Another good four months for radio drama; there has been a seemingly high quota of repeats, but we've had five successive plays about a psychic family, some Trollope, a few good one-off plays, another three-part thriller from Goldhawk, an entertaining set of three legal plays by Janet Okoh, and an outstanding adaptation of a classic of Italian literature, The Divine Comedy. There were other items missed because of the apple grafting season, but I have recordings of most; eventually they will be listed or described elsewhere on the site.
LISTENING TO THE DEAD (R4, 1415, beginning 30 Dec 13), by Katie Hims, was the story of a family over a period of about 70 years, starting just before the First World War. It went out as five successive afternoon plays and the connecting theme was that some of the people in each generation were psychic. Moira Petty, in her review for 'The Stage', described it as a beautifully-calibrated play about grief, psychic transmission and the fraudsters who prey on the bereaved. The first episode, entitled 'Enoch's Machine', has a member of the family investing nearly all of his money in a machine which he thinks will enable him to record the voice of his deaceased daughter. Another episode featured a woman able to foresee the carnage of WW1. There was a varied cast for the five plays though Ami Metcalf appeared in all of them; Jessica Dromgoole was the producer.
THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES (R4, 1500, beginning 26 Jan 14) introduced me to the work of Anthony Trollope, in a new Michael Symmons Roberts dramatization. It occupied four successive Classic Serial slots; the first was 90m and the others just under an hour. The story begins with THE WARDEN, where the gentle Mr. Harding has his peaceful life as warden of Barchester almshouse disturbed when his would-be son-in-law John Bold asks questions about the large income he receives from the charity. The cast included Maggie Steed, Tim Piggott-Smith, Andrew Sachs and Claire Price and the play was produced by Susan Roberts. Episodes 2-4 were produced by Marion Nancarrow.
EDUCATOR (R3, 2145, 8 Feb 14), by Hayley Squire was part of the long-running series 'The Wire'. It concerned a young English teacher who forgets that professional boundaries are important, and he oversteps the mark with one of his female students. Superficially she seems more astute and sympathetic than his wife, and she is young enough to be frightened of the walking zombie roles she perceives as her parents' day-to-day existence. She really wants to live, and the key to doing so is being properly educated. There is a large amount of fierce dialogue between the two women in the play, with good reason. The teacher was played by Simon Harrison, his wife by Michelle Terry, and the student by Aisling Loftus. The producer was Helen Perry.
A fun fantasy play, FLOATING (R4, 1415, 10 Feb 14) by Hugh Hughes, took us to the island of Anglesey in 1982 where Hugh is planning on sneaking away from home. Just as he sets foot on the Menai Bridge, an earthquake severs the island from the mainland and casts it adrift in the Atlantic Ocean. Hugh attempts to escape but there are two problems; firstly, the ocean current; secondly, the presence of his old headmaster. Hugh and his friend Sioned recount the story. The play was adapted from the stage show, and was performed by Hugh Hughes and Sioned Rowlands with assistance from Shôn Dale-Jones and Jill Norman. The producer was James Robinson.
Ed Harris's drama, BILLIONS (R4, 1415, 11 Feb 14) was a welcome repeat from last June. It was science fiction, and 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 slowly coming to terms with her death, but her reappearance puts the process on hold; and in any case, if the replica is perfect, along with her memories, is she truly deceased? Blake Ritson played the bewildered husband and Raquel Cassidy was Donna; Jonquil Panting produced. The reason for the repeat was that the play won the 'best original drama' award for 2013 earlier this year.
David Ashton's Victorian police inspector, McLEVY (R4, 1415, beginning 18 Feb 14) reappeared for four more episodes. This series contained plenty of violence and thuggery and interesting plots, but there is a new element; the developing relationship between McLevy and Jean Brash. There is also a new Chief Constable, who, like so many new managers, wants to implement sweeping changes without good reason. The regulars in the cast are Brian Cox, his sidekick Mulholland (Michael Perceval-Maxwell), Jean Brash, the brothel keeper (Siobhan Redmond) and Roach (David Ashton). McLevy started as a one-off episode in 1999, and ten series have been commissioned since that broadcast. The producer is Bruce Young, who took over from Patrick Rayner in 2011.
