I was talking to a radio writer earlier this week, with about forty plays under her belt. She drew my attention to the way in which radio drama has changed over the years. Short and sharp; less time for a story to develop; smaller casts. A lot of it must boil down to cuts in funding. BBC executives have told us several times on the “Feedback” programme that we cannot concentrate for ninety minutes or no longer have the time to do so. Listener surveys provide their evidence. But employees know from experience that most bosses define 'success' as the end result of a management initiative. Is the same principle operating here?
The modern style is neatly illustrated by the new series of Anthony Powell's A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME in six one-hour episodes; not really drama but heavily dramatised narration. That's not to say it isn't good; Michael Butt always does a decent job, and Corin Redgrave is an able narrator, but it's nothing like Graham Gauld's 26-episode marathon which went out from 1979 to 1982 involving a cast of 250 people. Likewise MR. SPONGE'S SPORTING TOURS, by R.S.Surtees, broadcast this month in two one-hour episodes. Entertaining and punchy, in the manner of a cartoon, but last time it was done – in the early eighties – it lasted for months.
The first drama to take my eye this year was by the well-known science fiction writer, Kurt Vonnegut. WHO AM I THIS TIME? (R4, 1415, 21 Jan 08) was about an amateur dramatics group. The leading man, a nondescript individual with a humdrum life and an uninteresting job, becomes transformed when he's acting; it's frightening the way he becomes the character he's playing. And since he switches back into mediocrity when he stops acting, he is totally unaware of the passion he evokes in a girl who's new to the town. Eventually, however, she devises a strategy to get him. The story was dramatised by Philip Goulding, and starred Lou Hirsch, Kerry Shale, Joanne Froggatt and Maureen Lipman; the producer was Justine Potter.
WHEN GREED BECOMES FEAR (R4, 1415, 26 Feb 08) was a response, in drama, to the crisis affecting Northern Rock, and - probably - having an effect on all of us. Dave Britton: "When Greed Turns to Fear was the result of an unusual process in which the script was begun relatively close to the broadcast date, and recorded in the week before it went to air. Like most writers, I'm also fascinated by timeless themes such as love, family dynamics and sacrifice. What drama does well is to give a human face to something which might otherwise seem remote.” The play starred Libby Saptalios, Penny Downie, Hattie Morahan, Peter Marinker, Liz Sutherland and was directed by Pam Marshall.
BLINDED BY THE SUN, by Stephen Poliakoff. (Saturday Play, R4, 1430, 8 Mar 08), set in academia, was a 90-minute special. In the words of a listener's post on the BBC messageboard: "Some of his favourite themes are here - an institution under threat, the imperfection of recollection, a cabal of characters locked in against a demon svengali-esque character". It caught very acutely the claustrophobic mentality of some parts of the academic world. The science was a bit implausible, and concerned a half-baked invention for making renewable energy, but Poliakoff isn't a scientist, and it didn't detract from the drama.
The plot is this - a University scientist claims a major breakthrough in his work, and a new potential source of energy for the world. But after the announcement, he is unable to replicate the results of his experiment. The fallout causes long-term conflict amongst a previously close set of colleagues, a number of whom proceed to stab each other in the back.
It reminded me of the 'cold fusion' episode of a couples of decades ago, when no-one was quite sure whether or not we were on the brink of a controllable, inexhaustible source of power. The cast included Alex Jennings, Harriet Walter, Steven Pacey, Jodie Whittaker and John Rowe and the play was produced by Peter Leslie Wild.
The classic story of CYRANO DE BEGERAC, as the Sunday Play (R3, 2000, 23 Mar 08) was a welcome repeat of the 1998 adaptation by John Tydeman. Kenneth Branagh plays Edmond Rostand's romantic, poet, soldier, hero and gentleman. For those who don't know the story, he has one great physical flaw - the size of his nose; he has a preposterous hooter. Refer to it and a fight will start. In the words of Gillian Reynolds, look at it and it becomes all you see, not the noble nature behind it. It means his love for the beautiful Roxane is doomed, but he puts his devotion into helping the handsome Christian de Neuvillette to pursue her. The problem is that Christian is terribly dim.
