Radio drama has provided some excellent offerings during the last four months. We have had several memorable plays by independent production companies ('indies'), a George Orwell season, some classic Westerns in the Saturday Play slots, a fantasy epic by Dirk Maggs and some fascinating one-off plays by Mike Walker, Melissa Murray and Richard Monks. We've also had another series of Pilgrim by Sebastian Baczkiewicz and a series of four plays by Donna Franceschild based on her play 'Quartet' broadcast in February 2011.
STORMCHASERS (R4, 1415, 31 Dec 2012) was a comedy drama about a two men living near Liverpool whose passion is chasing tornadoes. England is not generally noted for its twisters, which are uncommon and usually insignificant. One day, however, on an exceptionally hot muggy afternoon, the weather conditions are perfect. The two men abandon work, drop everything and depart on a high speed chase. Ken was played by Dave Lamb, his wife by Clare Louise Connolly, his daughter by Natasha Joseph, and his best friend by Richard Webb. This was a highly entertaining indie production by Top Dog, produced by Nick Walker and directed by Paul Warwick.
THE RELUCTANT SPY (R4, 1415, 2,3,4 Jan 2013) was another thriller from Goldhawk by John Dryden, with the script edited by Mike Walker, broadcast on three successive afternoons. It was set in Cairo, and to paraphrase Gillian Reynolds, it was about Duncan Kavanagh, an expert on Coptic churches, eking out a living as a tour guide. The time is now; his Egyptian wife went away to make a film and never came back. Their teenage daughter is caught up in student politics. He has a fling with an American tourist, and she gets involved in what turns out to be a tangle of intrigue and killing.
The play was set against the backdrop of the Arab Spring. It gets behind the headlines and looks at the human consequences of political unrest and change of regime in a region where democratic rule is not the norm. Episode 1 set the scene; Goldhawk's 'technical presentation' goes for location recordings and realism. The tension builds during episode 2, with a terrific climax as we realise the threat to Duncan's daughter. In attempting to deal with it, Duncan releases forces which he is not strong enough to control. Duncan was played by Nigel Lindsay and his daughter by Alysha Hart, with many of the other parts taken by local actors. The director was John Dryden.
Bert Coules provided us with another Sherlock Holmes tale based on passing references in Conan Doyle's books. THE MARLBOURNE POINT MYSTERY (R4, 1415, 7-8 Jan 13), broadcast on successive afternoons, was set in and around a disused lighthouse on a remote stretch of the Kent coast; the scene of a bizarre double death. Holmes and Watson investigate. These tales get better and better and show great invention. Clive Merrison and Andrew Sachs were Holmes and Watson, and James Laurenson was Mycroft, Holmes' smarter brother. It was also good to see the writer included in the cast (the postmaster). The producer was Patrick Rayner.
JANUARY, by Elizabeth Lewis (R4, 1415, 10 Jan 13) concerned a middle-aged couple meeting after a gap of twenty years and returning to the cottage where they first found love. It explores the irreversible nature of time and the difficulties of trying to recapture the past. There were hints of two radio classic: Gerry Jones' "Time after Time" and Nick Perry's "The Loop". Daphne was played by Claire Rushbrook and Ben by Alun Raglan, in both their younger and older selves, and James Robinson was the producer.
Melissa Murray's play TOM THUMB REDUX (1415, 11 Jan 13) was a fascinating bit of science fiction, where a research biologist triggers a weird process which makes him shrink. As a scientist I have sometimes wondered what it would be like to get smaller and smaller and what might happen to the senses, especially sight and hearing. Isaac Asimov pointed out in 'The Incredible Voyage' that muscular strength would increase enormously since weight decreases as the cube of the linear dimension, but muscles only decrease as the square. So if you shrank to half the height, your weight would decrease 8 times but your muscular strength would only shrink by a factor of 4. You would be able to lift twice as much, relative to your body weight. If you shrank to one-hundredth the size, you would be probably be able to lift another human being without difficulty with one hand. Ron Cook played the shrinking man, with Helen Longworth, Jonathan Forbes, Patrick Brennan and Sarah Thorn; the producer was Marc Beeby.
DUSTY WON'T PLAY by Annie Caulfield (R4, 1415, 12 Feb 2013) was a drama-documentary; the true story of Dusty Springfield’s refusal to perform in front of segregated audiences in South Africa, in the days when apartheid was regarded by many in the UK as perfectly acceptable. The play looks at her short South African tour, using eye witness accounts. To remind you in the language of the day: the 'terrorist' Nelson Mandela had just been jailed for life, and liberals were spied on, detained and destroyed.
At the height of her fame, Dusty Springfield was popular worldwide, making hit records and presenting the television show Ready Steady Go. She took a sharp interest in politics but underestimated the trouble her personal stand in South Africa would cause. She was offered bribes and subjected to threats from government agents.
Dusty was played by Charlie Brooks, with Jack Klaff, Vincent Ebrahim and Jonny Freeman. The producer was Gordon Kennedy and the director Marilyn Imrie.
Richard Monks wrote an unusual play involving an acoustic mirror, entitled EARLY WARNING, (R3, 1415, 23 Feb 13) A deaf girl, Ella, is alone near the beach when she notices some some men and youths behaving violently. To avoid trouble she takes refuge in a disused bunker. It is under a 'sound mirror', a World War I early warning device built with the aim of detecting incoming enemy aircraft by the sound of their engines. She hears voices and a struggle and some time later a body is found. The upshot is that Ella believes she has witnessed a murder, but her evidence is dismissed as unreliable because of her disability and because she is young. But ... the acoustic mirror is specifically designed to magnify and focus sounds into the bunker below. Can it be proved that she heard something significant? Rose Ayling-Ellis played Ella and Robert Pickavance played the birdman; the producer was Nadia Molinari.