BURNING DESIRES (R4, 1415, 20 Feb 14), by Colin Bytheway, was stranger than fiction, and set in Paris. Between 1914 and 1918 Henri Landru proposed to ten women. After proposing to each one and gaining access to their money he took them to his villa, killed them, dismembered them, and then burned their remains on his kitchen stove. In our enlightened age we tend not to classify indiviuals as 'mad', but there is no way that Landru fits comfortably into any other category. By any human standard he was totally insane. David Jason played Landru, with Marie- Martine McCutcheon as the sister of one of the disappeared women, and Tom Ellis as the man who tracks him down. The producer was Celia de Wolff.
Tom Wells penned a memorable comedy, in JONESY (R4, 1415, 26 Feb 14). Jamie Jones is a chronic asthmatic teenager, tired being regarded as a wimp and fed up with being told to do extra geography instead of sport; but the last time he played rugger, he nearly passed out and was carted off to hospital in an ambulance. Now he is determined to get his GCSE in PE by taking up netball, which, he reckons, can be imagined to be a sport; not too much rushing around; certainly not enough to trigger an asthma attack. So he learns how to play. Moira Petty, in 'The Stage', liked it: ....an endearing and original character....... Matthew Tennyson plays a camp, asthmatic teenager whose desperation to pass his GCSE physical education sees him joining the school’s all-girl netball team. Tennyson’s performance grabs the listener from the opening scene, the gentle humour enhanced by the conceit that he is doing work experience at BBC radio and has been let loose in the special effects unit. Matthew Tennyson was Jamie, with Harry Jardine as Deano, Priyanga Burford as the PE teacher, and Carys Eleri as Shannon. The producer was Jessica Dromgoole.
I was warned about finding TORCHWOOD (R4, 1415, 28 Feb 14) incomprehensible by TV-watching friends. It wasn't bad. The preposterous plot passed over my head; it was nonsense, but this didn't stop the episode from being an entertaining tale of good against evil. An woman in an old people's home with a terminal illness is strangely rejuvenated and back in her old high-powered IT job; after some time, power cuts and information losses begin, nationwide. If it continues to excalate, society and the world as we know it will be in a state of total collapse... some MI5-type specialists who seem to be above the law are sent in to find out what is going on. Jack, the head troubleshooter, was played by John Barrowman, with Eve Miles as Gwen and Gareth David-Lloyd as Ianto; Kate McAll produced.
THE GENESIS ROCK (R4, 1415, 12 Mar 14), by Peter Arnott was reminiscent of Robert Rankin's comic novel "The Brentford Triangle" where one of the minor characters, Archroy, finds Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat and brings it to Brentford on the back of his low-loader. In Peter Arnott's play, a former astronaut makes a similar discovery, but falls and breaks his leg. How will he get the news out to the proper authorities so that America can get the credit? Hope seems lost until a myterious rescuer turns up. Kerry Shale played the astronaut, with John Chancer and John Arnold; the producer was David Ian Neville.
THE LAST BALLAD OF READING JAIL, by Mike Walker (R4, 1415, 13 Mar 14), written to mark its closure, looked back over the 170 years of the jail's existence. It was a very sobering view of a more brutal age. It is possible now in the West to live half a lifetime without seeing a dead body. No such luck in the 1800s; there were public hangings at the prison, floggings, and incarceration for offences which society now regards as relatively minor. Tony Peters, in his RT review, commented that the tales were chilling and depressing... 'time without hope or end'. The play touched on miscarriages of justice, children incarcerated for petty crimes, the hangman explaining how the 'drop' is calculated (the choice being between a quick painless death and slow strangulation), and an encounter with the abortionist Amelia Dyer, the Ogress of Reading Gaol... The visitor was played by Annette Badland, Oscar Wilde by Ifan Meredith, along with Jonathan Forbes and Jimmy Akingbola. The producer was Duncan McLarty.
