Ruth Abrahams is an independent Radio Producer and Media Relations Manager whose radio series ‘The New Anatomy of Melancholy’ is currently running on BBC Radio 4. Dr Tamsyn Dent, Raising Films’ researcher, took some time to catch up with Ruth for a socially distanced chat about producing the series.
Tamsyn: Can you tell me a little bit about how you discovered the book, and then the process of adapting it into a radio series?
Ruth: In 2015, I left my job at Radio 4 interactive, and I got a job at the Department of Psychiatry in Oxford University as a Communications Officer, and the Head of the Department, John Geddes, frequently referred to a book called The Anatomy of Melancholy. As a result I became quite intrigued by it and when he mentioned that the 400 year anniversary of its publication was coming up my radio producer journalistic brain switched on and I thought, that’s a good anniversary to kind of tag a pitch on to! At the same time, I was surrounded by all this amazing research that was going on that was really inspiring so I started looking into it a bit deeper and then started realising that there were all these interesting connections and that’s kind of where the idea came from.
I was surrounded by all this amazing research that was going on that was really inspiring.
Tamsyn: How was it getting it commissioned into a radio show? And what were the processes you needed to go through?
Ruth: So, I had this germ of an idea and I went to a production company who I’ve worked with over the last probably almost 15 years and on and off – they’ve always kept a door open. Radio 4 has a big annual commissioning round and before each round they invite people that they’ve worked with to come and basically share ideas. So for the first time since having children I thought, actually, I do have an idea, and I think I might be able to have the time to do it.
For the first time since having children I thought, actually, I do have an idea, and I think I might be able to have the time to do it.
Tamsyn: What I found really interesting about this series was just how well researched it is in terms of current questions of mental health, care and wellbeing. How did you go about finding the research and getting the contributors involved?
Ruth: The book is huge and it really covers such a huge spectrum of things, so I had to break it down into themes. We decided we needed to focus on melancholy, on sadness so that was the thread that ran through the series but each element is distinctive in the way that Burton categorises things. Once the themes were identified, for example poverty and inequality, John Geddes, our series consultant would suggest academic researchers whose research linked to that area.
How did you manage combining the radio series and caring responsibilities?
To be brutally honest, it was really hard.
Tamsyn: I’m interested in your story as a Producer and parent in relation to producing this series. How did you manage combining the radio series and caring responsibilities?
Ruth: To be brutally honest, it was really hard. At the time I got the series commissioned, I had just taken on a full-time job so I didn’t actually have any spare time in the week, but it was something that I really wanted to do, and I can honestly say that I enjoyed every part of it. In terms of managing it, I was having to be incredibly disciplined, often doing an hour or two hours work before getting the kids off to school, and then doing a day’s work and then coming home and then often working in the evenings. Yeah, it was a real labour of love.
Tamsyn: Okay, so then talking about your broader career, how has having caring responsibilities impacted your career in radio?
…when you have children, it (job security and keeping a creative career going) becomes less of an option because you’re either looking after children or paying for someone to look after them.
Ruth: In terms of a having a freelance career, there have been points when I was needing or looking for job security on a part-time basis and that wasn’t possible. That’s always been the challenge; job security and keeping a creative career going. I think that before children, I had my more bread and butter work which supplemented the more interesting radio work. But when you have children, you don’t have that, it becomes less of an option because you’re either looking after children or paying for someone to look after them. That was when my creative side had to be put aside, and it did make me feel really sad. I definitely think now that I was carrying around a sadness that I don’t think I was fully aware of. I thought that I’d lost the chance to do something that I really loved, and it just felt like it wow, that is real compromise you know? So it’s great to realise that you haven’t lost those skills. But, there’s another side that I should mention, in that I really couldn’t have done it without my husband’s support. When you have children, it sounds so obvious but someone has to look after them and if you don’t have financial independence, it’s always going to be a juggle of just paying bills. But then I have reflected and thought, well, actually, if I hadn’t had to get a job, I would never have found out about this book and met all these interesting people.
Tamsyn: Would you say having a production company that gave you a clear indication that they were open to you coming back with ideas and also, I’m assuming, allowing a degree of flexibility?
The Executive Producer also has two small children who went off from school so we were both in the same boat. But that’s the thing, it should be possible.
Ruth: Yeah, definitely, that really helps. And that’s the nice thing about radio actually, that you can sort of do it in your own time. In terms of producing this ten-part series, there were maybe five days of full on location recording, two days of recording links in a studio, one day recording Simon Russell Beale doing the readings. Pretty much everything else was fitted around, and in fact the last stages were done during the lockdown, and the Executive Producer also has two small children who went off from school so we were both in the same boat. But that’s the thing, it should be possible.
Tamsyn: Final question, the series is called ‘The New Anatomy of Melancholy’ but actually I found it uplifting. I think I found it comforting to know that these issues were being talked about, or written about 400 years ago, that there was so much similarity to some of the conversations we’re having today. So, was that the aim? Were you thinking that this would be something that would be a bit more positive?
People aren’t alone, basically everyone has got their frailties, and it’s really hard to be human. And I think that is the other key message; that it can be hard but to keep on trying.
Ruth: Yes, because I think Robert Burton was trying to offer hope to people. There are some lines in the book where he writes ‘Nil desperandom’, ‘it may be hard to cure but not impossible’. So, there is an encouragement there all the time and I did want to keep that spirit going, that people aren’t alone, basically everyone has got their frailties, and it’s really hard to be human. And I think that is the other key message; that it can be hard but to keep on trying.
The New Anatomy of Melancholy, presented by author Amy Liptrot, features interviews with a number of people about research or experiences of mental health. Interspersed between the interviews Simon Russell Beale reads extracts from the book which inspired the series, ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’ written by Robert Burton and published in 1621. The book catalogues and describes causes and remedies of the maladies linked to ‘melancholy’ that plagued Robert in the 17th century and the series contrasts these emotions with experiences of mental health today.
Ruth Abrahams’ Q&A with BBC History magazine provides more information about the historical roots of the programme and the original text The Anatomy of Melancholy.
Main image: Ruth with presenter Amy Liptrot (pre-COVID lockdown), illustration courtesy of BBC Radio 4