THE IRAQ DOSSIER, by David Morley (R4, Saturday Play, 1415, 2 Mar 13) was a political play about the controversy surrounding the invasion of Iraq. The dossier "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction" led us to believe that the UK might be just 45 minutes from attack and it persuaded MPs to vote for an invasion of that country. It also hardened public opinion against Saddam Hussein. Fallout from accusations by the BBC that the claims had been exaggerated subsequently led to the death of Dr David Kelly and the Hutton Inquiry. It is not the first time that a country has followed a course of violent action in the name of democracy.
The drama goes behind the scenes of MI6, the Ministry of Defence and Downing Street to dramatise one of the most controversial episodes in British politics. The author created the script from the emails, memos, and first-hand accounts submitted to the various inquiries into the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as well as from interviews with Dr Brian Jones, who died in 2012 and who was the MoD's leading expert on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. The producer was Richard Clemmow, working for the indie company Perfectly Normal Productions.
Dirk Maggs devised a superb drama epic lasting about five hours and broadcast over several days. NEVERWHERE (R4 and R4extra, 16-22 Mar 13) was dramatized from Neil Gaiman's novel of the same name. To paraphrase Jane Anderson in Radio Times: Hundreds of feet beneath the streets of London is a city of shadows. In the sewer canals and disused Tube lines another world exists, home to the people who have slipped through society's cracks through choice or accident. This is the setting ... a fantasy as dark as the subterranean sewers and stations.The intricate layers of sound (by Dirk Maggs), the sumptious orchestration and the haunting rendering of life underground .... it's a cliche to say that the best pictures are on radio, but this is as close to a cinematic effect as it gets....
This is how Dirk described it ......Richard Mayhew is a young Scotsman who has come to London and has a high-powered job. Then he messes things up by rescuing a poor injured girl in the gutter, who turns out not to belong to London as we know it, but to be someone from London Below; the world under London, a mythical historical and magical world of warring factions; a rich mixture of sub-cultures no-one knows about. Richard becomes part of a group, trying to find his way back up to the world he knows.
This was a tour de force ... many memorable characters and a cast of about 30 actors. We had James McAvoy, Natalie Dormer, Benedict Cumberbatch, Christopher Lee, Bernard Cribbins, David Harewood and Johnny Vegas. There were evocative names for some the characters: Door ( a girl who can conjure up a door in a blank wall; useful if you can do it), the Marquis de Carabas, Hunter, Old Bailey, Mr. Figgis and the Angel Islington. It was a memorable radio event, a classic adventure of good against evil. The drama was produced by Heather Larmour and directed by Dirk Maggs.
THE ROAD FROM HERAT, by Abigail Youngman (R4, 1415, 18 Mar 13) was a biographical play about an extraordinary individual who died in 2010 aged about 60: Clare Holtham. She had been a difficult child with an unhappy home life, and had been abandoned by her mother. She was thrown out of several schools because of her uncooperative behaviour. Eventually she ran away to London and slept on the streets. After that she went into care.
It soon became obvious she was very bright but most schools couldn't handle her. Whilst a teenager she earned money as a bus conductor and she taught herself Persian. Then someone spotted how clever she was and told her to apply for Oxford and Cambridge. These were the only Universities likely to take a chance with such an oddball.
Newnham took a look at her, and she had a curious interview, but the tutor saw enough to recognize her extraordinary mind and she was offered a place. As an undergraduate she was academically outstanding but she was still technically homeless, with nowhere go during the vacations. She began to travel, relating in an extraordinarily personal way with many of the people she met. She went to Afghanistan and the surrounding countries, totally alone, meticulously recording her journeys. After she left college she was befriended by her tutor at Newnham, who gave her a base in Cambridge for many years and who is heard in the drama.
Clare left behind a volume of verse and a minutely documented chronicle of her adventures. The programme makes use of extracts from her work and provides an insight into her travels in Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, and the happiness she found in exploring wild landscapes. Harriet Walter played Clare, and the other parts were taken by Sharif Dorani, Viss Elliot Safavi, Kaveh Beyk, Hakan Silahsizoglu and Paul Dodgson. The producer was Sara Davies.
THE EDISON CYLINDERS (1415, R4, 22 Mar 13) by Mike Walker was a science fiction play centring around ancient recording technology. Rhona, a physicist, is approached by her boss, who also happens to be an old flame. He has a number of old wax cylinders, it seems, and he wants the recordings off them. Rhona begins work happily enough, but she discovers that some of the cylinders contain disconcerting messages seemingly referring to her. The situation gradually escalates until drastic action has to be taken. It's an effective and rather frightening tale which would not be out of place in 'Fear on Four'.
The play contains a passing mention of an early audio pioneer, de Martinville, who first recorded the human voice in the 1850s; well before Edison, though de Martinville's recordings were never intended to be played back. That never happened until Indiana University found a way of using a laser to read the groove, digitise it and decode the information back into an audio signal.
Clare McCarron played Rhona and Jonjo O'Neill was her boss; other roles were taken by Harry Hadden-Paton, Stephen Critchlow and Laura Hyde. This was another indie production; from John Taylor's Fiction Factory.
LOST IN MEXICO (R4, 1415, 25-26 Mar 13), written by Ingeborg Topsoe and made by Goldhawk Productions used successive afternoon play slots and was based on the true story of an insurance fraud carried out by two female backpackers in Brazil. The story is re-set in Mexico. The girls report a non-existent theft at the end of an expensive holiday, not realising the immense amount of trouble and hassle which will follow. They get sucked into the Mexican penal system; far harsher and more penal than anything we see in Europe. The production uses local actors (they are excellent) and on-location recording to produce the realism for which Goldhawk is well-known. The play makes for uncomfortable listening; the girls' relationship is the main focus but the wider story explores the unsettling theme of poverty tourism and young people living on the streets. Olivia Darnley and Lucy May Barker played the two girls; with Saskia Wickham, Enrique Arreola, Emilio Savinni and others. The script editor was Mike Walker and the director John Dryden.