A political play by James Graham, DIVIDING THE UNION (R4, 14 Mar 14) pictured Scotland having voted 'yes' to independence. Alex Salmond and David Camerson now have to negotiate face-to-face, to decide a number of issues: where the nuclear deterrent will be housed (at the moment it's in Scotland); the dividing of oil revenues, and the sharing of the national debt. None of these will be straightforward, and deals have to be struck. Greg Wise was David Cameron, Greg Hemphill was Alex Salmond, with other parts taken by David Jackson Young, Crawford Logan and Cathleen McCarron. Production was by David Stenhouse.
Another memorable three-part thriller from Goldhawk Essential was broadcast in mid-March: A KIDNAPPING, by Andy Mulligan (R4, 1415, 17-19 Mar 14). It was set and recorded in the Philippines. The story: two teachers from Britain work there in an international school. They become involved in a plot to kidnap the son of a local politician. It means big money. Nevertheless, things start to go wrong; it soon becomes clear that they are way out of their depth. What was initially a kidnapping plot gradually becomes a struggle for their survival. The location recordings contribute to the frightening realism of the production. There were no familiar voices in the cast; Goldhawk uses local actors. The sound design was by Steve Bond, the producer was Nadir Khan and the director John Dryden.
Stephen Wyatt's new dramatization of DANTE'S DIVINE COMEDY, lasting three hours (R4, Classic Serial, 1500, beginning 30 Mar 14) tells of Dante's imaginary journey through hell, purgatory and paradise. It was published seven hundred years ago. The imagined 35-year-old Dante finds himself in the middle of a dark wood, in crisis and on the verge of suicide. Hope of rescue comes when he encounters the shade of the Roman poet Virgil, who offers to lead him through the afterlife, beginning in the depths of hell. He proceeds to Mount Purgatory, where he meets some souls on their journeys of spiritual salvation. Finally he is led to the different levels of Paradise by Beatrice, a woman he loved when he was a young man. The word 'comedy' in the classical sense refers to a work which reflects belief in an ordered universe, in which events resolve to a conclusion, influenced by Providence which steers events in the direction of ultimate good. Paradise, for example, begins with the traveller's moral confusion and ends with the vision of God.
The rhyming structures of the original have been replaced by a flowing narrative which gives an evocative, visual feel to the story. There are clear descriptions of what can be seen as the traveller makes his journey. The three central characters - Dante the younger, Dante the elder, and Virgil, are played by Blake Ritson, John Hurt and David Warner. Beatrice, his companion at the end of the story, was played by Hattie Morahan and the producers were Emma Harding and Marc Beeby.
SILK - THE CLERKS' ROOM, by Janice Okoh (R4, 1415, beginning 1 Apr 14) was a three-part spin-off from the TV drama Silk. From these stories it seems that legal clerks are the people who provide assistance and advice to licensed lawyers and barristers before and during their court cases; they also decide who gets which case. In the first story, Jake, a junior clerk, gets into trouble after promising to help a friend unjustly accused of grievous bodily harm; in the second, a bright teenage girl helping in the clerks' room helps a barrister whose performance is affected by a domestic trauma. The chief clerk was played by Neil Stuke, Jake by Theo Barklem-Biggs, and Bethany by Amy Wren. The producer was Sasha Yevtushenko.
A new play by Eugenio Amaya, DEMOLITION (R4, 1415, 25 Apr 14) looked into the way politics sometimes works in Spain. An Englishman living on the Spanish coast receives, out of the blue, the news that his house must be demolished. The notice comes from the same office which granted him permission to build in the first place. He soon becomes aware of a network of corruption between landowners, politicians and developers. Local officials regard him as a foreigner; he has no say in anything, and eventually he makes a decision. Greg Hicks played Thomas, Christina Ulfsparre was his daughter, and a large and varied cast played the rest; Nicolas Jackson was the producer.
