Tune into the natural world

Monday (March 21st) sees the final episode of a remarkable radio drama – Song of the Reed – recorded entirely on location at an iconic Norfolk nature reserve.

by Mark Cureton |
Published on

Strumpshaw Fen RSPB, on the River Yare a few miles east of Norwich, is one of the wetland sites that makes Norfolk a favourite with birdwatchers, and one of its key species is among the stars of this fourth episode – there’s been one for each season over the last year.

Steve Waters, the Cambridge-based playwright who wrote Song of the Reed, said: “Each episode has a guest species, and it’s the Bittern in the last episode. We deliberately kept a bird until last – finally hearing it will be quite emotional.”

The human stars of the drama include Sophie Okonedo and Mark Rylance, have recorded each episode close to the date of broadcast, so that they can include real world issues, and so that the background noise is entirely accurate for the time of year.

That’s one of the things that immediately strikes you about the programme. If you’ve ever sighed and rolled your eyes at the way TV dramas and films often use inappropriate or out of place birdsong, you’ll have no such frustrations here – there’s a real atmosphere and feeling of the great outdoors.

Steve said: “Our brilliant sound recordists and other crew have literally camped out getting the sounds, but even the way the actors speak changes because they’re actually there.

“It does pose its own problems. In the second episode we had endless sounds of military aircraft, and then of reed-cutting out on an island on the broad that was unreachable, so we couldn’t get them to stop.

Topicality is another major feature of the drama.

Steve added: “Obviously there’s been an overall plan, but I’ve also had the freedom to make decisions on the hoof. It’s all been about giving the fictional reserve a future.

“We’ve had them facing challenges such as sea levels rising, and they had a flood, based on a flood in 2007. It’s all recorded at Strumpshaw, and in my mind’s eye the fictional reserve is near Norwich.”

Steve teaches scriptwriting at the University of East Anglia, and has himself written extensively for stage, screen and radio, with the natural world a frequent source of inspiration.

He said: “I grew up in the Midlands, just outside Rugby, and I was outdoors a lot while growing up, but we weren’t naturalists or anything.”

One of his previous stage shows – Out Of Your Knowledge – was inspired by the 19th century ‘peasant poet’ John Clare, much of whose own work focused on birds, while last year’s Murmurations was a mixture of live scenes, songs, poetry and physical theatre, inspired by two reserves – Strumpshaw Fen, again, and the National Trust’s Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire.

Song of the Reed is on Radio 4 at 2.15pm on Monday, March 21st – you can catch up on the previous three episodes on iPlayer.

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