During March we had two Westerns broadcast as successive Saturday plays. The first was HOMBRE and the second was SHANE (R4, 1430, 30 Mar 13), written by Jack Schaefer and dramatized by Frances Byrnes. It's set in Wyoming, cattle-raising country, and as the story begins, Shane arrives, an enigmatic stranger who finds himself drawn into a conflict between Joe Starrett, an honest homesteader and cattle baron Fletcher, who is carrying out a campaign of intimidation and buying up his neighbours' land. Shane's arrival is to Joe's advantage, but presents Joe's wife with a romantic dilemna.
To paraphrase part of David Crawford's review in RT: ...... It's the lack of gunplay which gives the drama its strength. As the tension increases towards the showdown, there's only one word of gunfights until we hear the final shots echo across the valley. Throughout, the pathos of the play is hinted at by a beautifully haunting score by Fernando Macias-Jimenez.
RT described this as the first radio production of the novel. Not quite right; Nick McCarty adapted it in 1995 in a superb 90-minute drama. The new play lasts 60 minutes, so some of the action is abbreviated, and the interaction between Shane and Joe's wife is less explicit than in the McCarty version; there isn't room for it; and the bar-room confrontations are described, not dramatized. Another interesting contrast is that in this dramatization, the killer Stark Wilson never appears; he is only present in the words of the other characters. Nevertheless it is an excellent production. Shane was played by Joshua Stamberg, Marian by Jennifer Westfeldt, Joe by Jeff Mash and Bobby by Finley Jacobsen. The producer was Kate McAll.
The film, which many of you will have seen, starred Alan Ladd.
Hugh Costello is well-known for his plays on political and religious themes; he wrote a play in 2009 about the Vatican conclave after the short reign and mysterious death of Pope John Paul I in 1978. THE FEWNESS OF HIS WORDS (R4, 1415, 10 Apr 2013) was also about the priesthood. Father Richard Mercer has to persuade former priest Father George Lawson to face justice; he has sought sanctuary in an Italian monastery after being accused of child abuse. As he argues and negotiates with Lawson, Mercer is forced to think about his own understanding of compassion and relationship with God, and the way in which he must resolve the affair. Father Richard was played by Declan Conlon, Father George by Andrew Sachs, and Cardinal Vargas by Gerard Murphy; the producer was Eoin O'Callaghan.
There were other notable plays, many of which I missed because of other commitments (apples have to be grafted in Feb-Mar). There was an Orwell season including his totalitarian nightmare '1984', dramatized by Jonathan Holloway, and there were the first dramatized versions of other rare Orwell material. There was a superb reworking of 'The Wind in the Willows' by Neil Brand, and a trilogy by Dan Rebellato 'Negative Signs of Progress' about a female aid worker in Syria being taken hostage. There was another tale from Alexander McCall-Smith's Number One Ladies' Detective Agency, and a excellent new production of Noel Coward's 'Present Laughter' with Samuel West as Gary Essendine and Frances Barber as his secretary (though the unsurpassable performance of this is surely the Paul Scofield / Patricia Routledge version from 1976).
With widespread funding cuts being imposed in public and private private sectors, it is certain that there will soon be less money available for making programmes at the BBC. There are already government plans to reduce funding for the Arts. Radio drama is one of the less expensive art forms enjoyed by millions of people all over Britain; let us hope that the cuts are made elsewhere.
ND, Diversity website, 25 Apr 13
RADIO REVIEW Sep 13
Since the last review we have had plenty of decent drama; lots of plays by well-known names (including Christopher William Hill, Guy Meredith, Mark Burgess, Mark Lawson, Mike Walker, Nick Warburton, Tom Stoppard and William Trevor) , a J.G.Ballard-inspired 'Dystopia' science fiction season, a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Dam Busters' raids on Germany, more Bradley Shoreham stories by Philip Palmer, and remakes of Georgy Girl by Margaret Forster and Sword of Honour by Evelyn Waugh. Some relative newcomers (Alastair McGowan, Lenny Henry, Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel) also supplied excellent plays for the Afternoon Drama slot.
I was pleased to be in touch with Moira Petty during August and September, and this has led to my compiling an index of her recent radio reviews, which is on this site. The reviews themselves are permanently hosted on 'The Stage' website.
LOVE, WAR AND TRAINS (R4, 1415, 1 May 13), written and narrated by Ian MacMillian, surprised me. Regular readers will know my blind spot for poetry; as a scientist I prefer ideas to be expressed in as few words as possible, and in such a way that they cannot be misinterpreted. My 'ideal' writer is perhaps Paul Dirac, who wrote about science with crystalline clarity. Imagine my surprise when I found the rhyme and rhthym of MacMillan's narration entertaining. The play was essentially true; it was based on the story of his parents' courtship. His father, a sailor, briefly glimpses a woman in the WAAF. They write to each other as penfriends for a while; then eventually they arrange to meet. The story goes from there; effervescent, quirky and charming. Helping the narrator with sections of drama were actors Billy Boyd, Verity-May Henry, Henry Devas, Natalie Grady and Hamilton Berstock. The producer was Gary Brown.
Nell Leyshon's play, THE COLOUR OF MILK (R4, 1415, 2 May 13) was set in 1830. A farmer's young daughter is asked to care for the vicar's sick wife, and live in. The invalid gradually deteriorates and dies, but the girl is kept on. The vicar starts to teach her how to read and write. But there is a dark side to the drama; to paraphrase Jane Anderson in RT: She's direct and outspoken and bold, but the vicar seems to enjoy her frankness.............he pleasures in her company too much. He makes excuses to keep her in his service and takes her new duties to an unpleasant new level. The cast included Carly Bawden, Peter Hamilton Dyer and Jonathan Keeble; the producer was Susan Roberts.
DEAD MAN'S SUIT (R4, 1415, 3 May 13) by Michael Stewart was an unusual science fiction story. A nerdy computer expert finds an expensive suit in a charity shop. He finds that it leads to love, and advancement at work, and other things; it turns his life around. Nevertheless there is a sting in the tail. Jeremy Swift took the lead, with Conrad Nelson, Kate Coogan, Natalie Grady, Lisa Allen, Isaac Whitmore, Jenna Addinall and Hamilton Berstock. The producer was Gary Brown. Here's Jane Anderson again:
Ian is a loser; never had a girlfriend, stuck in a dead-end job since he left college, and he's just been sacked. Then he finds a beautifully-tailored, silk-lined suit he picks up for a snip at a charity shop. It comes with a surprise.....and suddenly he becomes a force to be reckoned with, both with women and at work....