The play is in verse, and regular readers of this review know that I don't like poetry. But this is Anthony Burgess's translation, and his skills as a poet, composer and wordsmith make for a wonderful script. It flows like speech; the rhythms and rhymes are subtle, and Burgess has packed his work with witty asides. Jodhi May was Roxane and Tom Hiddlestone played Christian; the producer was David Timson.
Bert Coules has been busy again with a “Classic Serial”dramatisation of John Buchan's MR.STANDFAST ( R4, 2 episodes beginning 1500 9 Mar 08) starring David Robb as Richard Hannay and Clive Merrison as Sir Walter Bullivant. It's a cracking tale, well-paced, politically incorrect, and exciting. Hannay is fighting single-handed against the Germans, and moral rot in Britain is on the rise, caused by conshies, cowards and other degenerates. Moxon the master spy is causing trouble – will Hannay be able to stop him? It was good to hear Clive Merrison in a non-Holmes role, and the long cast list included Struan Rodger, Jasmine Hyde, Jon Glover, Ben Crowe, and Peter Marinker; the producer was Bruce Young. Bert says that there's one more Hannay story to be done - "The Island of Sheep". Let's hope he gets the job.
For those who like science fiction and remember the “Journey into Space” serials, the broadcast of the year must be FROZEN IN TIME (R4, 1430, 12 Apr 08), written by Charles Chilton and starring the surviving member of the original cast, David Jacobs, as Captain Jet Morgan. The programme has a remarkable history; three very long serials went out in the fifties; a generation later (1981) there was a Saturday Night Theatre one-off produced by Glyn Dearman entitled “The Return from Mars”; now we have an excellent new episode by the original writer, twenty-seven years later. Paul Donovan, in the Sunday Times, wrote: “ It is an update of, and richly evokes, the original. Entitled Journey into Space - Frozen in Time, it was written by Chilton (now 91) in collaboration with the producer, Nick Russell-Pavier.
It's not exactly a sequel to the previous broadcasts, but it's later. It's set on Mars in 2013. Most of the crew have been in deep-sleep suspension in their spacecraft, “Ares”, for 36 years. Paul Donovan again: “Captain Jet Morgan is played by David Jacobs, now 82, the sole surviving member of the original cast, and the outstanding music is composed by the author's son, David Chilton. It has an eerie, epic, filmic quality about it, even if it is all composed on synthesizers rather than the full orchestra used by Van Phillips in the 1950s.
Do not listen to "Frozen in Time" if you can't abide what are always called 'stereotypes' - the chirpy cockney, straight-talking Aussie, cheerful Canadian, square-jawed Brit and cool Nordic blonde. But do listen for its reflections on time and space, memory and comradeship, benign and malign, and, of course, for the exciting story. The fact that it has been left open-ended, with Jet and his crew wondering whether to help an apparently distressed spacecraft, suggests that Journey into Space might make a further close encounter with the airwaves in due course.” Gilliam Reynolds also gave it the thumbs-up, and said of Charles Chilton: ...'still alive, writing, and on the evidence of this script, having fun......joined the BBC in 1932 as a 14-year-old messenger boy....worked with all the great names, invented other hit series and retains a lovely sense of humour. There were moments when it seemed he was having a laugh or two at the Corporation's trust in new ways of doing things....'
The cast: David Jacobs (Jet Morgan), Michael Beckley (Mitch), Alan Marriott (Doc), Chris Moran (Lemmy), with Emma Fielding, Stephen Hogan and Kate Harbour. A CD of the play will be issued later this year.
Other worthwhile plays have included Christina Balit's NEEDLE (about the making of the Bayeux Tapestry by the invaded English), BEARING THE CROSS by Ken Blakeson (some sobering views on war made by soldiers awarded the V.C.), INVESTIGATING MR. THOMAS by Rob Gittins (the last part of Dylan Thomas's life, when he seems to have been a walking advertisement of the dangers of alcohol), and BEYOND THE FRINGE by Roy Smiles, an amiable account of the "Beyond the Fringe" team in England and Hollywood. I am also looking forward to my recording of TARZAN OF THE ANTIRRHINUMS, about a guy brought up by pot plants. Sounds odd, but the writer, Lavinia Murray, is always worth a listen.
I am grateful to Paul Donovan for permission to quote extracts from his recent Sunday Times article on the new "Journey Into Space".
