‘Make the thing that you want to exist in the world’ – Interview with 2019 DARA Winner Eleanor McDowall

By Sam Stone 

I meet Eleanor McDowall, this year’s Documentary Audio Recognition Award winner, for a coffee during Open City Documentary Festival just after her win has been announced. It doesn’t take me long to understand why everyone I’ve met who works in radio documentary talks about Eleanor so fondly. As well as producing an acclaimed and diverse body of work, she is also very kind – and offers to buy me a slice of cake within the first five minutes of meeting. We sat down to talk about her DARA winning documentary A Sense of Quietness, her radio subtitling project Radio Atlas, and her work as the series producer for BBC Radio 4’s Short Cuts.

Sam: Congratulations on winning the DARA! How has your time been at Open City, have you been able to see much?

Eleanor: I’ve not been able to see enough. But I really loved the things that I did catch, in particular Isis Thompson and Axel Kacoutié doing the live performance [of ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green… and Black’, as part of the Whickers Audio Afternoon]. And Sayre Quevedo taught his masterclass on Friday, which was so thoughtful and humane. It was kind of starting a conversation around the way in which we tell personal stories. An ethical conversation that I don’t think we have enough. So, I was really taken with that.

When did you first become interested in making a piece about abortion rights and the ‘Repeal the 8th’ movement in Northern Ireland?

It happed quite organically actually. There’s a woman in the piece called Siobhan McHugh who’s a radio producer, and I was friends with her on Facebook. Around the time of ‘repeal’ I saw her write this Facebook post, where she alluded to the idea that what was happening was a very personal thing for her and had contributed to the reason why she was now living in Australia rather than Ireland. I saw her a couple of months afterwards and asked her about it. She said, ‘”I taught this young woman who happened to do this thing, so I feel this odd connection”. It was through going to interview Brianna Parkins, who was her student, that I found out about the anonymous woman who had written to Brianna. I tracked down Anne Connolly who was the woman who was put on the radio. I found out about it like that, but I think it grew from this feeling of quiet fury that I had watching the way in which people were talking about women’s rights over their own bodies. I was thinking about this idea of what happens when you’re not even exercising your rights, but you’re just trying to start conversations about them.

Why did you feel that it was important to go back and talk about some of the history of the 8th amendment?

This is an idea that I very much borrowed from Nina Garthwaite of In The Dark… I’m very interested in collective storytelling and how we can tell collective stories. I think particularly if you’re talking about social justice, there’s a temptation to pin things to an extraordinary individual and a singular moment. I don’t think that change happens in that way. I think it is slow, and it is across time. It is about groups of people who take a series of small risks that become cumulative, and they suffer consequences. That was sort of at the heart of it for me, trying to talk about collective stories and collective struggle.

It has such a beautiful pace to it. There’s a mix of strength and heartbreaking points – but also real moments of humour too. For example, when the anonymous woman discusses watching the video of Brianna and wants to tell everyone that they’re clapping in Kerry. That made me tear up. She then follows up with the funny and lighthearted line, ‘I want to buy that woman pints’. 

I think that’s testament to that woman, who is an extraordinary individual. But that’s the texture of these moments, isn’t it? When you’re in grief and heartbreak and struggle there is humour and lightness as much as there is misery. These women are all really funny about it as well. They have just faced something very difficult and got through that by being able to joke about it.

I want to ask you about some of the moments of silence and how these came about. How did you approach using sound design to help tell the story?

I certainly had a sense of tone when I started out and I wanted this silence to be a character, because it is all about breaking silence. There are dramatic iterations of that within the piece, but there are also much smaller ones. Thinking about those stories in the abortion clinic, where the anonymous woman is describing someone who says ‘I will never tell anyone about this ever again’. I wanted it to be quiet and tight, but also to have power in that, to have this kind of controlled fury. You’re trying to capture the feeling of the moment and embody it in the form. The point where Brianna is on television and she’s having to do a Samba dance is ridiculous and heightened and overwhelming, and you want the sound to make the listener feel that way. And then you want it to feel very bare and exposed at other points.

What difficulties did you face while making the piece?

I think my nervousness when I had the idea of having a chain, is that there might be a woman who wouldn’t want to participate in it. So I felt very lucky that all four women were happy to talk and happy to talk openly in it. On that front it wasn’t too tricky, it was just trying to do it justice. Particularly with the anonymous woman, it meant so much to me that she was talking to me about it. I think hearing someone who maybe hasn’t been able to be that open about that experience talk about it in that space is a real privilege.

Are you planning on revisiting the issue of abortion rights in Northern Ireland in the future?

