This is now in its fifth and final series: Abyss, R4; broadcast on nine successive Monday afternoons beginning 26 Oct 2020 and also available on BBC Sounds. Written by Matthew Broughton, Lucy Catherine, Katherine Chandler. Directed by James Robinson, featuring Olivia Poulet and James Forbes.
...It’s currently the final countdown for the medical mystery thriller Tracks which winds up after five series. Dr Helen Ash and her sidekick Freddy Fuller, have ridden a roller-coaster of conspiracy conundrums since the first episodes aired in 2016.
The initial series saw the good doctor investigate why a plane her father was travelling in crashed in Wales and since then dodgy ethics, corporations and sudden deaths have abounded.
In the last episode (Nov 9) the plucky pair almost came to grief in Polar bear country. If you haven’t heard Tracks before, all previous series are currently on BBC Sounds. I caught up with writer Matthew Broughton, who created the original concept, which has grown to become one of the BBC’s radio drama big hits of recent years.
Its genesis came about due to one of those happy accidents whereby Matthew was researching aspects of neurology when then-commissioning editor Jeremy Howe (Now editor of The Archers) was looking for a science-based drama.
Matthew explained: ‘There’s a long story about where I was at when I started writing Tracks – what I’d been doing before, how I felt about the world, how I knew what I wanted to write, my working relationship with drama producer James Robinson, and a lot of other stuff…. all of it feeds into how Tracks got created.
‘In more practical terms Jeremy Howe was looking for a big original drama series for R4 with a basis in science. Serendipitously, I’d been doing some research in Neurology. I was trying to work out if there was a part of the brain that contained a person’s ‘identity’ - and whether this might make the basis of a drama.
‘There had been some new discoveries that I found interesting – including about how different parts of the brain worked and interacted. With the help of producers James Robinson and Abigail le Fleming, I pitched the drama as a conspiracy thriller series that was also a journey through a person’s brain.
‘Jeremy commissioned scripts for the first two episodes as a kind of pilot to test the concept. He liked the scripts and then commissioned and green lit the whole series. ’
Although it sounds straightforward, Matthew actually spent two years developing the ideas and initial scripts:
‘I know it sounds ridiculously easy but it was far from it. It was a big call for Jeremy to commission. He showed a lot of faith in the project – and took a bit of a gamble.’
The initial episode of Origins, The Nervus Vagus, introduced us to Dr Helen Ash and the start of the conspiracy involving the shadowy Mayflower corporation. It was an immediate hit with listeners.
‘The success of the first series of Tracks took us all by surprise, says Matthew, ‘We didn’t expect it. When the first episode aired there was an immediate rush to listen to the second episode (that had been put on line as a trial to make the drama a podcast.) The sheer number of people doing this made us realise that we were onto something. I think it was by the time the third or fourth episode went online that the commissioner asked for a second series. ‘By then we were near the top of the Itunes Podcast charts – unknown territory for drama.’
Producers also had to deal with the availability of an actor to play Helen Ash. Romola Garai was the original voice, Hattie Morahan pitched in and this last series features Olivia Poulet.
‘Each has brought their own unique talent to the role. I feel lucky to have worked with them all. They are all Helen, and I like the different aspects they have brought to the part. ‘Each of the challenges Helen’s faced, and revelations she has made, have changed her slightly across the different series.
‘In episode one of the first series she was cold, remote, difficult, but often funny. This essence of character is still true, but by tiny steps and gradations, there’s evidence in her character of the journey she’s been on. ’
As ever, Dr Ash has her foil, Freddy Fuller, who has been consistently played by Jonathon Forbes. This final and fifth outing will tie-up the various threads of the storylines and will have a resolution. As things stand, Dr Ash is suffering from a short-lived terminal illness but listeners will have to keep tuning in to learn her fate. Will she succumb to a brain cancer or is help from the cranium cavalry on the way? We will have to wait and see.
There have been numerous memorable moment but one of my favourites was when Helen was travelling in a car with animal rights protesters who were psyching themselves up for a raid by blasting out death metal band Mastodon. One would have thought Flight of the Valkyries more appropriate but maybe it was part of the attract- younger-audiences campaign.
The running stories have fused old-style characterisation a la Ambler and Buchan - ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances - with the horrors of modern genetics. Who could forget what happened when our trusty sleuths discovered what the mysterious Mayflower organisation were up to? - Incubating human embryos in pigs, that’s what!
Since then the pair have embarked on adventures up and down the land - the latest a Highland fling north of the border and then on to the Arctic Circle. Quite when Freddy has time to do his day job (is he a pathologist or mortuary attendant?) is also one of the mysteries.
Many thanks for the article, HT - Ed.
15 Nov 2020