BEHIND THE SCENES with Matt Thompson and Cathy FitzGerald

Editor's note - While we usually feature an interview here, Matt and Cathy pitched us an alternate/joyful idea, to compose a photo tour of their creative relationship. Here it is, packed with treasures


A photo

MT: The Rocket House is the old building on the Scottish coast where I make my programmes. It is a dark-blue, battered, one-storey hut where the coastguard used to store rockets. CF: They were probably tidier. MT: For the purposes of today's tour, it also encompasses the front lounge in the English countryside where Cathy works, and all the space in between.


a photo

CF: There are 361 miles between North Berwick, where Matt lives with his family, and where I live, Wendover, so we talk a lot on the phone. We speak most days and sometimes it is even about work. Sometimes it's about what's stopping us working and sometimes we screen each other's calls because we're actually working (but that's rare).

We have got to know each other in the course of all this talking. It is possible I have secrets from Matt, but if I do they're not the good ones. This helps when we make things together, because it means we're extremely honest with each other and have weapons-grade blackmail material to fall back on if it doesn't work out. The Newfoundland producer Chris Brookes (who we like for his twinkle and prophet's hair) described us as Stadler and Waldorf once, the old men in the Muppets' balcony box. That's pretty close.


a photo

CF: The Axis of Order & Chaos is the invisible line that stretches between the Rockethouse in Scotland and my tiny terrace in the English countryside. At one end, I make programmes tidier. At the other, Matt makes them messier. Between us they seem to turn out just about right.

MT: Whenever I look at the mess that is my office or listen back to some of my confusing old programmes I am reminded of the famous Einstein quote when he was criticised for having a messy desk. *'If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?'

My distrust of order is related to my dislike of things that are tasteful and in their correct place. It does get predictable. But much of the confusion in my past programmes had not really served any purpose and it was working with Cathy that made me face up to that.


a photo

CF: Matt is the inventor of the frumble , a catch-all phrase for acts of comedic incompetence and self-sabotage. (See also the emo-frumble to describe classic moments of foot-in-mouthage). My favourite is the time he accidentally set his trouser pocket on fire. He told me the story as we travelled up an escalator at Liverpool Street tube station and I was laughing so hard I walked into a wall. That's how you know you're made for each other creatively.

My hope is that one day we'll be asked to make a food documentary in the Amazon, and there'll be some kind of Frumble in the Jungle (with Crumble).

MT: When I was mending some gym shoes (sneakers) I accidentally superglued my trouser flies together. Later that week I ripped the pocket out of another pair walking past a door handle. I find the emo-frumbles too painful to talk about. Frumble is derived from Mr Frumble from Richard Scarry.

It is strange how many original ideas in programmes come out of accidents. I learnt this from audio alchemist Rex Brough, who taught me to be open to serendipity. Mr Frumble is our friend.


a photo

CF: Matt found this playing card face down on the street outside a hole-in-the-wall fish restaurant in Hanoi. He gave it to me to turn right side up.

It was our first recording trip together. We were making a World Service series about the Vietnamese belief that the dead become wandering souls if they aren't properly buried. Every day was odder and more moving than the last. We went with a young girl to buy paper clothes for her dead mother... interviewed a medium with a shiny rolex and a glassy stare in his rock-star compound... and traipsed through the bush with US marines trying to find a mass grave of Vietnamese soldiers they'd buried by bulldozer nearly four decades ago. Matt had had a recent bereavement, so ghosts were very much on our mind. On the last day we decided to burn our own offerings at the temple. I set light to a paper teapot for my Nan who loved her tea. There were bells and incense and a fierce fire and I was covered in ash – it was in my hair, my clothes, my mouth.

We went back to the hotel to get cleaned up. Then we went out and ate and drank and made a lot of noise – which is what you do when you've been to the underworld and made it out alive.

MT: One day we visited a vast cemetery on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). There was some 20,000, or was it 200,000, unmarked graves. They were laid out in rows and columns, dusty and forlorn, in the hazy heat. Our official minder had psychic powers and his skin puckered icy cold at one point. I too felt a bit peculiar. That night I had bad nightmares which began with catching a glimpse of a grey wolf out of the corner of my eye. Later I was caught up in a crowd of terrified villagers fleeing through a forest of towering palm trees but we never knew what was approaching - dread.

Next morning our minder said what had almost certainly happened was that when we returned from the cemetery I had been silently followed by the angry ghost of a dead soldier. He had somehow got into my hotel room and waited for me to fall into sleep before entering my dreams. I asked why and the minder said the spirit was hoping Cathy and I would make a good radio programme which would reunite some of the fallen ghosts with their living relatives. Of course it is pretty obvious that ghosts would want to listen to the radio. (I should mention this to the BBC if they ever complain about listener numbers.

As part of my collaboration with Cathy we try to alternate being wobbly, mental and haunted so at least one of us is compus at any one time. That is why working on your own is so difficult.

[Ed. note - you can hear Cathy and Matt's Wandering Souls in this episode of Re:sound"### OUR LOVE FOR PIERS PLOWRIGHT (distinguished BBC producer

a photo

MT: Piers is great. During a time when the BBC was being brutally restructured he always was positive and made us feel free as producers and people. A group of us acolytes used to gather in his tiny office with sandwiches to listen to obscure Northern European radio documentaries. That was a huge influence on me and I started to realise just how prescribed was the agreed way of making a documentary at the BBC. His openness was even more apparent when I was on the road with him making The Most Beautiful Sound in the World . We went to record an elderly lady whom I had contacted some months before. She was all ready for us with tea and biscuits and looking forward to the interview. But she had forgotten what the programme was about. So I asked Piers ‘Will I do the spiel?' But he turned to her and said: ‘Shall we just go ahead and talk?' She was tickled by the idea and so Piers interviewed her in a totally natural way without her being contaminated by the knowledge of what was expected of her.