There have been other interesting plays. BLOOD COUNT by Ian Smith looked at the last collaboration of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, when Billy, a giant of the jazz world, was in the late stages of cancer. There was a new dramatization of Jane Austen's PRIDE & PREJUDICE by Charlotte Young broadcast as a Classic Serial, and we are currently halfway through a 2-part adaptation of a classic Wodehouse story, RING FOR JEEVES, where a big-game hunter is staying with a penniless lord and his temporary butler, unaware that they owe him thousands of pounds from a win on the horses. BRING HER BACK by Andy Walker (which I missed) was a science fiction thriller about a rogue virus sweeping Britain, and TEMPTING FAITH was a frenetic comedy about a woman accosting a stranger to pursue her car when it is driven away by thieves.
Nigel Deacon / 26 Apr 2014
RADIO DRAMA REVIEW Sept 2014
As usual, lots of repeats for the period May-September. This is not necessarily a bad thing in the summer; it can be useful occasionally to take a break from the radio and enjoy the good weather.
I was sorry to find in the magazine "The Stage" that Moira Petty's radio drama reviews have been discontinued. Moira has been a valuable (and almost lone) voice writing authoritatively on radio drama for about 20 years. Moira will still write from time to time about certain radio plays, and will continue to write about other productions (TV and theatre) but the coverage received by radio drama is to be much diluted.
There was an excellent series of ten plays by writers new to radio, beginning on 12 May and continuing for a fortnight. My own favourites were 'When I lived in Peru' by Andrew Viner (R4, 1415, 16 May 14) and 'Lost or Stolen' by Jessica Brown (R4, 1415, 22 May 14). In the first, a young man who never travels is driven crazy by his girlfriend's constant references to the year she spent in Peru; he decides to get his own back. In the second, a girl shares a taxi with a young man and pockets his 'phone. Andrew Viner's play was produced by Liz Webb, and Jessica's by James Robinson.
I was pleased to see a repeat of Paul Cornell's creepy play from 2011 'Something in the Water' (R4, 1415, 27 May 14). James, a scientist, is sacked from his job as a columnist, and he decides to move his family to the country. What he finds is a village gripped by hysteria and fear and a lucrative tourist industry based on the supposed monster in the lake. This play reminded me of 'Witch Water Green' by Don Webb, from the 80s; another play where the sound effects are as important as the words. The play starred James Nickerson as the scientist, with Zara Turner as his wife, along with Joel Davies, Conrad Nelson and Jonathan Keeble. The producer was Nadia Molinari.
Simenon's non-Maigret stories as are excellent, and Ronald Frame's dramatization of 'A New Lease of Life' (R4, 1415, 30 May 14) was the story of a reclusive bachelor; an accountant with no emotional or private life apart from his visits to a prostitute. His life changes after he is seriously injured in a car accident. In a private nursing home he develops a relationship with one of the staff and wonders if his life is being manipulated by a third party. Alun Raglan played the bachelor, the other cast members being Selina Boyack, Richard Addison, Eliza Langland, Michael MacKenzie and Kirk Bage. The producer was David Ian Neville.
Brian Sibley, who knew Ray Bradbury, was responsible for an excellent Saturday Play; a dramatization of "The Illustrated Man"; the first in a short series of sci-fi called 'Dangerous Visions' (R4, 1430, 14 Jun 14). A young man's travels bring him into contact with a vagrant who says that his many tattoos come to life after dark and provide glimpses into the future. This device is used to bring together some of Bradbury's best short stories. Iain Glen played the Illustrated Man, with Jamie Parker, Elaine Claxton and Wilf Scolding; the producer was Gemma Jenkins.
Anita Sullivan's plays are always worth a listen, and in 'The Bee Maker' (R4, 1415, 16 Jun 14), a robotics expert builds artificial insects to help pollinate the fruit trees. It's 2020, and most of the world's bees have died out. (As an aside I wonder if readers know that some fruit trees don't need pollinating. The apple "Spenser Seedless" forms fruit whether it is pollinated or not; its flowers have no petals and it usually produces no seeds.) This was an interesting piece of science fiction. The cast included Alice Lowe, Harriet Walter and Stuart McLoughlin, and the producer was James Robinson.
