Who you gonna call? 999 audio documentary and its narrative.

80 years ago, the world’s first emergency phone line was established: 999. Despite being only available to those wealthy enough to own a home telephone or able to reach a public telephone, nevertheless it dramatically changed the relationship between the public and the emergency services.

Most narrative theories are focused on fiction and cinema, however in these non-fiction genres narrative voices and structures will often differ, especially when in audio form. There is no camera or framing for visual narration, instead the narrator and author have to visualise the story for the listener.

Firstly, the person and temporal location tend to regularly swap. Third person narration is used to describing historical events, such as the fire on Wimpole Street, London in 1935 that eventually lead to the service being introduced. However, when the narrator describes their present day actions, or when individuals are interviewed, it becomes first person. The temporal location is a interpolated narrative: the inserted past-tense gives background information and plot, whereas the present-tense actions give more detail and visualisation.

However, sometimes, the first person narration can be patronising. The “I’m doing X, I’m now doing Y”, is too simple, especially when dealing with old technology. When holding an old telephone, the narrator says “It’s heavy.” — Why is it heavy? What is it made of? How would it feel to make an emergency call on it?

Police Box, Rutland Square — source

Similar to fictional cinema, this audio documentary used an internal diegetic location. The narrator is inside the world of the text. The narrator and presenters explicitly tell the listener what they are doing or tell the story of the 999 emergency line. They may also be interviewing people: receiving their stories or more details.

This works well for this form of documentary, as the listener is on the journey with the narrator and creates a more personal relationship. It also comes under ‘auteur theory’, where we are discovering the stories of key historical characters through and with the narrator. However the author is also our narrator.

The documentary follows the hourglass technique: it starts with an anecdote from present day and the plot continues with a beginning, middle and end. Occasionally, the plot will tangent onto a present day topic that is relevant to a historical event. Nevertheless, a more direct timeline throughout the documentary would have made the content more streamlined and more story-like.

When it comes to my own audio stories, this taught me to make it clear and rarely switch which person location I am using. Also, planning audio story scripts and editing to keep the content as streamlined as possible and not jump around. Constantly reminding myself — who is my listener? — is vital for narrative and keeping the audio story as visual as possible.