A rather mixed bag since the last review. There are still plenty of unremarkable radio plays in the afternoons, but the best of the drama has been excellent, and its tone is not so preachy as it was a decade ago. John Dryden continues to make his monumental Classic Serials on location (Istanbul and now Tokyo) and the Friday Play is back for a while. Radio 3 has done some good dramas too, including one about the Piper Alpha disaster of 1988.
SIGNS, by Steve May, (R4, 1415, 19 May 08) was a comic play about gullibility. Steve May has written about thirty radio plays since 1982 and this was a masterly piece of storytelling. Four characters try to read, manipulate and profit by the financial meltdown predicted by the credit crunch. Will the computer models be proved right? Entertaining, touching, and clever. The cast: Devon Black, Paul Clayton, Mark Meadows, Carl Prekopp, Marlene Sidaway and Stephen Critchlow; the director was Mary Ward-Lowery.
THE VERTICAL HOUR (R3, 2000, 25 May 08), David Hare's latest play, starred Indira Varma as an idealistic Yale politics professor visiting her English boyfriend's cantankerous father, played by Anton Lesser. Nadia is an American war reporter-turned-academic. She lives a settled life with her English boyfriend, but when she visits his home and meets his father for the first time, her political opinions and her relationship come under great strain.
The play, which analyses British and American attitudes to the war in Iraq, premiered on Broadway in 2006 before completing a successful run at the Royal Court earlier this year. The producer was Catherine Bailey and the director Jeremy Herrin.
THE RAGGED TROUSERED PHILANTHROPISTS was broadcast as a three-part Classic Serial (beginning R4, 1500, 8 Jun 08). It was adapted by Andrew Lynch , based on the well-known novel by Robert Tressell (1870–1911), published posthumously in 1914. Robert Tressell was the pseudonym of Robert Noonan, who chose the surname Tressell in reference to the trestle table, an important part of his kit as a painter and decorator. Based on his own experiences of poverty, exploitation, and his fear of being sent to the workhouse if he became ill, Tressell wrote a scathing 1600-page satire on the relationship between working-class people and their employers. The "philanthropists" of the title are the workers who, in Tressell's view, acquiesce in their own exploitation.
A person contacting the BBC messageboard wrote as follows:
........Plato describes a cave where the prisoners sit chained to face the wall, they cannot turn their heads. On the wall is projected a series of shadows from behind them. All they can hear are echoes from outside the cave. That is their reality.
There is a similar reality for the men in Tressell's novel. Their shadows are cast by the Daily Obscurer or the Daily Chloroform. They agree with Crass and fear Hunter and Rushton the Builder. All bow down before Adam Sweater, the owner of the "Cave", the local mayor who gets the local council to pay for drains on his land by working a fiddle.
The story is ageless and may well predate Plato.
Dennis Healey recounts that Tressell's book was the most read by troops during WWll and he thought it a major factor in the Labour victory in the '45 election. The cast included Andrew Lincoln, Johnny Vegas, Timothy Spall, Bill Bailey, and Philip Jackson; there was even a cameo role for John Prescott, M.P. The producers were Rebecca Pinfield and Johnny Vegas and the director Dirk Maggs.
Paul Cotter's DROPPING BOMBS (R4, 1415, 10 Jun 08) followed an ex-RAF pilot travelling to Germany sixty years after the war to apologise for dropping his bombs. But it wasn't a play about fashionable apologies for the necessary actions of a previous generation. It was a first-class comedy, and the humour was in the bickering between the stubborn, selfish, old man and his long-suffering wife, played respectively by Nigel Anthony and Rosemary Leach. Ivan Kaye played the son-in-law Ross, the unpaid chauffer trying to turn his father-in-law into a normal human being. The producer was Toby Swift.
THE INCOMPARABLE WITNESS, by Nicola McAuliffe, (R4, 1415, 12 Jun 08) was a drama about Sir Bernard Spilsbury, 'the father of modern forensics', and the case which made his name.
Spilsbury was born in Leamington in 1877. He was educated at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he took a BA in natural science in 1899. He then studied at St Mary's Hospital in London, specialising in the then-new science of forensic pathology.
The case which brought Spilsbury to prominence was that of Dr. Crippen in 1910, where he gave forensic evidence in the trial about the likely identity of the human remains found in Crippen's house. During his career Spilsbury performed thousands of autopsies, not only of murder victims but also of executed criminals. He was first to recognize the signs of death by rapid drowning, the secrets held in blood spatters, and he devised the best toxicological technique for revealing arsenic poisoning. He was knighted in 1923.
