• Stephanie Drax

We Love: Lives on Record

Updated: Dec 9, 2018

Lucy Greenwell is an award-winning audio producer who makes programmes for all the BBC Radio networks, The Guardian and Audible. She founded Lives on Record in 2010. Lucy takes private commissions from people who want to tell the story of their lives and have it preserved forever in professional quality.

Lives on Record is a deep dive into someone’s memories, a family album brought to life. Life is so fast moving, how often do we get the chance to tell someone what was it like to be 17? How, at that age, we expected our lives to pan out? How often do we ask our dads if mum was the first person he’d proposed to? Or who was his biggest heartbreak? Recorded over the three hours one-on-one, we edit the interview down to a one-hour recording (available as an mp3 file and a CD in a presentation box.)

I’m a radio producer by trade and have been making features and documentaries for 15 years now. Two brothers who were family friends came to me with an idea of making Desert Island Discs for private customers. Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs is about people who are famous for doing something extraordinary. The brothers’ idea was to create voice recordings of people who are perfectly ordinary. Everyone, of course, has had a remarkable life – there are highs and lows, and various pathways marked by gripping decisions. My grandfather had been held in Colditz for five years and I’d never hear him tell the story because he’d died before I was born. I’d never hear the tone of his voice, or his laugh, and I thought that was so sad. I sat in a pub with the brothers in 2010 and talked about the merits of their concept, and Lives on Record was born.

The interviews are broadcast quality. My team and I use amazing speech microphones and multi-track recorders, and the interviews are edited and mixed perfectly. I’m obsessed with having the mic really close to the mouth, to get the intimacy of the moment. We ask the subject to fill out a form first so that we can prepare questions, and family and friends are invited to send us their questions to ask too. We’ll also ask for six favourite pieces of music, poems, books or artworks.

Our first two ‘guinea pig’ subjects were a hugely successful investment banker and a granny. Like all our subjects since then, they were nervous; but after 10 minutes they’d forgotten about the big microphone and by the end they’d lost themselves in the interview. They both loved the experience – being asked the simple questions and getting to the heart of the matter – and their families loved the final one-hour edit. We quickly got some press (the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, The Week and the BBC) and between that publicity and word-of-mouth, we’ve never had to advertise.

Without doubt people are more honest when talking to a stranger. There’s neutrality that comes with someone you’ve never met before asking perfectly straight questions. It does sometimes feel as if I’m their therapist – it all comes out. Relatives might warn me not to ask about the divorce or a particular tragedy, but it always ends up being brought up by the client.

We all have in common that we want to tell and hear stories. I’ve worked with every slice of life – be it grand aristocrats, an old woman in a terraced house in Kent or a retired vicar in a council house in Leicester. I’ve interviewed the private secretary to the Queen, a former Chairman of the BBC, the singer Bryan Adams’ mother, and someone senior at RBS who wanted to shape his own legacy. People do commission recordings themselves – someone who perhaps wanted to write a memoir but was never going to get around to it.

One of my favourite interviews was with a woman who was 99. She was razor sharp and living in a flat in Somerset. She’d been living in Vienna when the Anschluss happened and the Nazis annexed Austria. Most Brits fled, but she said she stayed because she was interested to see what would happen. She was a teacher and her two Jewish students had vanished; she rounded a corner one day and knocked into Joseph Goebbels himself. His henchmen had her questioned, and she was let go. Later, she became a spy.

It’s amazing to interview people with war memories before they go. I interviewed a woman who was sitting upstairs at home with her family in Edinburgh in 1944 – her son was at war. She remembered the clock ticking when the doorbell rang. They all sat in silence. She said “Darling?” and her husband went to answer it. He was given the telegram saying that Arthur had been killed. The clock kept ticking. And they all went through to lunch. It was a real insight into a different era.

Another interview I loved was with one of the SAS men at the Iranian Embassy siege in 1980. When it was finally over, he came home and climbed up the drainpipe to sleep in the dressing room so as not to disturb his wife in the night. When he woke, he found she’d blu-tacked the front pages of all the papers on the wall, each one of them calling him a hero.

Lives on Record is a great christening present. I interview the parents about the year that their child was born. About the pregnancy and birth, and how they are coping. What it means to be a parent, what the baby’s characteristics are and what the parents’ hopes are for the future. Their voices will change as they get older, so it will be fun for their child to hear them when they were young.

Every Christmas I record my own children. I ask them the same questions: what do you want to be when you’re older? What do you love doing most? What makes you laugh? What makes you scared? What’s school like? My boys love the big microphone and hearing their voices. It’s a perfect record of their lives year by year.

Recordings start from £950. 020 7228 2950; www.livesonrecord.com