I’m really interested in it for as long as it is a situation where we have this very unfair setup for women in Northern Ireland. I think it’s something that we should all be talking about. I’m working on another documentary that’s looking at abortion rights in the States, so that’s one of the next things that I’m going to do. It’s interesting looking abroad and feeling this stuff happening at home. It’s still a freedom that’s so fragile. That’s why I like the idea of talking not just about exercising that freedom, but about your ability to articulate it. It feels at the moment like things that I took for granted growing up are actually very tenuously held, and that you have to fight for them to exist.

Could you tell me about Radio Atlas and how it has grown? 

It’s all credit, really, to the radio listening organisation In The Dark, who were the first people I ever saw subtitle an audio documentary. Previous to that, I’d always been listening in international conferences where you get a big wodge of paper, and you sit, and you read along with it. It’s very easy to get lost and it’s very easy to just think you’re reading a book rather than having a sonic experience. So when I saw it subtitled in a cinema for the first time, it was transformative. I think for a long while I just hoped that someone else would do it, because I wanted to hear all the stuff that we’re missing. It just seems absolutely wild that we don’t talk about the fact that we’re not hearing most of the brilliant audio that’s being made around the world and we seemingly don’t care. Imagine if that was the case with literature or films. That we were just like, ‘oh, I’m sure they’re making stuff in France, but we don’t need to see it’. Then I realised that it was a really bad idea for a business. And that if I wanted it to exist, I had to make it for myself. So it’s been a long running hobby project since then.

How does it work? Do you subtitle the documentaries yourself?

I subtitle it myself. Sometimes you’ll get a dual translation, or it’ll just be English. People might look at it and think it’s really terribly done, but it’s easier than you think to navigate by ear with certain languages. I’ve got really bad French, and bad Spanish, and bad German. That actually gives you a grounding in a fair few languages and you can start to get a feel of how a sentence is breaking up and where a pause is. Trying to find a mode of subtitling that captures what we value in radio, rather than in film where you’re just trying to get people’s eyes back on the screen. I think in audio you want people to have a sense of pace and silence and comic timing.

Do you have any particular favourite stories on Radio Atlas?

Oh yeah, there’s loads! There’s a woman whose work is on there, who I can probably credit with being the reason I really wanted it to exist. She was actually one of the 2019 Whickers finalists, Rikke Houd. She made a piece called Leaps and Dunes for Danish radio years ago. I remember listening to it and reading along with it. It’s all about two weeks in a Danish summer camp. You sit in this moment where they’re not quite children and they’re not quite adults. They’re in this summer where everything changes. It’s kind of confusing and messy and full of awkward dances and kids playing on the dunes. It’s just beautiful. You listen to that and you think ‘everyone should be able to hear this’. So [Rikke Houd] is a big reason why it exists. But I’ve got soft spots for loads of thing. I really love Sayre Quevedo’s Espera, which is called Wait on the platform. It’s so intimate and full of feeling and gives time and space, in an audio world where I think we can often be quite breathless and informational – and I love that. I also love something called The Pep Talk, which is this two minute long speech from a Danish football coach in which he starts screaming at his team. Sometimes I’ll listen to that to boy myself up. But yeah, it’s like picking your favourite child.

How do you decide the kind of work you want to feature on both Radio Atlas and Short Cuts?

Short Cuts is slightly different, because most of the time it’s being made especially. Either we’re making it in-house or we’re commissioning things. I started adding this line to our commissioning mail-out, where we talk about some of the things that we’re interested in, but we also talk about wanting the things that we wouldn’t know to ask for yet. I think what excites me is adventurous production, or people trying to do something that’s either new or new to them in some way, that’s thinking about the form and the space and isn’t just about an interesting story, but it’s actually alive, it’s all the possibilities of the medium. I’m not saying we always manage that. So, I guess if we have a commissioning principle it’s that. The loveliest thing in the last year is that I’ve started commissioning it collectively with two other women, Alia Cassam and Andrea Rangecroft. I think having that group discussion really helps you take more risks as well, when it’s shared and you’re being challenged about certain decisions. So that’s been wonderful. Radio Atlas is very tied to my specific perspective, which is why I quite like naming it after a map. It’s got all the biases of cartography. You put yourself at the centre of that universe and then you’re like, this feels different to me in a lot of ways. I’m looking for things that feel like something I haven’t heard before, or that push the form in some way or shift a perception of something in some way.

Are you excited about where audio storytelling is headed at the moment? Have you seen any particular shift recently?