Hugh Costello's play THE GUEST OF ST. PETER'S (R4, 1430, 10 May 13) was an interesting flight of fancy: two Popes living in the Vatican; one retired through ill-health, the other his successor, a reactionary authoritarian, increasingly out of touch with ordinary people and the way society's values have changed. In the words of Emma Finamore of RT: the play is initially intriguing; hushed whispers in dark corners of the Vatican, dodgy dealings with an ambitious journalist, and a loose cannon as secretary of state. Then the institution closes ranks against the outside world.... The cast: David Warner, Amaka Okafor and Jude Akuwidike, with Anton Lesser and Andrew Sachs as the Popes. The producer was Eoin O'Callaghan.
On May 17, Radio 2 celebrated the 70th anniversary of the bouncing-bomb raid on the Ruhr valley dams, which proved to be a turning point in the war. The programme was called THE DAM BUSTERS 70 YEARS ON (R2, 2000-2200, 17 May 13) and was broadcast in the 'Friday night is music night' slot, presented by Jeremy Vive & Dermot O'Leary, from Biggin Hill airport, in front of an audience of 1700 people. It was a mixture of music, the voices of those who were involved, and some dramatic reconstruction, recounting the invention of the bouncing bomb by Barnes Wallis, the training of the pilots, and the eventual destruction of two dams in Germany's industrial heartland, along with much loss of life on both sides. There was an interesting article in Radio Times, part of which is summarized below. There is a fuller summary on the Recent Plays page.
George Johnson is now the last British survivor from 617 Squadron which was given the job of destroying the three hydroelectric dams which powered Hitler's armaments factories. The operation involved flying at very low levels; about 60 ft above ground, releasing the bomb at exactly the right height and speed, so that it would bounce on the surface of the lake and then detonate either on hitting the dam or, in Johnson's case at the Sorpe dam, without hitting it but very close to its centre.
The Dambusters won a host of medals, including a VC for Guy Gibson, who led the squadron, and Distinguished Flying Medal for Johnson, but the casualty rate was high. 53 of the 133 aircrew never returned.
Those involved in making the programme were: the BBC Concert Orchestra, the RAF's Central Band, the RAF Squadronnaires and the Military Wives Choir, with actors Carl Prekopp, Nick Boulton, Sam Dale, Will Howard and Clare Corbett.
For those interested in the wartime RAF there are some related plays: Spitfire, by Mike Walker (2012), Bomber, by Len Deighton (1999), Barnes and Molly, by Ray Brown (2000), The Navigator's Log, by Don Haworth (1989), and Talk of Love and War, by Don Haworth (1981). These are discussed on the WW2: The War in the Air page.
Guy Meredith's latest play, ONE WINTER'S AFTERNOON (R3, 2000, 19 May 13) explored the antipathy between composers Wagner and Verdi, with imagined conversations between them. In life they never met, but the antipathy is actual, not imagined. The play is set shortly after the popular success of Verdi's opera Aida. Now he has been persuaded to write one more: Otello, but is finding it a struggle. Wagner's voice inside his head mocks him. The cast: Wagner: Kenneth Cranham, Verdi: Paul Rhys, Guiseppina: Kate Buffery, Ricordi: Clive Merrison, with Nick Boulton, Lydia Leonard, Zalie Barrow, Scott Handy, Emily Bruni; Clare Corbett, Sean Baker, Mark Straker and Christopher York. Production was by Cherry Cookson.
THE HILL BACHELORS, by William Trevor (R4, 1415, 3 Jun 13) was about a man returning to rural Ireland after half a lifetime away. He had a high-paid job and lived in the city, but now his father has died and he has come back for the funeral. He has no wife or children, but his brothers and sisters all have families are are fully committed. Who will inherit the farm? If it's him, he has a difficult choice; he may have to live there alone because there's no way his girlfriend will agree to such an isolated existence. Damien Moloney played Paulie, along with Fionnula Flanagan, Peter Gowen and Deirdre Donnelly. The producer was Gemma McMullan.
Ed Harris's sci-fi play DANGEROUS VISIONS (R4, 1415, 17 Jun 13) was a rather disturbing vision of the future; Mark arrives home to find that his dead wife has been replaced by a technologically perfect replica provided by her insurance company. He was coming to terms with her death, but if the replica is perfect, is she really deceased? Blake Ritson played the bewildered husband and Raquel Cassidy was Donna; Jonquil Panting produced. This was part of the Radio 4 'Dystopia' season.
The following afternoon we had INVASION (R4, 1415, 18 Jun 13) by Philip Palmer. An astronaut wakes up in quarantine on Earth after being the first person to walk on Mars. It's not clear why he has been isolated; his only company is a computer program which talks to him. It slowly emerges why he is on his own, and how how long he has been there. Kadian was played by Edward Hogg and the virtual woman by Amita Dhiri. The producer was James Robinson.
James Lees-Milne is well-known as a witty diarist and friend of the aristocracy during the 1930s and 1940s. He knew many of the most prominent British intellectual and social figures of his day, including Nancy Mitford, Harold Nicolson, Deborah Mitford, and Cyril Connolly.
By the age of 28, Lees-Milne had begun the work which would make him famous. He was the first person to persuade the gentry to donate their houses to the National Trust, and this helped turn it into the successful institution that it is today, with 300 houses and 3.5 million members. Back in the thirties the Trust, already 40 years old and with only 5000 members, owned very few grand properties. The situation would slowly change, as he searched for houses of sufficient architectural merit to justify the Trust acquiring them, and he began the process of persuading their aristocratic owners to sign them over, often after centuries of family ownership. At some houses he never made it past the front door; at others he was welcomed with open arms by families desperate to relieve themselves of the financial burden of their oversized estates.
