The Borgias IRDP for LBC 1988

Mike McCormack in costume as Cesare Borgia. Photograph by Marja Giejgo

The Borgias dramatisation involved original research and writing by Richard Shannon and was initially produced for the ‘Tales From The Courts of Law’ strand on the Steve Jones lunch-time show of the London speech independent radio station LBC. ‘Tales From The Courts of Law’ was conceived in something of a panic by the station. They had not expected radio drama in the form of the dramatization of Samuel Pepys’s diary to be successful.

One executive famously said to Tim Crook: ‘We thought  your foray into radio drama was something of a premature mid-life crisis and you could go back to concentrating on reporting the legal system when you had run out of money and the plays sucked.’

‘Portrait of Gentleman, aka Cesare Borgia’ by Altobello Melone (1490–1543)
Original picture in Galleria dell’Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, Italia

But the response to Pepys was immense. Listeners asked if they could hear it again, could buy it on cassette, and listening tracking surveys carried out by a marketing company showed an upward spike in audience in the 10 minutes before the 2 p.m. news that was not purely attributable to the news bulletin being broadcast.

Furthermore, the survey suggested that the Steve Jones programme was taking listeners away from BBC Radio 4. With a week to go before the station ran out of Pepys episodes, the programme’s executive producer Colin Parkes enquired if Tim, well-known then as the station’s Old Bailey reporter, could become a contemporary Edgar Lustgarten, going back in time to interrogate crimes past. Tim and Richard had less than 7 days to begin. The budget was not increased. But the fact that they had any continuing budget at all for radio drama in UK independent radio was extraordinary and unusual. An LBC sequence editor at the time, Robin Malcolm, was highly influential in supporting the development of radio drama on the news and speech station. The station’s Programme Editor and later Managing Director at the time, the late Peter Thornton, was intrigued by the success of radio drama. He  was beginning to take an interest in film screenplay writing himself.

‘The Borgias’ was produced later in the series and involved the enthusiastic participation of the late Don Henderson who had written to the drama team at LBC in his characteristic eccentric handwriting to ask if they would be interested in his coming in for an audition.

Tim and Richard did not receive his letter for a number of weeks because anyone sorting out the mail at LBC did not recognise that the station either produced radio drama; let alone had a drama team. Eventually 2 letters from Don were passed on, but ‘the drama team’ was by then so exhausted and tired working through the night to write, edit, cast, direct, post produce and edit, the significance of Don’s interest was not fully realised.

Archive sound extract from the production of the Borgias

Don’s first day with  ‘the drama team’ involved playing Socrates and then an Italian renaissance hitman Michelotto. By the time ‘Tales From The Courts of Law’ was commissioned the Parliamentary recess was over so that the only LBC studio with a stereo desk was unavailable.

Only news reporter recording booths at Gough Square were available during the week. Don’s inaugural performance for IRDP involved being crammed into a 6′ by 6′ monophonic recording booth with a four fader channel desk, 2 cardioid microphones, the director Richard Shannon, Tim Crook as a latter day Edgar Lustgarten and any other other actors who could fit in the space for the purposes of the production.

LBC shared its facilities with Independent Radio News and IRN and LBC news reporters were increasingly finding that they were being kept waiting to complete their news packages or that news events of hundreds of years before were emanating in sound on the talk-back circuit. Tim, as the quintessential journalist, would mischievously enquire of the LBC/IRN reporters about the status of their stories before giving way: ‘Is it a plane or train crash? Have we declared war on anyone? Has the Prime Minister resigned?’

The Borgia family coat of arms

Cesare Borgia was performed brilliantly by Mike McCormack, who had become a stalwart member of the IRDP for LBC ‘acting company.’ He was artistic director of the Finborough Theatre in Earls Court, an admirer of Orson Welles, and found participating in this pioneering and improvisational venture into audio drama for UK independent radio at the end of the 1980s both exciting and professionally interesting.

The production of ‘The Borgias’ consisted of 2 phases: the first as a ‘Tales from the Courts of Law’ format with Tim Crook as participating investigative reporter; the second as stand alone radio play. Both were later combined to provide 1 hour and 35 minutes for a double cassette pack for The Stereo Theatre publication first distributed by W.H.Smiths in 1990.

The full cast and credits for ‘The Borgias’: Don Henderson as Michelotto; Mike McCormack as Cesare Borgia; Cate Hamer as Lucrezia Borgia; Ian Bamforth as Pope Alexander Borgia; Richard Shannon as Giovanni Sforza, Alfonso and Juan; Carolyn Jones as Vanozza and Caterina, other parts by the cast; Written, directed and produced by Richard Shannon and Tim Crook.

Archive holding:

Digital audio tape master for the Drama Collection 1990

Cassette pack including 2 audio-cassettes, inlay card and plastic case.

Mini-disc master for LBC retransmission 1990s.

The marketing and cueing information for ‘The Borgias’ in terms of on air broadcast and cassette publication involved the following information:

‘The name Borgia is synonymous with treachery, murder, incest, and betrayal. The real nature of this ruling family of Renaissance Rome in the fifteenth century is brought to life in a stereo sound epic. A story packed with action, passion and drama begins with an inquisitorial approach by criminologist Tim Crook with the assistance of a rather dubious mercenary, or hitman played by Don Henderson. Tim Crook then introduces the second part of the Borgias epic and we learn the fate of the Borgia family through the voice of Lucrezia’s mother Vanozza.

A glass of wine with Caesar Borgia painting by John Collier

No opposition was tolerated by the Borgias. The few who did raise their voices were found dead in the River Tiber with weights tied to their necks, or were forced to flee abroad; although even in exile no-one was safe. It was said the Borgias had ‘denti-lunghi’ – long teeth – and could reach their enemies no matter where they had hidden.

Central to the Borgias story is the murderous behaviour of Cesare Borgia played by Mike McCormack.’

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1 comment
  1. Pat Flannagan said:

    Thanks for this article. I notice the cassette of the “The Borgias” is still available used at Amazon.com.uk.

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