Week 8: The Boy Who Gave His Heart Away and Bowie with Tim Minchin

This week we were exploring creative approaches to radio documentary, and listened to The Boy Who Gave his Heart Away and Bowie with Tim Minchin.

The Boy Who Gave His Heart Away

I found this documentary to be very evocative and emotional. I talked a little in my blog post on File on Four about how the ‘blindness’ of radio means that radio documentary has to evoke the imagination, helping audiences create a picture in their minds. The Boy Who Gave his Heart Away does this particularly successfully, especially with the doctor’s description of what it’s like to take a heart out of the body and replace it with another. We discussed in class that when you’ve got someone as good as talking as the doctor was, its like gold-dust for broadcasters – the doctor truly created an extraordinary visual of a heartless chest, that is in many ways far more vivid left to our imagination.

The narrative structure of The Boy Who Gave his Heart Away runs the stories of the two boys chronologically in parallel with one another, builds the intensity up to the moment where one life ends and another is saved, culminating in the uplifting moment where the two families meet and the mother feels her dead son’s heart beating inside another. The structure works well and makes sense from a production point of view, as it is the sort of topic that would be very difficult to go back retrospectively for a second take, as much of the raw emotion would be lost.

The narration used in this documentary is particularly descriptive, rather than going for something factual and fact-heavy, they use statements such as “it’s a machine that might keep him alive,” which is far more descriptive and emotive and creates tension.

It’s fair to assume that the sound of the ambulance siren was not recorded at the time and is a sound effect. This has been used here as it would be for a radio news report, as Starkey and Crisell  (2009, 104) suggest, much as “a package for a radio news report on crime might begin with the sound of a siren, even though no actual burglary has just taken place: the reporter merely wishes to evoke a comprehensive sense of criminal activity.” When used well, as it is here, it can bring a sense of urgency and panic – however we discussed in class that sometimes such effects can be unnecessary and that it is always important to consider in what ways the effect adds to the piece.

Absolute: Bowie with Tim Minchin

The introduction to this documentary didn’t quite work for me – I like the use of the musical montage, but I didn’t like how it was intercut with one word descriptions of Bowie, which I felt were a little unnecessary and too heavily stylised. Ultimately, however, it did give it an almost breathless and high energy quality, which did grab my attention.

What was particularly effective about this documentary was how it struck a balance between what could have been overwhelming fan worship and a more casual fan appreciation by bringing in the ‘darker’ element of Bowie in his drug use.

This documentary also raised the issue of using music with lyrics over speech – it can be problematic in that it can make the speech less clear, but the other option of looping the same instrumental clip can have issues of its own. It also raised the issue that music can, and will, run across a documentary – but it has to add a layer to it, such as evoking memory or changing pace. For example, when Bowie’s flatmate is interviewed, discussing Bowie’s cocaine habit and saying “you can hear the cocaine on that album”, music is used to illustrate the interview clip.


Starkey, G., and Crisell, A., 2009. Radio Journalism. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Leave a Reply
Related Posts