• Chris Plumridge

Behind the scenes: "The Maiden Summer"

In late 2021, Jet Streamer helped release a podcast written by journalist, academic and author Nick Richardson, telling the story of some overlooked Australian sporting heroes. In this blog post, Chris recounts how that partnership came about, as well as some of the process that went into making the podcast.

It was an odd feeling, reading the script for "The Maiden Summer" the very first time.

You see, some months before I'd sat at a table in the corner of a Leongatha cafe with journalist and academic Nick Richardson. He told me, over coffee, that he wanted to create a podcast that would broadly tell the story of women's cricket in Australia.

Now Nick, I have come to know, is a cricket tragic. One of the many Australians will happily watch two teams in exactly the same uniforms play a sport incomprehensible to almost any citizen of any nation outside the Commonwealth for five days straight... only to end in a draw. I, on the other hand, am not a cricket tragic. My cricket experience was a primary-age inter-school batting career lasting three balls exactly: One, big swing and miss. Two, another big swing edged and dropped at second slip. And three, a final big swing that again missed completely while the ball went clanging straight into the middle stump of those welded-together metal wickets after the bowler had clearly realised he only had to bowl at the stumps and the rest would take care of itself.

So I'm not exactly the first candidate for a cricket podcast, but even my interest was piqued when Nick told me the focus of his story: the first ever women's test series between Australia and England. What would go on to be called the women's Ashes.

That it started in 1934. That it attracted some pretty substantial media interest at the time... and thousands of spectators at grounds across Australia from the WACA to the MCG. And most sadly, that almost 90 years on, the women who deserved to be household names have almost all been nearly forgotten, at least by most of the Australian public.

I was in.

Black and white picture of Ruby Monaghan of Australia playing a drive shot in the first ever Womens' cricket international test match series against England in 1935, while wicketkeeper and first slip watch on.
Ruby Monaghan (Aus) swings for the fences opening the batting in in Sydney in 1935 (Image: National Library of Australia- Creative Commons)

And so there I was, sitting in my office, deadline (and cricket season) rapidly approaching, poring over a script about cricket that had me completely captivated. I mean, sure, I'd expected there to be some level of tenaciousness, some level of overcoming the odds, some level of societal expectation that these amazing women were going against the grain. But to read all of the history, meticulously researched, the women's game's decades-long rise to popularity, unexplainable fade into obscurity, and then final rise again to fill the MCG for a Women's World Cup final, had me asking one question: Why am I only reading this story for the first time, now?

It was all along that I knew we had to do this story justice, but it was only at that moment where it became my mission as well: that this story deserved to be told, and told well. So facing a rapidly shrinking window for release in time for the upcoming Women's Ashes for 2021/22, it was time to get to work.

How we put The Maiden Summer together:

The raw recordings:

Well before I got my hands on any of the material, Nick had been busy getting everything together. He had interviewed whole host of guests who were each extremely knowledgeable about their particular era of the game- it seemed like there was no stone left unturned! He'd also managed to secure the right to use a number of audio recordings from the period, and some extremely exciting in-depth archival interviews conducted by the National Film and Sound Archives with the players from the '34 test series themselves. Considering that many of them are sadly no longer with us, this was great for us to have the women involved telling the story on their own behalf. To fill in the gaps where we didn't have archival audio, Nick had organised plenty of other written resources to help tell the story: letters, newspaper reports... even a poem (!) to be re-enacted as audio. Even I was roped in to play the part of some figures from history involved in the story! Certainly won't be the start of my professional voice-acting career, but it was fun nonetheless!

Once all the material was assembled it was time to get to work. Nick sent all the raw material to me along with his recorded voiceover and the script, and I began the process of getting the historical recordings into a decent quality. This meant running them through some noise reduction software where necessary, as some of the archival recordings weren't the best in terms of quality (which was as to be expected, it's been almost 90 years!). From there, I marked up a version of the script with how I thought we might build out some of the story using sound design, and incorporating scene changes and music to help take the extremely compelling written story and make it work more effectively for audio.

Time to get editing!

After the initial edit and putting everything roughly where it needs to go, it's time to get into the dialogue properly and do some cleanup, taking out any long pauses, ums and aahs, and anything else that's not really supposed to be there. This can often be a surprisingly delicate balancing act: take out too many pauses, and the interview sounds unnatural, too few and the pace is slow. And there's the matter of keeping the conversation somewhat intact- you don't want to make someone seem absolutely sure of themselves when their original speech sounds nervous and stuttery. But overall, this part goes relatively smoothly and we can get on with the fun bit: sound design!

Screen shot of editing software as laid out for Episode six of The Maiden Summer.
Screen shot of the tracks for Episode Six. Or, at least some of them, this was all I could fit on the screen!

The problem with cricket sound effects...

As an Australian, the primary meaning of the word 'cricket' is that it's a sport played in the summer. Problem being when you type 'cricket' into a sound effect search engine, you tend to get back loads and loads of recordings of crepuscular insects. Now normally, this wouldn't be that much of a problem: no need to find the sound of the exact thing when something adjacent would do: you'd be surprised how much frying bacon sounds like rain, for example. But us Aussies are SO used to hearing cricket being played on the radio, and cricket bats and balls are quite different to baseball, for example, plus the sonic fingerprint of a cricket crowd is completely different to most other sports. Which all added together means the act of finding sound effects for cricket can be a task and a half! And WOMEN's cricket matches?! Forget it!

Originally the plan was for me to head down to the local cricket club and stand there with a recorder to try and get some decent cricket sound effects, but COVID put paid to that pretty quickly and by the time deadline was approaching football season was in full swing. Luckily, I was able to get my hands on some BBC sound effects of county cricket matches, which fulfilled the role of an early, scratchy recordings of cricket (so long as I cut out the English-accented 'good shot!' from the crowd!). One other cricket package managed to fill out the rest of the sound effects although bowling was a challenge- with some distinctively male-sounding 'effort noises' making a lot of the bowling sounds completely unusable. Meaning there's probably only four or so different bowling noises on the whole podcast- not that you'd notice! Other sources of good crowds included any recording of a sports crowd at half time- you see, with cricket matches they tend to last a few hours, meaning that people will chat to each other, go and get a drink, and all that sort of stuff, rather than stay glued to their seat and cheer everything like they would in say, football. Adding some sporadic applause effects over that half-time ambience made the match scenes much more believable.

The result!

After sourcing sound effects, quite a few painstaking hours mixing, applying reverbs, and lots and lots of tweaking, it was finally time to release The Maiden Summer to the world. This was a great project to work on, and I cannot wait for another opportunity to tell another story like it- especially as it was my first foray into narrative podcasts for a while. If you haven't had a listen already (or if you've just got a hankering for those long summer days in the sunshine), then make sure you do, it'll change what you thought you knew about Australia.

You can listen to Nick Richardson's The Maiden Summer on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and pretty much everywhere else you could find a podcast.

If you like the podcast, please take a moment to rate it and leave a review.

Nick has more information about the podcast on his website.