Christopher William Hill has written three plays based on the Lees-Milne diaries, and they were broadcast on successive days in early July. The titles were SOMETIMES INTO THE ARMS OF GOD, THE UNENDING BATTLE, and WHAT ENGLAND OWES (R4, 1415, 8-10 Jul 13) and they give an interesting glimpse into his life and work.
As a musician and collector of 'curiosities' I was particularly interested in the third play, which featured Gerald Tyrrwhit, also known as Lord Berners, one of the more colourful figures from a bygone age. Close to the end of WW2, Lees-Milne was sent to assess Lord Berners' home, Faringdon House in Berkshire, for the National Trust. Berners, apart from running the estate, had no need to work, being extremely rich. He had been a fairly successful British diplomat but his eccentricity and love of jokes and frivolity was well-known. In this respect we need more men like him.
At Faringdon he built a 100-foot folly. At the bottom was a notice: "Members of the Public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk". He sat in the House of Lords once, but refused to return on the grounds that his umbrella was stolen by a bishop. He said his title was acquired when three uncles fell off a bridge at the same time after attending a funeral. He could paint in the style of Corot and he wrote crisp and witty prose. He spread fun and laughter amongst his friends, but his greatest talent was for music, and he produced some excellent works. His Rolls-Royce contained a small clavichord under the front seat in case the urge to compose overtook him whilst on a drive.
So, to the play ... together with the handsome Robert Heber Percy and his wife, Jennifer, Lord Berners is part of an apparently successful ménage-a-trois. Lees-Milne visits; he finds it an inspirational relationship and thinks it would be the perfect and most civilised lifestyle to lead. Then suddenly, Berners has a stroke, and is forced to contemplate his mortality. He decides that provision must be made for Robert if the house is to be acquired by the Trust.
Lees-Milne was played by Tobias Menzies, Lord Berners by Christopher Godwin, and other characters appearing were Nancy Mitford (Victoria Hamilton), Eddy Sackville-West (David Seddon) and the Heber-Percys (Michael Shelford and Philippa Stanton). The producer was Marion Nancarrow.
SUSPICION FOR TEN VOICES, by Mark Lawson. (R4, 1430, 22 Jun 13) was a Saturday Drama based on the Protestant - Catholic conflict in the late 1500s. William Byrd, court musician, is prospering; but he finds himself accused of hiding secret Catholic messages in his musical scores. Those who accuse him say, correctly, that he refuses to attend Protestant services; behaviour which can lead to sentence of death. Meanwhile his mentor and business partner Thomas Tallis is dying.
Aside from the religious conflict, the play contained some interesting observations on 16th century life. Byrd had an eye for the main chance; for example, he held the commercial rights for all musical manuscript paper printed in England at the time. He was the Queen's favourite composer, but the accusation of recusancy and his references to the Virgin Mary in his music were said by some to reveal his support for Queen Mary, which amounted to treason. That was a hanging offience. There was an excellent cast: Simon Russell Beale as Byrd, Jon Glover as Thomas Tallis, with Rebecca Saire, Anton Lesser, Gerard Murphy, Neil Brand (as Fr. Rodrigues) and Joseph Hancock as the boy singer.. The producer was Eoin O'Callaghan.
The life of the composer Erik Satie was explored in THREE PIECES IN THE SHAPE OF A PEAR (R4, 1415, 15 Jul 13), a first radio play by Alistair McGowan. Satie was an influential figure in the history of music; he wrote for the piano in a way which had not been seen before, and he had an enormous influence on Claude Debussy. He was rather idiosyncratic, giving some of his pieces whimsical titles, and he was known as an obsessive collector of umbrellas. Ultimately he comes across as a rather isolated figure but there is no doubting the quality of his music. The 'Gymnopedies' are his best-known works. Satie was played by Alistair McGowan, Debussy by Nathaniel Parker and Suzanne Valadon by Imogen Stubbs. Emma Harding was the producer.
Another play by Christopher William Hill "HUSH! HUSH! WHISPER WHO DARES! (R4, 1415, 25 Jul 13) imagined an encounter between 90-year-old Ernest Shepherd, illustrator of the tales of Pooh, and 50-year-old "Christopher Robin", A.A.Milne's son. The play examined the effects of the the Pooh stories on the lives of the two men, including a possible V&A retrospective, but there were plenty of dark shadows. Oliver Ford Davies played the illustrator and Christopher Milne was played by Simon Treves. The producer was Peter Kavanagh.
MISS YOU STILL, Lenny Henry's second radio play (R4,1415, 1 Aug 13) was a rather grim social story with supernatural overtones. A Midlands bus-driver, Charlie has lost both his wife and his daughter. He has fallen into depression, become a recluse, and is unable to come to terms with his grief. A local lady, Joyce, who has also lost a partner, involved in church and charity work to keep her mind occupied, reaches out to him. The result is akin to a match being dropped in a box of fireworks. Lenny Henry played Charlie, Clare Perkins was Joyce, with Bunmi Mojekwu, Amit Shah, Alex Lanipekun and Tranae Sinclair and produced by Claire Grove.
Mark Burgess's JOAN AND THE BARON (R4, 1415, 15 Aug 13) was based on the friendship between Joan Littlewood, a well-known lady of the theatre, and Baron Philippe de Rothschild, multi-millionaire vineyard owner. Both have lost their life partners, but a chance encounter leads to an invitation to the Rothschild estate. The play contains a brief glimpse into both their lives. To summarise RT reviewer Tony Peters, ....some of the flashbacks are clumsily introduced and Michael Jayston's accent sometimes wavers a little, but Eleanor Bron captures the no-nonsense Joan Littlewood perfectly. The supporting cast: Andrew Branch, Rachel Atkins and Jonathan Tafler; the producer was David Blount.
