Over the New Year break, I became obsessed with a BBC radio series that is currently available to U.S. listeners as a weekly podcast. Tumanbay is a sweeping drama, involving what feels like hundreds of characters (actually about two dozen), including an anxious sultan, a scheming spymaster, the envoy of a rebel leader from a distant province, and myriad other players, each with their own agenda. Relevant to Outward, there’s also a same-sex romance, involving Madu, the sultan’s nephew, and Daniel, an enslaved soldier.
After I'd heard eight of the first season's 10 episodes, I contacted John Dryden, Tumanbay’s director and lead writer, via email, hoping to learn more about the show, the challenges and advantages of audio drama, and how the same-sex relationship developed. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.
What is Tumanbay?
It’s an epic multi-character radio drama inspired by the Mamluk slave dynasty of Egypt. Tumanbay is the beating heart of a vast empire, a city of fabulous wealth, which draws people from all over the world who come to seek fame and fortune. It’s modeled on Cairo toward the end of the 15th century, when the Mamluks were becoming a little complacent about their power—and decadent, too. They were soon to be conquered by the Ottoman Turks. What really interests me about Mamluk society is that everyone came there as slaves, and everyone could make their way to the top by sheer ability and determination. Many of the events in the drama really did happen—there was a slave trader who lost his family at sea, there was a rebellion in a far-off province, the severed head of a favorite ally was thrust in front of the sultan—but it has all been condensed from a 300-year history. A lot has been made up, too.
The aim was not to create a historical drama but a way to explore the world today. There are a lot of themes and issues that should resonate with the audience—about relationships, foreign policy, freedom. Above all, we wanted to tell a really fast-paced story with lots of shocks, lots of twists and turns. What’s great about telling a story like this through radio is that it allows the audience to picture it all in their heads—unlike in a film or TV series, where what you see on the screen is all there is. Everything about this series is designed to help the audience’s imagination work overtime.
The BBC made the series available as a podcast. That seems unusual.
I think the BBC is doing this more and more. The way audiences listen to audio drama (and the way they watch TV drama, too) is changing. We pushed hard to have it released as a podcast, because we wanted the audience to have the ability to listen to it at a time of their own choosing and to go back and re-listen to episodes. It meant that we could make the series much more layered and complex than if it were only to be broadcast once.
Can you talk about your philosophy of casting?
One of the things that excited me most about Tumanbay was that we could cast absolutely anyone. The whole premise of a city that drew people from everywhere meant that we could have actors from anywhere. I’ve made dramas for the BBC all over the world, so I could cherry-pick some of my favorite actors to be in this. As radio, it is useful, too, to have lots of different accents, because it makes the characters much easier to tell apart.
Audio drama is much less common in the United States than in Britain. How do you help listeners identify characters from their voices alone?
There certainly is a tradition of radio drama over here, with the BBC as the main outlet. Radio 4, the main speech network—which has news, documentaries, comedy and drama—has a reach of 10 million listeners, a sixth of the U.K. population. In terms of radio drama, stories are usually less complex than this, with fewer characters. Tumanbay in some sense hearkens back to a time when the BBC would dare to put on a 26-part radio adaptation of Lord of the Rings [back in 1981], which was similarly complex and layered. I guess people had more time on their hands then, or had longer concentration spans, or were less distracted by all the things that we are distracted by today. But there is a renewed appetite for this big-sweep, expansive, episodic storytelling with podcasting. People can listen on the way to work, and they can binge on it when snowed in. I think Serial was a game changer. It made commissioning editors realize that audiences don’t need to be spoon-fed quite as much as they thought.
I was surprised and delighted when a romantic and sexual relationship developed between two of the male characters. How would you describe that relationship?
Madu, the sultan’s nephew, was brought up in the palace, surrounded by untold wealth and privilege, but somehow drowning from all the expectations [people have] of him and disgusted by the intrigues and hypocrisies of palace life. Daniel is a slave sold to the palace. The sultan decides to put Madu into the army to help him “learn to be a man.” He arrives thinking he’s going to be an officer in charge of things; that it’s going to be more of the privileged lifestyle, but instead he’s handed down to the slave infantry soldiers to “toughen him up.” It’s a total shock to his system. He really struggles to survive. He is saved by Daniel, and their relationship becomes a strong bond of friendship and then eventually love.
Why did you decide to include a same-sex relationship in the story?
It really just evolved as we developed the storylines. It wasn’t something we set out to do from the start. It just felt right.
It was striking that you first indicated their physical connection by having them kiss. Can you talk about how you indicate kissing when there are no visible cues?
A kiss is a pretty clear audio cue! Their conversation very clearly leads to the point when they actually kiss. But I hope it is a surprising—even magical—moment when it does happen.
At first, I wasn’t sure if the relationship was sincere or if it was part of a scheme by Daniel to gain some kind of advantage with the sultan’s family. (I’m still not entirely sure!) Did you feel pressure not to have your gay character seem weak and your bisexual character seem duplicitous, so as not to perpetuate erroneous stereotypes?
Well, I don’t want to give anything away, except to say that nothing is ever going to be that simple in the world of Tumanbay. The characters are living, breathing human beings. Who is to say that Daniel is bisexual? He is in a relationship with Madu, and at the same time he appears to be flirting with Gen. Qulan’s virgin daughter Manel, who is rapidly falling in love with him. But is he really interested in her? Can he be trusted by anyone? Is he just covering his bases in a dangerous world?
Please tell me I won’t be disappointed in “Dadu.” I’ll be distraught if Daniel is deceiving Madu!
In Season 1, we never reveal quite who Daniel is. You are probably starting to suspect that everything Daniel does is motivated by self-preservation. But there is more to him, which will be revealed in Series 2 ...