[Ed. note - listen to an excerpt of The Most Beautiful Sound in the World above!]

If you listen back to any of Pier's radio programmes they have a palpable stillness about them, quite aside from the dazzling special effects. I think of him as a very English type of producer and his work reminds me of the movies of Powell and Pressburger ( The Red Shoes , I Know Where I Am Going etc.) Their films are very realistic until the moment something quite out of this world happens: at first it can seem whimsical, then magical, then something more spiritual but never overtly religious. Piers is not so much a magic realist as a realist magician. He began in drama and then moved into documentaries. I must ask him if that was because reality is more dramatic or because documentaries were unreal all along and you might as well use real people as your actors as they give much better performances playing themselves.

Like so many radio producers Piers is a shy person (although his wife would disagree) and radio is his way of inviting us into his own deeply felt world. Ultimately it is because he is the person he is that he conjures up a world which we want to travel to and delight in. ### CF: Piers spent part of his childhood in the village where I live. I asked him if he'd come for a walk with me, to add a Piersian layer to my mental techtonics. I waited at the station for the train from London and realised I was nervous. But then he arrived and sat on a bench changing his boots and we got talking about Robert Frost. We spent three hours walking in rain, hail and snow, up Coombe Hill and down sunken country lanes. We talked about Matisse and radio and unhappiness and God and poetry and music and roses and then sat under blankets in the winter sun outside a cafe, drinking coffee, and talking some more. It was one of the nicest days of my life.


a photo

MT: When I was quoted $3000 to record at the Coliseum in Rome I decided to covertly use binaural headphones. I designed these fetching windcovers cunningly disguised as furry earmuffs. Around the upper gallery patrolled museum guards dressed like policemen. Presenter David Hendy gently wafted his arms around talking in complete sentences about the noise of ancient Rome whilst I kept stumm, smiling encouragingly, not moving my head for fear of confusing the stereo image. Unfortunately a small crowd gathered around, the English tourists keenly aware that this could be radio in the making. Technology nearly always gets in the way. Try to get it out of your life, certainly out of your mind when you are recording.


a photo

CF: The broadcaster ABC played one of our ‘docos' (as producer Jesse Coxs tells me they're called in Australia). We got lots of comments from people who heard it. This was my favourite: "This show was a load of metaphysical nonsense which will make the listener dumber for having listened to it." I like the idea of making metaphysical nonsense very much, so I asked my friend – the artist Richard Pendry – to make me a screen-print of the comment. It is a mini-manifesto.

MT: I think there should always be something in every programme you know at least some people will hate. Our job is not to whitewash reality, neither is it for us to be liked. What shared assumptions lie behind the attitude we are taking in our programmes? Which converts are we preaching to? I love to have inconsistencies in programmes but that is when things can get really messy. I would consider making even one listener dumber a great victory and far better than any prize.

a photo

Waldorf & Statle

AND... a quick extra EXTRA

Tell me about the collaborative process of making *Cabinet of Animosities.

MT: This was Cathy's idea. (They all are by and large as she doesn't like working on ideas she hasn't had herself. Who does?). We spent ages talking about how to cast the audio guide and whether that voice should be a famous person. We were very much agreed on which objects should make an appearance in the programme and they were cast in the same way as the contributors. Cathy recorded everything herself on location. My main creative contribution was in the characterisation of the actor playing the museum guide and writing the bit where he doesn't want to say goodbye at the end. I directed him to slowly lose it. Technically it was the usual cleaning up of audio, gentle acoustics to match the museum and rolling on and off the guide earphone effect

Cathy had a very clear idea of structure and how to return to the parallel narratives. I don't remember arguing much about this one. We wanted to keep the whole thing minimal, coldly analytical and museum-like (to contrast with the emotion) so this was always going to be a tidy programme. We had an ‘establishing shot' of the funicular railway to set it in Croatia and turn her visit into a romance (possible meet-cute over an axe). That was C's idea. It reminds me now of museum moments in films. And Grand Budapest Hotel

I was impressed by Cathy's use of the blinking dog collar and really liked the wistfulness when going through the visitor's book. Even though I never visited the museum I had a very clear idea of what it was like.

CF: The museum is in Zagreb, so I imagined the beginning of the documentary like an art-house film - a girl in a trenchcoat walking down a street in the rain, grey sky, grand old East European buildings. The radio narration is really a voiceover to the mini-movie in my head. The music is Frank Sinatra's All of Me . I'd been playing it one day and Matt & I had a long chat about what a deeply odd, sad song it is, right up there with Ne Me Quitte Pas in the don't-leave-me-desperate-lover stakes. Rather than using Sinatra's version, I hum it because we wanted it to be very human and intimate. It's out of key because I can't sing, but I like the brokenness of that.

I write audio tours for museums and galleries when I'm not making radio programmes, so I decided to make this an audio tour very early on. Matt and I talked for weeks and weeks and weeks about the guide's script and voice. British radio comedy often has a dad-dancing quality to it that makes us cringe: it's trying so hard to be funny it forgets to actually be funny. So we wanted a much gentler, subtler tone. My favourite bit is the guide's lengthy goodbye, which Matt wrote out of nowhere (annoyingly he is often funnier than me). It fits perfectly with the circular theme of the programme, the sense that there's always another Great Love (& another heartbreak) just down the road

As for where the idea came from: I think - very un-romantically - I saw a piece about the Museum of Broken Relationships in The Economist. I was bone-weary with the revolving door of dating at the time and wanted to make something that expressed that sadness... and I guess that questioned what the point of all this romance is anyway (answers on a postcard, please: we'll make a sequel)

[Ed. note - address for Rocket House]