I feel like so much has changed since I started doing this. I’ve been doing it for over a decade now. When I was starting, people were beginning to talk about podcasting maybe being a thing, and starting to mention This American Life. In that time, the shift has been so extreme and really exciting in lots of ways. There’s been a real challenge to the overwhelmingly white middle class, exclusionary structures within the industry that I think is brilliant. There’s been an openness to more formal experimentation and the challenge to certain things. Business stuff, I’m less excited about. There is an ambiguity about how things are funded and more branded projects, or things where you think it sounds like it’s public service media but it’s actually an advert. I feel a bit uncertain about that. But I think in general what’s happening feels exciting, but can always be improved.

How did you first start working in radio?

I slightly stumbled onto a Master’s Course in radio production down in Bournemouth. I thought I wanted to make music radio because you get all the free records and it would be a lovely life. It was thanks to my tutor, who was a radio producer, presenter and also a poet, called Sean Street. He was just so inspiring and curious and would play us all these weird and wonderful documentaries. He played a lot of work by my now co-director at Falling Tree, Alan Hall, that I was so inspired by. It opened a door to something that I didn’t know existed, which is this world of more composed, artistic feature-making. I think in my head previously radio was all just like the Archers and the Today Programme, which is obviously a terrifying world.

How did you get started at Falling Tree?

On my course I had an assignment to write, a pitch for a Radio 4 documentary. My tutor Sean then told me to send it to Alan. I did, and he pitched it to the BBC and it got commissioned. And that was the first documentary I ever made.

What was it about?

It was about the complicated relationship between post-war Vienna and the film The Third Man. In 10 years I’ve not found a punchier way of describing it. It was basically focused on this family, who for 20 years had been running the Third Man tour of Vienna, and they were talking about this film every day. Through that, you see that this film captures this moment in time that gets slightly papered over after the reconstruction after the war, and that holds a quite complex truth about who we are and who people in Vienna were. I don’t think I’d be able to listen to it again now but in my imagination, it’s wonderful…

How did you find the story?

I actually just went on the tour and I really liked the family. There’s something very appealing about that kind of obsessive dedication to a singular thing when it’s done in a way that’s not narrowing, but that’s opening up a world.

Do you go out actively looking for stories or do you think they present themselves to you? Or is it somewhere in between?

I’ve had very low moments before commissioning rounds, where definitely more than once I’ve googled the phrase, ‘great idea for a radio documentary’. But generally, I think that the stuff that you want to be making is the stuff that sticks in the back of your head and doesn’t disappear, and you don’t know quite what it is yet. That’s definitely how I felt with A Sense of Quietness. I didn’t know what I was making for a good few months. I just felt like there was something in it that was interesting me and making me angry. I think you sort of stumble across the things that you want to make stuff about. I made a documentary about ballet dancers’ last dances [A Dancer Dies Twice]. I think the reason why that was in my head was because I injured my knee, jumping over a fence in a moment of youthful exuberance, and suddenly had this permanent injury where my body was completely changed. There’s this horrible noise that it makes that is in the documentary. There’s a sequence of dances that runs up to an injury and then the noise that you hear is just the noise that my knee makes when I go upstairs. I think because of that I was thinking about bodies, and women’s bodies in particular.

Do you have any advice for people starting out in audio documentary?

The only advice that I give to everyone when they’re making things with us for Short Cuts, is to make the thing that you want to exist in the world. Don’t make the thing that you think will fit on BBC Radio 4, or that you think is going to fit in a podcast. The thing that will make your work exciting is if it’s true to the way that you see the world and your perspective, rather than doing anything that is what you think a radio documentary should sound like.

Is there any other work that has been inspiring you recently?

The thing that everyone is inspired by, but it’s genuinely one of the best things that’s happened in the UK in years, is George the Poet‘s podcast. It is just transcendent and personal and structural simultaneously – and unlike anything else. So, I love that. I love this podcast called Imaginary Advice by a poet called Ross Sutherland, that’s kind of UK and indie and weird. I like Hope Chest by Stacia Brown, which are these miniature audio essays that are designed for an audience of one. They’re all written for her young daughter, she’s just the most astonishing writer. I’ve really enjoyed the series NB, which is coming from BBC Sounds and is by a producer called Arlie Adlington. It’s so warm and full of joy and insight, I fully recommend it.

What projects do you have coming up in the future? 

I had a documentary on yesterday, does that count? It was about a space called the House of Dreams, which is in East Dulwich and is the house of an artist called Stephen Wright, who lives in it and has transformed every single inch of it. Covering it in mosaics and broken dolls and toys and wigs and people’s hair and dentures and also these big, what he calls memory boards, which are almost diary entries from his life. It really resonates with love and is also an exploration of grief that he went through. So that’s the latest thing I’ve done. Then next, it’s a documentary about ghost stories and another one about abortion rights.

By Sam Stone. Sam is a journalist and aspiring documentary maker based in Bristol and London. www.samebstone.com / @samebstone