The recent death of Sue Townsend prompted the re-broadcast of her excellent "Adrian Mole and the Blair Mole Project" (R4, 1415, 4 Jul 14), where Adrian Mole is commissioned to present a feature on Tony Blair's ten years as Prime Minister. Unsurprisingly, Adrian has a somewhat idiosyncratic view about this particular politician and his meeting with Blair is not entirely successful. Adrian was played by Pierce Quigley, Blair by Rory Bremner, Cherie Blair by Harriet Walter and Pandora by Jenny Funnell. The producer was Gordon House.
'Hatch, Match & Dispatch', episode 3: 'Time and Tide' (R4, 1415, 9 Jul 14) by David Hodgson was an intriguing "time loop" tale where a man has a chance to correct some mistakes he made a very short while before. Teddy awakens on his stag night naked and handcuffed to a lamp post. This is not the least of his worries; something very odd seems to have occurred over the previous hour, and he seems to have the gift of premonition, but can he trust it? The old man was played by Will Tacey and Teddy by Alan Morrissey; Gary Brown was the producer.
'Come to Grief', by Hannah Vincent (R4, 1415, 15 Jul 14) was a strange play. Sylvia is suspended by the neck as part of her medical treatment. As she hangs there, immobile, she is visited by a series of figures, but is unable to decide whether they are real. Claire Rushbrook played Sylvia and Philip Jackson her husband; the producer was Gordon House and the music was by David Chilton.
'Love Virtually', by Dan Glattauer (R4, 1415, 18 Jul 14) was an interesting illustration of the power of the internet; it was repeated from 8 Mar 2012 and I missed it the first time around. A chance email encounter slowly develops into something much stronger, without the participants ever seeing each other. For the man, it is a harmless bit of fun; for the woman, it may be damaging. Leo was played by David Tennant, Emmi by Emilia Fox, and Emmi's husband by Paul Jesson. This was an indie production (Pacificus) by Clive Brill.
In a one-part Classic Serial we had 'By a Young Officer - Churchill on the North-West Frontier' (R4, 1500, 20 Jul 14), a historical drama by Michael Eaton. It's 1897 and news reaches London that Islamic hotheads have declared a holy war and are causing trouble in the mountains between India and Afghanistan. The 22-year-old Winston Churchill travels out there to report on the situation and to assist in the fighting. In the words of Tom Goulding (RT), Churchill's transformation from schoolboy to soldier, played by Douglas Booth, hints at the dogged politician he would become. Stephen Critchlow and Toby Longworth played assorted Majors and military personnel; the producer was David Morley and the director Dirk Maggs, for Indie producer Perfectly Normal.
Nothing seems to change much in Afghanistan; a hundred years ago it was a troublespot, and it's no different today. From the same page of the Radio Times, I noted the following programme: 1.30pm, R4: The War Widows of Afghanistan.......As the deadline for the NATO troop withdrawal approaches, Zarghuna Kargar hears the stories of two British and two Afghan women widowed by the 13-year war against the Taliban. What do they feel about war?
Ellen Dryden's new play 'Imagining some Fear' (R4, 1415, 31 Jul 14) was about a woman suffering from nightmares. She inherits some money and a country cottage from a great-aunt she never knew. Nevertheless the bad dreams continue, until she begins to uncover her aunt's secrets. Emma was played by Lyndsey Marshal, Jonathan Keeble was father and the producer was Pauline Harris.
I was very taken with Jon Canter's 'I'm a Believer' (R4, 1415, 1 Aug 14); a very humorous play about a man who believes that God doesn't exist, and tells him so when he unexpectedly meets him in a dream. Then, on his way to a fancy-dress party, dressed as a vicar, he encounters a crashed car, a distraught woman needing a priest and her unconscious companion. Is she dead? This play is a must-listen for anyone who preaches sermons. Simon, the would-be vicar, was played by Stephen Mangan, Gold by Colin McFarlane, Jane by Claudie Blakley and Mary by Pauline McLynn. The producer was Jonquil Panting.