Spilsbury had one daughter and three sons with his wife Edith Caroline Horton. Two of his sons died during the Second World War, one from ill-health and one during the Blitz. The death of his children was a blow from which he never fully recovered. He committed suicide in December, 1947, in his laboratory at University College, London.
The play was narrated by his widow, played by Joanna David, and captured the brilliant performances he made in court in front of figures very much his senior. Spilsbury was played by Timothy Watson, the younger Edith by Honeysuckle Weeks, and the cast included Dan Starkey, John Rowe, Sam Dale, Stephen Critchlow, and Chris Pavlo. The producer was Sasha Yevtushenko.
SEPTIMUS GREABE (R4, 1415, 13 Jun 08) by Mike Harris, was about Victorian hypocrisy, and the miserable do-gooders who created vices worse than the ones they tried to suppress. In the early 1800s, the Society for the Suppression of Vice, inspired by William Wilberforce, would stop at nothing to stamp out corruption and sin. The play invents a character to represent such 'forces for good': Septimus Greabe, whose target is prostitues, drunks, lechers, and those down on their luck. The play starred David Troughton, Will Keen, Kellie Shirley, Paul Jesson, Nigel Cooke, and Perdita Avery; the producer was Clive Brill.
PLENTY, the well known play by David Hare went out as a new Saturday Play (R4, 1430, 14 Jun 08). This production was only half the length of the 1981 version, but was still worth a listen. It follows an Englishwoman as she works in the French resistance during WW2 and through the years of peace which follow. Miranda Richardson was Susan, Hattie Morahan was Alice, and Ben Miles was Brock; John Dove produced.
Probably the last ever series of I'M SORRY I HAVEN'T A CLUE was aired on Wednesdays in June and July (R4, 1830, beginning 16 Jun 08); a selection of shows from different series, broadcast as a tribute to Humphrey Lyttelton who died in April. The first show featured Barry Cryer, Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Willie Rushton, and was from 1994. Humph's first broadcast to the nation was when the BBC caught him by accident on VE day in 1945, playing his trumpet outside Buckingham Palace. On Sunday 15th June, his life was celebrated, with his 'Desert Island Discs' from November 07, a radio biography of fellow trumpeter Louis Prima, and a tribute presented by Stephen Fry, in which his friends paid their respects.
Penny Leicester's adaptation of Xiaolu Guo's short story BEIJING'S SLOWEST ELEVATOR (R4, 1415, 19 Jun 08) concerned Zhang Yan, a country girl determined to make something of her life in Beijing. At night a worker in a karaoke bar, entertaining and sleeping with its clients, she encounters an attractive young man who gives her the possibility of a different life. Liz Sutherland was the girl, and David Lee the young man; Emma Harding directed.
Kressman Taylor's ADDRESS UNKNOWN, a chilling story of the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, was told as a series of letters between two friends: an American-German Jew and an American-German living in Germany. It was introduced by Anne Karpf, who told us that it was originally a novel published in America in 1938, not much more than a short story, but having an enormous impact, shocking people with the way Nazism was transforming and corrupting ordinary people. It was republished in 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps, and again became a bestseller. 'Kressman Taylor' was a pseudonym to protect her identity as a woman; her real name was Kathrine Kressman.
In the words of Kate Chisholm (Spectator, 21 Jun 08): "What she lets unfold is the insidious unmasking of two individuals who at the beginning appear just like anyone else, full of affection and goodwill for each other........ In the last few minutes, those voices, underpinned by the subtlest use of music, worm their way into your mind, until you suddenly realise, with sickening dread, what the characters are really thinking, what they are really trying to do".
The letters were read by Henry Goodman and Patrick Malahide; the music was Schnittke's piano quintet, and the director was Tim Dee.
It's sixty years since our Health Service was formed, and THE NHS AT 60, by Jerome Vincent (R4, 1415, 4 Jul 08) was an interesting play about its formation. Aneurin Bevan, Minister of Health, wanted to create a free health service but had to convince the Royal College of Physicians and Labour Party dissenters that his scheme was wanted and would work. Looking back at what was replaced when the NHS came into being (a patchwork of charity hospitals and private institutions), it's clear that he did the country an enormous service. Robert Pugh played Bevan, Richard Attlee was Attlee (sic), Nicholas Boulton was Lord Moran, and Trevor Littledale was Herbert Morrison. The producer was David Blount.
