BBC’s The Skies Are Watching: Reviving Radio Drama with a Modern Twist

The Skies Are Watching / Artwork - Courtesy of Goldhawk Productions

From UK-based Goldhawk Productions and transmitted through BBC’s Radio 4, the sci-fi thriller podcast The Skies Are Watching presents the story of Heather Haskins, who went missing a couple of years ago and reemerged aboard a flight without a ticket or identification. Haskins’s being onboard is just one in a series of mysteries as she starts to believe she is a woman named Coral Goran who disappeared in 1938. The spiralling narrative becomes more profound as Goran’s son, David Vance, an author and ufologist, claims to have witnessed his mother’s abduction by aliens. Now, Vance affirms that 85 years later, she has returned and reincarnated as Haskins. Meanwhile, Heather’s relatives question if her abduction has more down-to-earth and dreadful tones.

Created by podcast veterans Todd Luoto and Jon Frechette, The Skies Are Watching pays homage to the golden era of the radio dramas of the past century with a cutting-edge story that won the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival for “Best Narrative Award” and an eclectic cast with veterans and upcomers from the entertainment industry.

WWE Legend Jake “The Snake” Roberts voices David Vance, actress Caitlin Stasey (Smile) plays Heather Haskins, actress and screenwriter Guinevere Turner (American Psycho) is Constance, musician David Yow (The Jesus Lizard, Under the Silver Lake) is Rodney, and voice-actress Caroline Morahan, a past collaborator of Luoto and Frechette, is Jana, among others that round up the performers.

Jake "The Snake" Roberts
Jake “The Snake” Roberts // Credit: WWE

The renowned Roberts is known for entering the pro-wrestling rings embraced by a piton snake to face the likes of Hulk Hogan and Stone Cold Steve Austin; however, in The Skies Are Watching, Roberts gives life to an elusive ufologist holding a secret in a performance showing his successful transition from the squared circle to audio drama.
“I’ve had many unique experiences as a performer, but this project was something different,” said Roberts in the press release. “It was exciting to bring new life to the timeless medium of audio drama and explore something different at this stage in my career. Working with such a talented cast and crew was a great experience. And, for once, no one expected me to bring the damn snake!”

The Skies Are Watching made history at Tribeca, where the jury explained that the accolade was given due to “drawing from the historic past of radio drama and presenting a story that feels breathlessly of the moment, this genre-bending series brims with intrigue. Its shifting, stylish approach to the medium always kept us guessing as top-notch sound design introduced us to its cast of bewildering yet relatable characters. Classic and timeless meets cutting edge.”

The influence of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre’s 1938 radio production of War of the Worlds is notable. In an interview with Big Picture Film Club, producer Jon Frechette affirms that his duo with Todd Luoto drew ideas with “a fantastic hook that we then approach with a degree of skepticism, regardless of how bizarre the situation might first appear.

Frechette also explains that the impact of the media on the real world led to the question: “What if someone believed what they’d heard on the radio had been a real event?”
In an interview with BPFC, Luoto attests that the appeal of the show comes from the idea that “stories about the unknown are timeless, and one could argue interest in extraterrestrials, or UFOs/UAPs, has somewhat piqued over the last few years with real world research and revelations. Of course, these stories have never been out of vogue, but it feels like a particularly rich time to circle around them given what’s been in the zeitgeist.” Turner points out to me the factors that make this story work:

“Though the show is about UFOs and conspiracies on one level, it’s really about family and the universal anxiety we all have of growing apart from someone we love, of not connecting with someone who used to be central to our life. It’s also exciting because Jon and Todd did such a great job of making it sound like a nonfiction podcast that a huge part of the enjoyment of listening is being in awe of all the subtle ways they crafted the story to make it feel that way.”

– Guinevere Turner

Not only War of the Worlds but other narratives across different media attest to the power of extraterrestrial stories with human connections and their place in the collective imaginary, as the comic book character Superman was created in the same year that Welles performed his transmission. Cinema and TV have classics such as ‘Alien’ (1979), ‘E.T’ (1982), ‘The X-Files’ (1993 – 2018), and The Skies Are Watching is joining this group.

Guinevere Turner
Guinevere Turner // Credit: Julie Caggiano

Promoting a grounded and natural environment for creativity

The Skies Are Watching is engaging because although it deals with extraterrestrial phenomena, it is still believable in the line of Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Arrival’ (2016). To add naturality, the actors interacted in the same environment and could give their input and improvise in the story.

“We feel this results in performances and characters that feel authentic and sheds artifice that can become evident, if not very off-putting, in the medium of audio,” says Luoto.
One of the performers who benefitted from this dynamic is Guinevere Turner, the Renaissance woman who is a screenwriter, actress, director, producer, cinema professor, scholar, activist, and author. Turner is known for ‘American Psycho’ (2000) and ‘Go Fish’ (1994). Nevertheless, in The Skies Are Watching, Turner jumps into the new challenge of playing Constance, a mother and a new persona in her thirty-year acting career.

So interesting and unexpected! Acting in a narrative podcast was a first for me, and I expected that I would be in a recording booth listening to other actors in headphones – but no! Jon and Todd had us all together to record, running through the woods, hugging – everything we would do if a camera was rolling,” says Turner on the methods employed at the podcast.

Turner is enjoying a good professional moment as by March 2023, she released the book When the World Didn’t End: A Memoir (Crown Publishing, Penguin Random House), about growing up in a cult. The New Yorker nominated it as one of the best books of that year. With the award-winning The Skies Are Watching, Turner shows a nuanced range in her skill set and finds a new venue to showcase her talents.
Turner is used to cinema and TV, so working with only audio was “very fun and freeing” as it allowed her to be more playful, do more takes, and try different approaches. “I absolutely love the process and hope that the success of The Skies Are Watching leads to more chances for me to work in this medium.”

The Skies Are Watching premieres on July 5th, 2024, on BBC Radio 4 and Limelight from BBC Sounds. Produced by Jon Frechette and Todd Luoto & Executive producers Jon Scott Dryden and Emma Hearn via Goldhawk Productions.

Also Read: ‘American Psycho’ to ‘The L Word’: Guinevere Turner Details Her Transformative Storytelling

Also Read: The Influence of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds on Fiction Podcasting

Posted by
Gabriel Leão

Gabriel Leão (He/Him) works as a journalist and is based in São Paulo, Brazil. He has written for outlets in Brazil, the UK, Canada and the USA such as Vice, Ozy Media, Remezcla, Al Jazeera, Women’s Media Center, Clash Music, Dicebreaker, Yahoo! Brasil, Scarleteen, Anime Herald, Anime Feminist and Brazil’s ESPN Magazine. He also holds a Master’s degree in Communications and a post-grad degree in Foreign Relations.