DARKSIDE (R2, 2000, 26 Aug 2013, 60m) was something of an occasion: a new play by playwriting maestro Tom Stoppard, who has written some of the most memorable stage drama of the last fifty years. It juxtaposed the Pink Floyd Album 'The Dark Side of the Moon' and an odd story which unfortunately left me (and Gillian Reynolds, the Daily Telegraph reviewer) somewhat mystified. The play is reviewed in detail on 'The Stage' website by Moira Petty, who evidently got more out of it than either of us. Tom Stoppard described it in RT as a live broadcast interweaving his play with an orchestrated version of the album. He had to honour the tracks as Pink Floyd had recorded them and do the best he could with the time he had in between the lyrics. The album is concerned with madness, death, greed and anxiety; it uses simple language to deliver a sermon on 'don't be afraid to care'. The play was produced by James Robinson and starred an experienced cast including Bill Nighy, Rufus Sewell, Adrian Scarborough, Peter Marinker, and Ben Crowe.
THREE MEN IN A BOAT has been re-dramatized by Chris Harrald and broadcast as the Classic Serial in two episodes (R4, 1430, beginning 15 Sep 2013). Jerome's tale of three men messing about on the river is so well-known that comments about the story are almost superfluous. There have been at least two other BBC versions: one by Hubert Gregg, with Gregg himself, Kenneth Horne and Leslie Phillipps (1962); supplied to BBC7 some years ago from an off-air recording within VRPCC, and another in 1994 by Tom Stoppard (can't remember the cast, but I think Jeremy Nicholas was in it). Here's an extract from the preface to the first edition, written in 1889:
'The chief beauty of this book lies not so much in its literary style, or in the extent and usefulness of the information it contains, as in its simple truthfulness. Its pages form the record of events that really happened. .......George and Harris and Montmorency are not poetic ideals, but things of flesh and blood - especially George, who weighs about twelve stone. Other works may excel this in depth of thought and knowledge of human nature...but for hopeless and incurable veracity, nothing yet discovered can surpass it......' Julian Rhind-Tutt played 'J', with Steve Punt, Hugh Dennis and Katherine Jakeways; the producer was Melanie Harris.
There have been other memorable plays; I enjoyed Philip Palmer's three 'war-games' stories; his ex-military war games expert Bradley Shoreham setting up emergency scenarios with an 1) expert in pandemics, 2) a young maverick in a financial dealing house and 3) the crew on an oil rig. Mike Harris's tale 'His Father's Wife', based an idea by R.L.Stevenson was a good old-fashioned Gothic horror. 'Brief Lives', the legal advisers' drama by Tom Fry and Sharon Kelly, gets better and better. 'Rumours', by Colin Shindler, about the Profumo affair and the role of Private Eye (involving Richard Ingrams, Christopher Booker, William Rushton and Richard Ingrams) was fascinating. Mike Walker's Dickens dramatizations continued (good stuff); then we had financial meltdown by Dave Britton in 'When Greed Becomes Hunger'; yet another play by Christopher William Hill, about Frederick Ashton in his later years (I wondered if Algernon Ashton the composer was a relative, but no; I looked it up)...more Nick Warburton (Two Mardle Fen episodes and another one-off play, all up to his usual high standard)...
Being a humble hobbyist I don't have time to review all of these, but you'll find remarks about some of them on the 'recent plays' page. We got a nice mention on Moira Petty's radio reviews page in 'The Stage' in September. Thanks Moira!
Nigel Deacon, 30 Sep 2013
RADIO DRAMA REVIEW Dec 13
The BBC has been quite adventurous in some of its recent commissions; we have had lots of political plays including a five-episode English version of 'Borgen' from Danish television, and ten successive afternoon play slots devoted to "The Corrupted", an adaptation for radio of G.F.Newman's epic set in post war London about a family living on the edge of the criminal underworld. There was a new seven-hour production of Waugh's "Sword of Honour", and lots of smaller things, with a few gems mixed in... here are the ones I've enjoyed, in chronological order; there were a few which I missed because of the demands of the apple season but I'm being sent recordings
and some of these will eventually be mentioned on the 2013 plays page .
SWORD OF HONOUR, by Evelyn Waugh, adapted by Jeremy front, occupied the Classic Serial slot for almost two months, starting on 29 Sep 2013. This is a satire on the futility of war, seeming to consist of one part heroics and ninety-nine parts cent boredom, time-wasting, foul-ups and general folly. It is semi-autobiographical, dealing with Waugh's experiences in WW2, and Waugh is represented by Guy Crouchback, an aristocrat with few social skills who doesn't seem very bothered about anything except the disappearance of old-fashioned values and chivalrous ways. It has a rich cast of characters, exhibiting by turns nobility, devoutness, promiscuity, selfishness, snobbery, courage and craziness.
The production wasn't quite as lavish as the 11-part Barry Campbell / Jane Graham version which went out in 1974 (11 x 55m with 90 actors will never happen again) but it still involved around 40 actors over the seven weeks. Tim McInnerney was the narrator, with Paul Ready as Guy Crouchback, Adrian Scarborough as Apthorpe, Tim Piggott-Smith as Ben, along with a host of other well-known radio names. The producer was Marc Beeby; unaccountably not credited in RT.
CALUM'S ROAD (1430, R4, 5 Oct 13) was a Saturday Play by Colin MacDonald, based on the true story by Roger Hutchinson. It's set on the island of Raasay and is about a man who petitioned the council to build a road linking the schools and medical facilities in the south with the more isolated areas in the north. The council refused, so Calum spent the next ten years building the road himself. Iain McDiarmid played Calum, with Bryan Dick, Monica Gibb, Iain Macrae and Helen Mackay; the producer was Kirsteen Cameron.
THE CORRUPTED, by G.F.Newman (R4, 1415, beginning 21 Oct) unfolded over a fortnight; it was set in post war London and was the story of a family living on the edge of the criminal underworld, spread over several decades. The Krays and the Richardsons appeared, along with less familiar names and assorted fictional characters. It was not for the faint hearted becauses it included quite explicit sex scenes. Moira Petty's review mentioned its magnificent attention to detail; in her words "pungent with the stench of bent coppers, judges and society figures climbing into bed – metaphorically and literally – with villains".
