Meet ‘Hairy Hands FM’: The BBC Audio Project Bringing Life To A Dartmoor Legend

Photo Credit: Chronic Insanity Theatre

Since the 1920s, drivers in Devon have claimed that mysterious ‘Hairy Hands’ have seized control of their steering wheel, forced their vehicle off the road, and caused a high number of road accidents in and around the B3212. Hairy Hands FM, part of the BBC New Creatives scheme for young artists, brings this legend to life through unnerving binaural sound and a radio host who guides listeners to defeat the hairy hands.

Created by Hannah Parsons and Joe Strickland, the voice parts are played by Abbi Davey, Alex Stedman, Charlie Basley and Phillip Garcia.

Hannah, a BA Music graduate from the University of Southampton, is the show’s sound designer, and Joe is responsible for Hairy Hands FM’s writing, casting, and programme coding. They’re also in the final year of a PhD in Future Experience Technologies and Storytelling at the University of Nottingham.

The pair sat down on a laggy Zoom call – perhaps the hairy hands were interfering? – to talk about their project.

Hannah Parsons and Joe Strickland, the creators of Hairy Hands FM.

“The idea that everyone had been spending a lot of time in their houses” inspired Hairy Hands FM, Joe explained. They believe that the show adds a “fresh audio coat of paint” to the home, providing a “silly but semi-serious” 15-20 minute experience.

“In the vein of a lot of horror”, Joe said, the show has an “allegorical” element to it. “Within the piece, you’re confronted with a chaotic, mysterious force that you don’t know if you can overcome”. Many people may be facing similar such situations in real life. A piece which lends “a little push” to the idea to trust and work with others, not hold back and that obstacles will be overcome, is “probably a good message”.

Hannah agreed and added that Hairy Hands FM’s audio nature can highlight “the power of your own creative imagination”. “It sort of reinforces that you can still have adventures and really cool, new fun experiences, even when you’re stuck in your own home.”

However, the pandemic created challenges for the piece’s creation. For example, Hannah and Joe have yet to meet in person. As casting director, Joe brought together all the project’s performers and explained that “things feel a lot less significant or pertinent” when facing a screen, “especially compared to a live rehearsal space”. Hannah, meanwhile, had to produce Hairy Hands FM’s binaural sound effects at home. Increasing the difficulty, Hannah initially lived during the project’s creation beside a busy main road and above a restaurant. Moving to her parents’ house helped, but the bathroom ended up as her preferred recording space.

Binaural audio is “3D audio”, making the listener feel as if they’re in the same room as the sound’s creation. To create it, Hannah used post-production plug-ins usually used for VR, and two binaural dummy heads, Clarence and Jolene. They have silicone ears with microphones, replicating and recording sounds “the way a normal human head listens to sounds and sort of perceives it”.

Binaural sound recording in the bathroom. Photo Credit: Hannah Parsons.

The project’s disquieting sound effects required unusual creative methods. For example, for one effect Hannah used a blowtorch to heat up the end of a soldering iron, which was then plunged into toilet water. Hannah described being a Foley artist, reproducing everyday sound effects to add to media, as “really fun” and relished “learning all the fun noises you can make from random objects”.

Hairy Hands FM also has a considerable amount of door knocking sounds that caused confusion: “If you don’t tell your parents that you’re recording and these are recording sounds, they’ll think someone’s at the door, and I think that happened a few too many times!”

Joe, underlining their love of interactive art, said the piece’s interactive element meant “the most important person in the crew and cast” is the audience. The story “has a very firm set of rails” meaning it “doesn’t branch off into different potential endings for people”. Even so, the interactive element shaped the writing process. “It’s not quite as simple as writing a linear story that people watch passively from beginning to end”, said Joe. “But I think it’s way more rewarding” as the audience engages with and even “feel a part of it.”

How Hairy Hands FM looks on the phone. Photo Credit: Hannah Parsons.

Joe created Hairy Hands FM’s interface via the Unity app, which is normally used for video games. The project’s code also involved significant “fine tuning” with the main part picking up audience’s responses. 

Asked for succinct advice for any artists looking to create interactive art similar to Hairy Hands FM, Joe and Hannah shared the same message: “just go for it”. 

The pair have discussed producing similar projects to be experienced within other confined settings. Hannah began experimenting with binaural sounds in early 2020 and wants to continue this specialisation. “I have lots of ideas and would love to see which directions I can take them in.” They’re also looking forward to resuming live theatre tech and stage work. 

Joe is the artistic director for Nottingham-based Chronic Insanity Theatre. They are in their second period of producing a minimum of twelve creative shows within twelve months. Hairy Hands FM is the third in this stint, followed by Flavour Text, which Joe directed and designed. Joe is also tackling an updated interactive story of Pinocchio. The marionette will be artificially intelligent software with an error code that’s a truth algorithm.

More behind-the-scenes Hairy Hands FM content is available via Hannah’s Instagram and Twitter pages.

Try Hairy Hands FM for yourself!

Words by Ivan Morris Poxton.

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