PIPER ALPHA (R3, 2155, 6 Jul 08), by Stephen Phelps, was a drama-doc of the oil rig disaster, which happened 20 years before, to the day. In fact the anniversary was even more exact - it took place 20 years before, to the minute, and the series of explosions which destroyed the oil rig took place over an hour and a half. The events of that evening were played out, in the play, at the same speed as they occurred in real life.
There were about 200 men on board when the disaster took place. About sixty survived, and they all gave their evidence to the Cullen Inquiry. There were some surprising conclusions: most of them only survived by using their commonsense and ignoring the inadequate safety training which they'd had. Rescue vessels were cheaply fitted and poorly equipped. A neighbouring rig was unwittingly pumping in oil and gas to Piper Alpha, fuelling the inferno. Communications (and oil and gas from neighbouring rigs) were mainly routed through Piper Alpha, so once the telephones went down, no-one knew what was happening, and the disaster continued to escalate. The harrowing fate of workers jumping into a burning sea would be gratuitously gruesome but for the fact that it happened.
This excllent play was performed by a distinguished cast including Ewan Bailey, Nigel Betts, Kenny Blyth, Mark Bonnor and Stephen Critchlow; the producer was Toby Swift.
MY NAME IS ... RED (1500, R4, three episodes beginning16 Aug 08) was another of John Dryden's full-blooded Classic Serial dramatisations. This one was by O. Pamuk, a murder story set in sixteenth century Istanbul, dramatised by Ayeesha Menon. The Sultan brings together the most acclaimed artists in his kingdom to create a secret book of miniature illustrated manuscripts celebrating the glories of his realm. But two of the miniaturists are murdered, and panic erupts. This was an exciting tale, well dramatised and produced. John Dryden's sound engineers have perfected the technique of getting the effects exactly right. None of the recordings are done in a studio; they're done on location, and this is how they sound.
There was a discussion on the messageboard about John's use of Turkish actors, and he commented as follows:
As the director, I did consider doing it with British actors. A few years ago I directed a production set in Germany - based on the novel "Fatherland" by Robert Harris - and with this we had British actors with no German accent. It worked well because the characters were supposed to be speaking their mother tongue.
But with "My Name Is Red" (as with "The Cairo Trilogy", another production I did a while ago) it didn't seem quite right to take this approach. When the world and culture of the story is so different to ours on so many levels, it doesn't seem to work as well using straight British voices – especially in such an Islamic setting.
There are a lot of very good actors in Istanbul. It made sense to use them – as they were able to bring so much cultural authenticity to the drama. I should point out that none of the actors are putting on “accents”. They are just speaking English in their own voices.
A similar approach is being taken in his next piece of work, "Murder in Tokyo", which will be aired later in the year.
THE LISTENER, by Julian Simpson (R4, 2100, 22Aug 08), a second very imaginative Friday Play by the writer of "Fragments", did not disappoint. It was described as a fast paced pschological thriller on the R4 webpage, but contained some elements of science fiction. A man, possibly a policeman - we're not told - is injured in a terrorist bomb-blast, in the course of his work. It destroys his recall completely, but a way is found for him to become a normal human being again; he gets a new high-tech synthetic memory. He resumes work, and tries to uncover his true identity. He gets there, but that isn't the end of the story; there's another twist, in the way of the best thrillers.
The man was played by Mark Bazeley and Mia, the girlfriend, by Indira Varma. She was slightly underwritten in the play for my taste, probably because of the rapidity of the plot. The snippets of scientific detail were convincing, and made the play very believable. Karen Rose was the producer and the author directed.
Other plays of note have been WHEN GREED BECOMES FEAR (play 2), which looked at the credit crunch and its effect on housing, THE ENORMOUS RADIO, a sci-fi tale about a receiver picking up conversations not intended for broadcast, and SAND, which observed the Suez crisis through the eyes of a young girl who lived there.
It's been the awards season for radio drama, and the Imison and Tinniswood Awards were presented by Pauline McLynn at a ceremony at the British Academy in London in late October.
