would make that particular sound, but there’s more cunning foley, fakery and expert craft from our sound designer Tom Maggs in Circles than you might realise. Try not to think about that as you listen, however!

As you have read, there were a lot of people involved in making Circles – our assembled Avengers, as Jack said. I plotted the whole story and served as the showrunner, and James Field and James MacDonald came onboard as my co-writers, lending Circles their ways with gags and character, as well as their general good sense.

The cast feature a lot of audio drama rockstars too, from Tal Minear to Beth Eyre, Sarah Pitard to Tom Alexander, and Chris Finney to Joe Duley. It’s maybe overstating things to say we discovered Bryce Cooke but we’re going to take the credit anyway. There are also some fun cameos, mixed in with all of the other Easter Eggs, allusions, hidden meanings and concealed clues.

It probably sounds like I’m in love with this thing that I made, and I can’t deny it. I worked with a lot of brilliant people here, and they’ve created something that builds up and builds up to brilliant effect. They’re very good at this. If Circles was supposed to demonstrate creativity under lockdown I think it’s an absolute roaring success.

Episode One is available now – you can add the RSS to any podcast software, from Apple to Android. And we’re on Spotify too. You can also find us on Twitter, where we’d especially like to hear if you spot any of the little Easter Eggs we’ve left for you to have fun with…

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