Translating research from page to screen

Junior Research Fellow at Trinity, Dr Clare Walker Gore,

researches portrayals of disability in nineteenth-century fiction. She is a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker and here she reflects on the experience of making a five-minute documentary film for the BBC.

How did you select the subject for the film?

Arthur Macmurrough Kavanagh,
Arthur Macmurrough Kavanagh

I felt that my biographical research into the real people who inspired some of the fictional works I’ve studied would make for the best television. Some of these life stories are so eventful that they cry out to be filmed!

I’ve already made a Radio 3 programme about the life of Arthur Macmurrough Kavanagh, an Irish nobleman who was born without hands or feet and led a very eventful life.

Guy Phenix, my director for this film, was keen to focus on Arthur’s remarkable life too. The problem was that the story is so dramatic and takes in so many amazing places that we kept coming up with ideas that were too ambitious for a 5-minute film to be shot in one day… The idea of following Arthur’s journey from Moscow to Mumbai was quickly scotched (although this is still a dream of mine!) But the BBC already had some footage of Borris House, the beautiful stately home where Arthur was born and which he inherited, so we were able to show viewers at least one of the locations we talk about in the film.

How did you create the script?

We went through four or five drafts, each one shorter than the last, until eventually I got it down to the right length. Although there was so much more I wanted to include, I think that the whittling-down process helped me to focus on what was really important, and why. As well as boiling down the narrative you have to try and communicate why this matters to you, and why the viewer should care about it too.

I think there’s a risk that as academics, we take our audience’s interest for granted; the great thing about working with a radio or documentary producer is that they force you to think about, and then to explain, why people who aren’t in your field should care about this work.

Guy was very helpful beforehand in suggesting alterations (mostly cuts!) to the script, and on the day, in encouraging me to stray from the script and talk more freely to the camera.

How challenging was thinking visually?

Since we couldn’t travel to the locations we were describing, we made use of the great visual resources available in the libraries where I work. We drew on the fantastic range of maps in the Rare Books Room and Map Room in the Cambridge University Library (UL), so that I could try and show the route Arthur took on his journey in period atlases – the borders are completely different now, so we felt that contemporary maps would be more helpful.

Guy sourced some brilliant photographs of Arthur and his family from the archives of the National Library of Ireland, and we used those, alongside the 1891 biography. Afterwards, Guy added in footage of Borris House and the Houses of Parliament, which makes the film more visually dramatic.

Has the experience changed your view of filmmaking?

I had no idea that film-making was such a time-consuming process! I had gathered that actors did lots of takes, but I hadn’t appreciated how many variables there are when you’re filming on location. Getting the light right, trying different camera angles, getting the microphone to work so the sound comes through, doing re-takes every time there’s a passing aeroplane or the light changes or the sound didn’t quite work … it takes so much longer than radio!!

I also hadn’t appreciated how much difference not being able to look at a script makes; whereas speaking for radio is very much like giving a lecture – you want to make it sound unscripted, but you can look at your notes if your mind goes blank – when you’re filming, you have to keep talking.

I felt like I got much more used to this as we went along! By the end, I was really enjoying myself, and now that I’ve learnt the ropes, I hope I’ll get a chance to do some more presenting in future. I was especially lucky to have such an encouraging director to work with, and I’d like to thank the library staff at the UL and the English Faculty for being so helpful.

Watch Dr Walker Gore’s film about Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh.

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