The Imison winner, for the best radio script by a newcomer broadcast during 2007, was Adam Beeson, for THE MAGICIAN'S DAUGHTER, which was repeated on R4, 1415, 27 Oct 08. In 19th-century Europe, a famous magician is shot on stage. As he dies, he passes the secrets of his spectacular act to his daughter. For a while she continues the magic, and then she disappears. James Bryce was Kronos, Paul Young was the Great Visado, and Lucy Paterson was the daughter; Bruce Young produced.
The Tinniswood winner, for the best radio drama of the year, was Stephen Wyatt, for his MEMORIALS TO THE MISSING, broadcast around Armistice Day last year and repeated on R4, 1415, 30 Oct 08. It was about the efforts of Major General Fabian Ware to persuade the authorities to establish cemeteries of identifiable graves for soldiers killed in battles, and not just for officers. The War Graves Commission was established, and Ware was put in charge.
Stephen Wyatt's play imagines the voices of dead soldiers, reading their diaries or thinking their thoughts aloud, who seek the recognition of their buried remains by mourning relatives. We also hear the relatives searching for an identifiable place to mourn over their lost loved ones. This intermingling of fact and fiction makes it a play of great emotional power, perfect for radio. Anton Lesser was Major General Ware, and the cast included Michael Maloney, Keith Drinkel and Theresa Gallagher. Angela Hind produced; Martin Jenkins directed.
As for other radio plays, Radio 3 now avoids the weirdness which used to pervade its drama, and is more accessible. On Radio 4, the Friday play no longer appears every week, which is a shame. When it does it's produced to high standards but is sometimes not light enough for its slot. The afternoon plays have shown their usual variety, with interesting contributions by David Pownall, Sebastian Baczkiewicz, Robert McCrum, Roger Danes, David Nobbs and Nick Warburton. Some Classic Serials have also been worthwhile, and so has the Saturday Play, which is often the most entertaining drama of the week.
SILENT NIGHTS (R4, 1415, 22 Sep 08), by the well-known television writer David Nobbs was a humorous play about a man who can't stand noise. Moira Petty, in "The Stage" (Oct 08) , said: 'Just as TV is remaking The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, which caught the zeitgeist 30 years ago, its creator...... David Nobbs, has come up with another piece which does the same for our times.'Silent Nights' starred Jonathan Coy as a man driven to excessive means to achieve silence in a noisy, rage-prone world. The cast: Jonathan Coy, Doon Mackichan, Stephen Critchlow, Helen Longworth, John Rowe and Dan Starkey; producer Peter Kavanagh.
LAST DAYS OF GRACE (R4, 1415, 24 Sep 08) was another play from that Radio 4 stalwart, Nick Warburton. W.G.Grace arrives at The Oval very late in his career and contemplates another day on the cricket field. But before play starts, he meets a stranger who engages him in conversation. He seems strangely familiar; a voice from the past. The play stars Kenneth Cranham as W.G., Benedict Cumberbatch as the stranger, and Christopher Martin-Jenkins as 'The Voice of Cricket". The producer was Steven Canny.
THE LAST CONFESSION, by Roger Crane (R4, 1430, 4 Oct 08) went behind the scenes at the Vatican, uncovering the politics and crises of faith surrounding the untimely death of Pope John Paul I. Cardinal Benelli lies dying and makes his confession, centering on his loss of faith and his part in the Pope's death. He is disturbed by the corruption and political manoeuvrings in the Vatican. He begins to investigate what happened to the Pope, and has to decide whether he should stand for office himself. This is an adaptation by Martin Jenkins of Roger Crane's stage play.
Moira Petty, in her radio review in "The Stage" (Oct 08), made the following comments: " Only 33 intrigue-filled days into his papacy, John Paul I was found sitting up in bed after suffering a fatal heart attack. Those who think he was murdered say this was an unlikely posture for a man stricken by coronary pains. No autopsy was carried out and the Vatican issued a series of contradictory statements. In fact, autopsies are not traditionally carried out on popes and the clumsiness of the Vatican reaction could be attributed to communal shock."
