England, Scotland and Wales have been ravaged by the effects of an alien invasion. The old civic and political power structures have been swept away. From a remote part of the Highlands, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon broadcasts to the nation on the SBC (Scottish Broadcasting Corporation), calmly informing her subjects of the latest emergency and issuing instructions.
No, not a vivid insight into the waking nightmares of David Cameron, but the premise of Val McDermid’s two-hour Radio 4 dramatisation of John Wyndham’s 1953 novel, The Kraken Wakes, starring Paul Higgins and Tamsin Greig. The Kraken Wakes dramatises a catastrophic incursion from outer space into the darkest recesses of Earth’s oceans, an attack that culminates in the polar ice caps melting. The sea levels rise, Britain slowly drowns, and widespread social and political devastation ensues.
Best known for her books featuring police psychologist Tony Hill, Fife-born McDermid was a vocal supporter of Scottish independence in the run-up to the 2014 referendum. Has she turned Wyndham’s ecological disaster story into a political parable with Scotland at its centre? She laughs mischievously.
“It’s a wee bit of fun, but it’s rooted in the reality of the situation,” she insists. “This is not me being partial – truly. In the book, the protagonists take themselves off to Cornwall, but if the water rose that high, there isn’t going to be a Cornwall. The part of the UK that’s going to have most of it left is Scotland, so I thought that rather than it be the English Broadcasting Corporation that reports on the disaster, as it is in the book, it made more sense for it to be the SBC, and I thought it would be quite amusing to see if Nicola would play herself.”
Sturgeon interviewed McDermid at last year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, and the two women struck up a friendship. “She’s a reader,” says McDermid. “There’s no affectation about it. She’s genuinely a reader and she bothers about these things. I asked her and she was delighted. Totally up for it.”
While the cast of professional actors and musicians recorded the drama in London, Sturgeon added her parts later in a studio.
“When we were doing the rehearsal my partner [Jo Sharp, professor of geography at Glasgow University] took the role of Nicola,” says McDermid. “Ever since, she’s been walking about saying, ‘Well I was a better Nicola than Nicola, you know!’” So Sturgeon wasn’t much cop? “Not at all! There are pitfalls, because however natural politicians sound, they’re not actors, but she delivers her lines very well.”
The broadcast of The Kraken Wakes was held back until after the Scottish Parliamentary elections on 5 May, to circumnavigate any accusations of bias. “There was a certain concern at the BBC that it might be seen to be endorsing Nicola as First Minister ahead of an election,” says McDermid. “You know, ‘In the event of an apocalypse, would you want Nicola to be First Minister?’ Well, by and large, yes I would. I’ve no doubt there will be people who get a little aerated about it, but, hey…”
McDermid has almost 40 novels to her name–and a new one due in September – but this is the first time she has adopted another writer’s work. A fan of Wyndham since her teenage years haunting the library in Kirkcaldy, she rates The Kraken Wakes as the equal of his more famous novels, The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos.
In Wyndham’s novel the aliens are never seen. For a radio adaptation, the challenge was how best to convey the sinister underwater threat to listeners. The answer was to use music. A new B-movie-inspired score was composed by Professor Alan E Williams and performed by the BBC Philharmonic as a live accompaniment to the drama. “To do a two-hour live performance with a full orchestra, in front of an audience, required huge chutzpah on the part of everyone concerned,” says McDermid.
It is, she points out, something no organisation other than the BBC would have the expertise to pull off. “I think the BBC is one of the great success stories of this country, and the undermining of it that this government seems determined to carry out is pretty grim,” she says. “It’s a beacon not just for news, but for drama and culture in general.” And politics, I add. She laughs. “Oh yes, politics, too.”
Nicola Sturgeon appears in Drama: Dangerous Visions: The Kraken Wakes – today at 2:30pm on Radio 4