The opening scene had the narrator's mother, Cath, played by Denise Gough, clubbing her father to death after discovering that he had been abusing her son. Her husband Joey Oldman was a Jewish immigrant determined to make his way in the world. He had a dogged determination and the persistence of a dripping tap, and his ambition was to set up a chain of grocery stores. Some time after opening his first store, he was threatened by criminal gangs demanding protection money; he had no choice but to pay it, or his shop would be trashed.
However he continued to work long hours, month after month, year after year, paying his protection money, but stashing away plenty of cash nevertheless. His brother Jack, a draft-dodger with aspirations to be a champion boxer, realised there might be easy money to be made for providing a bit of muscle. The time eventually came when he waited at his brother's shop on 'payment day' and gave the racketeers a beating. Before long, Jack and his young nephew Brian began operating their own lucrative protection racket, and it brought them into conflict with, amongst others, the Krays, where they became involved in terrifying acts of violence.
The story has tremendous pace. The cast included Ross Kemp (Old Brian, narrator), with Toby Jones (Joey), Denise Gough (his wife), Rory McMenamin (Brian as a child), Joe Armstrong (Brian as a young man), and Tom Weston-Jones (Jack). It was an 'indie' production; Pacificus, produced by Clive Brill.
A play by Mike Bartlett, THE RIGHT HONOURABLE (R4, 2 Nov 13, Saturday Play) went back to politics; a young woman, Nerys Jones, was a new MP. When she arrived at the House of Commons, the leader of her party, to her surprise, offered to be her personal tour guide. She couldn't quite work out why he was being so generous, until she became involved in a series of events testing her integrity and her ability to compromise; he wanted her to keep quiet. Alexandra Roach played Nerys Jones, with Peter Firth as her boss, with Anton Lesser as his political adviser, Alun Raglan, Gerard McDermott, Paul Bazely and Di Botcher. This was another Pacificus production, produced by Clive Brill and directed by Claire Grove.
A play about the coal strike, QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE (R4, 1415, 4 Nov 13), by Maxine Peake was based on a true event; four miners' wives, including the wife of Arthur Scargill, the leader of the miners' union, went down into a coal mine and stayed there for a prolonged period (Parkside Colliery, Merseyside) in an attempt to save the pits from closing. Maxine Peake played Anne Scargill, with Julie Hesmondhalgh, Lorraine Cheshire and Rachel Austin. The producer was Justine Potter.
Sarah Wooley's latest play, MOVING MUSIC (R4, 1415, 8 Nov 13) was biographical; it concerned the composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich, who worked together for a while as furniture removers before they became recognized as composers. This play imagined some of the scrapes they got into. Bryan Dick and Justin Salinger took the lead parts, with Ian Batchelor, David Seddon and Nancy Crane doing the rest. The producer was Gaynor MacFarlane.
An entertaining play about The Beatles, SORRY BOYS, YOU FAILED THE AUDITION (R4, 1415, 14 Nov 13), by Ray Connolly, was a flight of fancy about what might have happened if they'd failed their audition with producer George Martin. In the play they abandon their dream of becoming a recognized pop group and disappear into obscurity. It's only the persistence of the secretary of the Ex-Beatles Fan Club which enables their genius to resurface. Andrew Knott, Stephen Fletcher, Luke Broughton and Daniel Crossley played the Fab Four, with Sara Bahadori as their guardian angel; the producer was Gary Brown.
Dolya Gavanski's new interpretation of Dostoievsky's story The Gambler went out as the Classic Serial: THE RUSSIAN GAMBLER (R4, beginning 17 Nov 13). Mikhail, a Russian tycoon living in London engages a hard-up pianist, Alexei, to be his daughter's music tutor. Alexei is also the narrator, and we learn that he has worked out a method to beat the roulette wheel. Apparently it is foolproof...but I guess we have heard it before. Moira Petty, in The Stage, described the play like this: creditors, love rivals and elderly relatives juggle farcically for space....... Gavanski’s version only really begins to work when space is cleared for flashes of insight. The production steps up when Alexei, lured to the casino, likens the mathematics of gambling to those of a musical fugue....
Ed Stoppard was Alexei, with Matthew Marsh, Dolya Gavanski, Isabella Blake-Thomas and Graham Seed (well-known as Nigel Pargetter from The Archers until a couple of years ago). The producer was John Dryden, in another 'indie' production from Goldhawk Essential.
SOLOMON AND MARION (R4, 1430, 23 Nov 13), by Lara Foot, was a play inspired by an act of senseless violence: the murder of actor Brett Goldin in Cape Town in 2006. It begins with Marion, a divorcee living in rural isolation in South Africa, writing a letter to her daughter. She is visited by a figure from her past, a young black man, the grandson of a former employee. He has come on a mission, but it is some time before we discover what it is. Janet Suzman, who played Marion, spoke about the production afterwards, and the event which caused it to be written. Khayalethu Anthony played Solomon (there were no other characters) and the producer was Alison Hindell.
Jon Canter's THE VERTIGO TRUST (R4, 1415, 29 Nov 13) concerned a millionaire entrepreneur suffering from vertigo. He's in charge of a big manufacturing concern but his office is on the ground floor. A person claiming to be a vertigo counsellor offers to help him. , and gets behind his defences. This was a neat comedy drama starring Gerard Murphy and James Fleet and was produced by Clive Brill; another play from Pacificus.
Charlotte Greig particpated in the short James Cain season; her adaptation of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (R4, 1430, 30 Nov 13), well known as a film, went out at the end of November. A drifter travelling through California is offered a job by the proprietor of a Greek diner; he starts to work there but becomes attracted to his beautiful daughter. They begin an affair, but if they are to have a future together, they first have to get rid of the Greek, so they plan a murder. Ronan Summers played the drifter, Chris Pavlo was the Greek; and the women were played by Samantha Dakin (Cora), and Kerry Shale (Sackett).
