BEHIND THE SCENES with Melanie Harris

How did you meet Nina and why did you decide to make a radio story about her

I first met Nina at a conference in Glasgow several years ago organised by Mindroom, a charity dedicated to helping children and adults with learning difficulties. Nina was invited as a guest speaker to talk about being Nina living in the world, with severe ADHD. Her speech was a complete knockout: the best live performance I'd seen in years. She had a stop-start staccato delivery that kept us on the edge of our seats; we were never sure what she would say next or if she could finish a sentence. Sometimes she crashed like a computer and walked out. The stress of standing up in front of so many people, speaking in her second language to describe the world she lives in, exhorting us as parents and teachers and carers to help our children with special needs to live worthwhile lives -- it was life-changing. I knew I wanted to make a radio story about her, but the challenge was how to do it

Why did you decide to blend drama and documentary in this story? Could you have told the same story as a straight documentary or a straight drama

Drama is my medium: I write myself and work with many talented writers. Could I have made a straight drama about Nina Black? Yes, but Nina is so special, so particular , I was determined to give her a voice in the piece. And anyway, we so rarely hear directly from people like Nina on our mainstream audio platforms. Could her story have been better served as straight documentary? Nina would certainly be a great subject for a radio documentary or feature but I wanted the challenge of creating a piece that conveyed a sense of what it's like to be Nina, for us as listeners to experience the world from her perspective. Journalism tells stories from outside in; good drama allows stores to unfold from the inside out. Nina's world is so confusing and fractured. Her severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (and other neurological impairments) make it almost impossible for her to know where she is and she has no sense of time. I wanted us to feel and hear what that might be like, rather than be told either by Nina or a presenter

How much collaboration took place between you and Nina

I collaborated a great deal with Nina and her family, taking pains to explain that I had no idea what kind of piece I would make but that listening to the interviews and stories from family and friends would give me an idea of howto shape the story. They placed enormous trust in me. Her mother and sister were very honest about the challenges of growing up with Nina and managing her excessive demands but at the same time were anxious that I was kind in my portrayal of her. They love her, although are often exasperated by her. Nina loves talking about being Nina, so I had no shortage of interview material. She trusted me because I listened to her and because I have a daughter with additional needs. Nina has tremendous compassion for parents who raise kids that need so much extra help. She knows how impossible she can be! I explained at the outset that the drama would be based on real Nina-incidents but would nevertheless be a fictional story, and that Nina would be played by an actress. After gathering my hours and hours of interviews, I kept in touch by phone and e-mail but simply got on with the task of creating the programme myself. I outlined the story to Nina on the phone as the script developed. She wanted the programme to make certain factual points but I was adamant at the outset that it was a story not a campaign piece and that I could promise nothing other than it would be a good listen

What's Boy's role in Nina's story

Boy's role in the piece is crucial. Nina has a number of young men in her life that she's befriended and helped with their difficulties –- often ADHD -– and her impulses towards strangers (as well as friends) are enormously generous. I wanted to create a character who Nina could help but also because he was a little bit like her, would also challenge her. Boy is a roaming thief really, living off his wits, in and out of statutory care services, now doing his best to avoid social workers and probation officers. His only real friend is Dog. He's drawn to Nina because she's easy prey, but also she amuses him. He's casually cruel and kind to her by turns and fascinated and jealous by the strong love and support she enjoys in her life. She does rescue him: by giving him the essential shot to reverse his hypoglaecemia, and towards the end of the story, he allows her to lull him with stories of love and protection. But he melts away at the end because he doesn't want to be rescued; he is more alone in the world than she is. Is he a young man with ADHD? Possibly. A significant percentage of young men in prison have ADHD or are on the autism spectrum. Certainly there's something in Boy that Nina recognises and wants to help. In spite of her difficulties, Nina is hugely loved by her girl friend, her family and enough significant others to keep her safe. The plight of Boy, with no one to help him, is an awful realisation for Nina. In contrast she knows she is loved and cared for

What do you hope listeners take away from Nina Black

I hope listeners are intrigued by Nina. Her ADHD and other neurological disorders conspire to make her a huge egoist, and yet she has a deep understanding about herself and her impact on those around her. I hope they are moved by her mother's account of how little help she had as Nina's parent; indeed she was blamed for Nina's behaviour. I'd like them to enjoy Nina's joyous impulsiveness, which is quintessentially Nina, where she invites the whole carriage to sing happy birthday to a woman she has only just met. Like all stories about people living at some point of extremity, the real test is what is revealed about humanity in general. How do listeners feel about the essential contrariness and charm of Nina? How do we interact with the Ninas of this world who are noisy, clumsy, demanding, difficult, funny, sensitive, clever, and damaged? Especially as all their disabilities are hidden from view? What are we doing for them? Most of all I want listeners to enjoy the roller-coaster ride of the journey: both the literal train-ride from Manchester to Glasgow and the metaphorical journey to a place of safety, the conference where we meet Nina at her most accomplished, speaking with her wonderful iconoclasm and fluency. ###