She went on to say that the papal election was a bit like the American elections without the press pack or women or levity. Political, moral and fiscal ideologies clashed. Cardinal Marcinkus, (played by Peter Marinker) was the Pope's banker; a warrent for his arrest was later issued but never implemented as he remained within the sanctuary of the Vatican. He represented the materialism of a church entangled with corrupt financiers and the Mafia. The cast included David Suchet, Keith Drinkel, Richard O'Callaghan, Nigel Anthony and Peter Marinker, and the producer was Martin Jenkins, working alongside the director, David Blount.
The sequel to this play (equally good, but not reviewed here), CONCLAVE, by Hugh Costello (R4, 1430, 11 Oct 08) focused on the events surrounding the election of the first non-Italian Pope in several centuries.
TULIPS IN WINTER (R3, 2000, 5 Oct 08) was Michelene Wandor's exploration of the life of the 17th-century philosopher Spinoza, who was excommunicated from Judaism by rabbis in Amsterdam after his rationalist philosophy led him to the conclusion that there is no such thing as the immortal soul and that God is made in the imagination. Moira Petty, in "The Stage", commented: Wandor gave the play substance and energy by imagining that Rembrandt - a stylish cameo by Timothy Spall - was an acquaintance and that Cromwell had sent his diplomat George Downing (John McAndrew) to recruit Spinoza as a spy. Wandor even managed a potted history of Spinoza’s mathematically formulated arguments. Ben Myles was Spinoza, Gabriel Woolf Spinoza's father, and Angela Pleasance was Angel. The producer was Jane Morgan.
Patrick O'Brien has written some good novels about life on the high seas, and H.M.S. SURPRISE, broadcast on three successive afternoons (R4, 1415, 8-10 Oct 08) was adapted from one of them by Roger Danes. Set in 1804-5, Captain Jack Aubrey and his super-intelligent sidekick Dr. Stephen Maturin engage the Spanish at sea and the French on land. There are some sultry, spiteful ladies, too. The cast included David Robb as Aubrey and Richard Dillane as Maturin. The producer was Bruce Young.
VON RIBBENTROP'S WATCH (R4, 1430, 8 Nov 08) was a tale by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran. A snobbish wine merchant with a failing business finds that has watch, inherited from his father, once belonged to a world famous Nazi. He's torn between selling it and using the money to save his business, or keeping it and watching his business disappear (Entrepreneurs will suggest a third option: turning the business around, since cash injections often don't work - but that's not what the play is about) .
Miriam Margolyes played Lila, the Jewish matriarch from hell, and Allan Corduner was Gerald, the man with the watch. There was an experienced supporting cast, including Sophie Winkelman, Nicholas Goodeson, Harriet Walter and Jonathan Tafler, and the producer was Sally Avens.
THE SINGER, by Lizzie Nunnery (R4, 1415, 11 Nov 08) was about Kirsten, a singer with a wonderful voice who works in an office. She has never sung in public; hasn't wanted to, but Martin, an older musician who never made the big time, is determined to change all that. It starred Mark Womack, Emma Cunliffe and Liz Carter, and was produced by Mark Rickards
Another musical play, QUARTET, by Donna Franceschild (R4, 1415,13 Nov 08) was a little moral tale about not turning down opportunities. A musician who was once on the brink of fame finds himself years later in a dead end job living in the middle of nowhere. But one by one, musicians start to appear. This was a light comedy starring Gerry Mulgrew, Callum Cuthbertson, Stephen McCole and Katy Murphy, produced by Kirsty Williams.
TAMBURLAINE - SHADOW OF GOD, by John Fletcher (R3, 2000, 16 Nov 08) was not another remake of the famous Jacobean play. In John's words:........."this play about Tamburlaine, the world’s greatest mass murderer after Genghis Khan, dwells upon his butchery but also upon his exquisite aesthetic and intellectual tastes – as he ransacks the world to build his beloved Samarkhand.
Based on historical fact, the play deals with Tamburlaine's genuine intellectual and aesthetic engagement with Ibn Khaldun, the father of modern history, sociology, and economics, and Hafez, the great Persian poet and Sufi mystic.
At a time in the contemporary world of great social, economic, and political instability and fear, this play fiercely debates the reasons why societies collapse, and what qualities and belief systems and circumstances are needed to build them up again and for them then to endure."
The play starred John Rowe as Khaldun, Jeffery Kissoon as Tamburlaine, and Conleth Hill as Hafez. The producer was Marc Beeby.