It was followed by DOUBLE INDEMNITY (R4, 1500, 1 Dec 13), in an adaptation by Stef Penney. An unhappily married woman wonders if she can insure her husband's life without him knowing. The insurance man calls, to renew a car insurance, and she asks a few probing questions about life policies. He takes the hint, and their plotting begins. Walter, the victim, was played by Trevor White and the plotters were Christy Meyer and Mitchell Mullen.
Finally we had the third Cain play, THE BUTTERFLY (R4, 1430, 8 Dec 13) adapted by Adrian Bean. A lonely homesteader who has lived a solitary life for 20 years gets a visitor who claims to be his daughter. His tranquil existence is suddenly turned upside-down and he becomes involved in making illegal hooch and all that it entails. John Chancer and Ashleigh Haddad played father and daughter; Solomon Mousley and Jess Mash were the villains and Martin T Sherman was the deputy. The producer for the James Cain plays was Kate McAll.
LOST AND FOUND (R4, 1415, 2 Dec 13) by Ian Kershaw, had a very simple plot; an elderly man suffering from dementia tries to connect with his daughter; essentially a two-hander between Tom Courtenay and Sally Carman. We meet Stan during an ordinary day at work, in his lost property office at Manchester Piccadilly railway station, when a middle-aged woman comes in to reclaim a missing item. He can't find it.....however, it is gradually revealed that he is not at work; furthermore, she has not lost anything. Gary Brown was the producer, and this was a most moving and affecting production.
Another play from Mike Bartlett, HEART (R4, 1415, 6 Dec 13) was a repeat from 2011, broadcast as a tribute to its producer Claire Grove, who had died a fortnight earlier, aged 60. A newly-retired primary school teacher is bewildered by the violent mood swings of her husband; the result of work-induced stress. He has become quite unlike the gentle, caring man he used to be. Without action, his marriage is unlikely to survive. The couple were played by Alison Steadman and Nicholas Farrell. Mike Bartlett is one of many playwrights whose talent has been nurtured by Claire Grove, and she will be much missed.
A very interesting drama-documentary, of interest to anyone involved (like the present writer) in civil defence during the Cold War era, was broadcast in mid-December. WINTER EXERCISE (R4, 1430, 14 Dec 13), partially dramatized by Philip Palmer, was set in 1981. Global tensions had increased, and war between the Soviet and Western blocs seemed a real possibility. And so, for two weeks in March, a group of top civil servants met daily as part of Wintex-Cimex, a biennial exercise to test the UK Government's readiness for each stage of a descent into nuclear conflict. David Aaronovitch presented a documentary drama based on the recently-released Cabinet Office file.
A nationwide exercise of military and civil defence personnel, Wintex-Cimex, would reveal the readiness of Britain to deal with the consequences of a nuclear exchange and what would inevitably follow: violence, breakdown of law and order, food shortages, attacks by enemy special forces at large in the country; perhaps even biological or chemical warheads. The full detail of this scenario - the assumptions and decisions made - was released in 2012. David Aaronovitch was joined by Beatrice Heuser of Reading University, Kristan Stoddart of Aberystwyth University and Richard Vinen from King's College, London to explain the drama as it progressed.
During the exercise, extreme nationalist prisoners break out of jail. Protestors distribute leaflets at army bases, discouraging soldiers from fighting. Troops are threatened, but those who refuse to fight are jailed. There are strikes and demonstrations. The Leader of the Opposition and the Archbishop of Canterbury are briefly put under arrest, after marches are banned. The emergency ‘Cabinet’ is forced to decide whether the UK should use its nuclear weapons, and how many, and where they should be targeted.
Tim Woodward played the role of the top civil servant playing the P.M. in the exercise; the Foreign Secretary was Thomas Wheatley, the Home Secretary was Simon Treves, and the Defence Secretary was Steve Tuson. Carolyn Pickles was narrator; the producer was Phil Tinline and the director Toby Swift.
Another big radio drama project was the five-episode BORGEN: OUTSIDE THE CASTLE (R4, 1415, beginning 16 Dec 13), broadcast on successive days. This is a popular drama on Danish television. It's highly political and the scenario is somewhat familiar to UK listeners; there's a coalition government struggling to implement its policies; deals, clashes of ideology, back-stabbing and compromise. Daily Telegraph reviewer Gillian Reynolds admitted she was hooked, in her review of 18 Dec; I've summarized a few of her remarks here:
... the radio series is about the back room of executive power, the civil service......Tim Pigott-Smith plays the central figure, Hans Gammelgard, powerful secretary to the environment ministry. He's engaged in drafting a bill about genetically modified crops ...... the original writers, Tommy Bredsted and Joan Rang, put in all their wonderful complexities of issue, plot and character.... But the good thing about the series is its believability; as in life, the characters are not wholly 'good' or 'bad'; the issues are complicated, and we get intelligently written dialogue which makes us see, if only briefly, both sides of some of the arguments. This is not a rant about the dangers of GM crops or propaganda masquerading as environmentalism. Gillian Reynolds again: ...the realities of national legislation, with the EU on one side and global capitalism on the other.... [are] even trickier......
The radio version was translated by Joy Wilkinson, and alongside Tim Pigott-Smith we heard Wilf Howard, Katherine Dow Blyton and Tom Goodman-Hill; the music was by Halfdan E, and the producers were Anders Landorf and Polly Thomas.
There have been other interesting items, including ANGEL MAKER by Carine Adler, a most unusual love story; ARLO by John Retallack, where an unwise marriage is viewed critically by the child it produces; PILGRIM, an excellent series of supernatural fantasies (continued) by Sebastian Baczkiewicz, another Claire Grove protege; and C.S.LEWIS & TOLKIEN - THE LOST ROAD by Robin Brooks which explores the relationship between the two writers. Radio drama seems to be 'on the up'.
When the amount of radio drama on the BBC was cut in 2010, Alison Hindell, Head of BBC Radio Drama, wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph, in which she said:
.....It is true that there is now slightly less drama on network radio, but that is part of a strategy to invest in quality rather than quantity...
From where I'm standing, three years later, it appears that she has delivered on that promise.