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Biggest ever BBC radio project sees North East writer Michael Chaplin writing 'real-time' First World War plays

Michael Chaplin has been specially commissioned to write several episodes of Tommies, a series set to run in real time over the next four years

Michael Chaplin
Michael Chaplin

A play by local writer Michael Chaplin hits the airwaves on Tuesday as the BBC’s most ambitious ever radio series gets underway.

Chaplin has been specially commissioned to write several episodes of Tommies, a series set to run in real time over the next four years.

Charting life on the Front line during the First World War, Chaplin’s first episode of a six-week run on Radio 4 introduces listeners to characters who will then reappear regularly until November 2018 to mark the Great War’s full centenary.

While the central characters are fictional, the plays are based on actual events and each episode, covering 24 hours, will go out 100 years to the day after they happened.

“It’s a very ambitious and rather remarkable project and I’m very happy to be part of it,” said Chaplin, who is the son of late author Sid Chaplin and is known for his stage and TV work.

“It’s quite a privilege to be involved in something of this scale. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tell this amazing story.”

Tommies is a huge commitment for everyone involved, including the other commissioned writer, Nick Warburton, and Jonathan Ruffle whose idea it all was - and who is so intent on recreating for listeners the authentic sounds of war heard by soldiers at the time that he travelled to France earlier this year to record the explosion of a First World War shell which had been ploughed up by a French farmer.

The epic project has required the actors cast in the three main roles to sign up for the next four years.

“They feel the same sense of privilege,” said Chaplin who has penned five of the 11 plays in the first two series made so far during “a mammoth recording session” in London over four weeks in June, with the others written by Nick and two by Jonathan himself.

The three got together at the start of 2013 to “thrash out” the core characters.

Soldier Mickey, nurse Celestine and war profiteer Robert will re-connect over the next four years, taking in conflict not just at the Western Front but at the Russian Front, Gallipoli, the Middle East and Africa.

Chaplin, who studied history at university and whose grandfathers served during the First World War, admits he learned a lot.

“I’ve never been involved with anything that requires so much research!” he said.

The first episode, at 3.15pm on Tuesday, sets the scene by introducing Mickey, played by Lee Ross, whom listeners will follow from his engineering studies in London, which he is forced to give up when his father dies.

He’s fallen in love with Celestine (Pippa Nixon) who wants to be a doctor, but she ditches him and eventually marries the wealthy Robert (Patrick Kennedy). Distraught, Mickey goes off to join the Indian Army and trains as a wireless operator.

Future episodes of Tommies will see Celestine find work as a doctor on the Western Front, and Robert working the wheels of the war machine, while Mickey will be in the thick of the action.

Thanks to Chaplin’s local roots, listeners can expect to hear an occasional North East character too.

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