A new production of THE GOOD SOLDIER SVEJK was broadcast as the Classic Serial in two episodes (beginning R4, 1500, 16 Nov 2008), dramatised by Christopher Reason. This was Hasek's immensely entertaining anti-war rant, as voiced by the Good Soldier Svejk. It was less than half the length of the version with Richard Griffiths which went out in 1981, so a lot of material was omitted, but it still had the flavour of the original. Here in Hasek's tale, with all its blasphemy, treason and bawdiness, we follow the progress of Svejk, the only loyal Czech in the Austrian army of 1914. Enmeshed in red tape, chivvied by police, doctors, clergy and officers, the good soldier, once discharged as an idiot, ploughs his patient furrow towards the crowning moment when he is captured by his own troops.
Svejk was Sam Kelly, and the supporting cast included Adrian Lukis, Fiona Clark, Mark Chatterton, Melissa Jane Sinden and James Quinn; the producer was Gary Brown.
Robert McCrum, the novelist and war reporter, went through some harrowing events in 1995. Aged 42, he had a stroke. He had recently married Sarah Lyall, journalist for the New York Times. He found himself at home, regaining consciousness, hardly able to move, and only able to reach the telephone by sliding down the stairs head first, a few steps at a time. He wrote about it his book "MY YEAR OFF", which documents his slow recovery to near-normality. Ten years after the event, an afternoon play with the same title recreated these experiences (R4, 1415, 20 Nov 08). It was a riveting listen; not really a play at all, a bit like Nick Darke's brilliant "Dumbstruck" (2003) - which recounted the way when, under similar circumstances, Nick recovered the power of speech. Alex Jennings played Robert and Madeleine Potter was Sarah; the producer was Karen Rose.
David Pownall's latest play, about the explorer Richard Burton, was entitled PRAYER MASK (R4, 1415, 1 Dec 08). Surprisingly for 2008, it didn't focus on his famous erotic translation but told the story of the young Burton disguising himself as an Afghan and making the pilgrimage, at risk of his life, to Mecca to explore the Holy of Holies. Joseph Fiennes played Burton and Akbar Kurtha was his precocious guide Mohammed; Peter Kavanagh produced. Pownall has now written 68 plays for radio since 1972 on an enormous range of subjects, and his 'back catalogue' is well worth exploring.
Finally, a word about recent Classic Serials. Some of them have been excellent, but a significant fraction is now being broadcast in versions much shorter than those of a generation ago. Examples (apart from "Svejk") include "Dance to the Music of Time", and "Decameron" and now "The Hunchback of Notre Dame".
One can argue that giving a taste of a serial on the radio may encourage a person to read it, and that is probably desirable. However, the purpose of a radio play is to entertain in its own right, not to prompt people to use bookshops. A person on the BBC drama website calling himself 'Solinus' spoke for many when he commented on the recent "Hunchback" serialization:
I was amazed when I saw in, the Radio Times, that this latest "dramatization" was to be presented in only two episodes. How on earth can you adapt adequately a great classic of French literature into this minuscule format? The English translation of the novel, (an old hardback edition) in my library, runs to 575 pages.
Having listened this afternoon to the first part, I can only comment that the BBC would have done far better to repeat Catherine Czerkawska's 1991 five part version (if it still survives), with Jack Klaff as Quasimodo and Emily Morgan as Esmeralda, rather than foisting this current over-condensed and rather indifferent offering on us.
Furthermore, I would like to remind Alex Bulmer that French medieval soldiers did not frequent "bars" or consume "lager and chips." Such ridiculous anachronisms are quite unpardonable and totally unnecessary in the dramatization of a meticulously crafted historical novel set in 1482.
The fault is obviously not with the writers but with BBC policy; it's a considerable achievement to make a coherent production when stories have to be mutilated (and altered) in this way to fit a broadcasting slot. It also highlights the importance of what VRPCC is doing: preserving quality programmes from the past so that others can enjoy them in the future.
There have been other dramas worthy of note; I've enjoyed Wendy Oberman's "The Letter", "Cry Hungary" by Paul Viragh, "The Worst Journey in the World" by Stef Penney (from Apsley Cherry-Garrard's book about his journey to the South Pole), and "Brief Lives", a series of legal dramas a bit like Henry Cecil's "Brothers in Law", updated for the 00s.