'His Master's Voice', by James Maw and Tim Sullivan (R4, Saturday Play, 1430, 2 Aug 14) took a close look at an important piece of entertainment history; the story of "Educating Archie" and its enormous ppopularity. How could the idea of a radio ventriloquist ever catch on? But it did; Peter Brough rose to prominence on the 1940s variety circuit to become, eventually, one of radio’s biggest names.
As pointed out by Moira Petty, his radio show Educating Archie, initially scripted by Eric Sykes and making stars of its revolving cast, ran throughout the 1950s, attracting audiences of 16 million, but in spite of the fame, he gave it all up in 1961. The play moved between Brough's home life and professional life, in which he was a generous nurturer of talent.
Rob Brydon played Brough, Fenella Woolgar was his wife and the supporting cast included some well-known names including Michael Bertenshaw and James Lailey; Jeremy Mortimer produced.
Nick Warburton's play 'Psalm' (R4, 1415, 6 Aug 14) was apparently inspired by Ben Jonson's experience of escaping execution for manslaughter by reading the words of a psalm in a church court; such courts were often more lenient than the alternative, which led to the phrase 'benefit of clergy'. In Nick's play, a condemned man in his cell awaits his execution; he becomes aware of the possibility of a lighter sentence if he follows Jonson's example, but unfortunately he cannot read. The man was played by Jeremy Whitton Spriggs, Walters by Kim Wall and Judith by Amanda Root; the producer was Jonquuil Panting.
'Recent Events at Collington House', by Matthew Solon (R4, 1415, 7 Aug 14) was an indie production from Goldhawk, set in a school in a Midland town where the new head teacher of a school in a Midlands town is eager to accommodate all faiths and cultures without discrimation of any kind. However, one of the school governors proves to be difficult; he is an intolerant Muslim, with no time for those who hold different values from his own, and he regards the school (and, it seems, virtually everyone in it) as failing in its duty of care towards his daughter. This was a thought-provoking play, brilliantly acted, about a clash of cultures, and two strong-minded individuals both utterly unable to understand the other's point of view. The head, driven to exasperation by Mr. Shah's intransigence, clearly wondered "if you dislike the school, the country and its freedoms so much, why don't you return to the repressed regime you came from?" The head teacher was played by Heather Craney and Mr. Shah by Neil D'Souza; John Dryden produced.
'The Chemistry Between Them', a play by Adam Ganz (R4, 1415, 20 Aug 14) was about the friendship between Margaret Thatcher and her former Chemistry tutor, Dorothy Hodgkin, who worked at one time on determining the structure of DNA. The play flashes between Thatcher the student and Thatcher the Prime Minister. I liked the early reference to Bayer's strain theory, which explains why rings with 3 or 4 carbons are very hard to make; quite advanced Chemistry, which shows that Mr. Ganz has done his homework. There were also interesting conversations about the Soviet menace as perceived in the 1980s and the nuclear deterrent; strongly opposed by Hodgkin but regarded as essential by Thatcher; I also had an interest in this, having been a member of UKWMO for many years. Thatcher was played by Catherine Skinner, Dorothy by Jane Slavin, and Margaret's father by Stephen Critchlow. The producer was Nandita Ghose.
One other play which caught my eye was 'Julie', by Rob Gittins (R4, 1430, Saturday Play 26 Sept 14); a historical drama about illegal drugs; in particular, LSD. Chemist Richard Kemp found a way of synthesising very pure lysergic acid diamine and thought he could change the world, but the detective Dick Lee was determined to stop him. In 1977 there was a police raid at a rural farmhouse in Wales, where LSD worth £65 million had been synthesised. The raid was part of 'Operation Julie'.
To a chemist, the synthesis of LSD is an interesting problem because the desired product tends to 'aromatise'. This means that the LSD convert during the reaction, into a completely different compound, ie the synthesis fails. It takes considerable skill to design a synthetic route to avoid the problem, and to carry it out successfully.
In the play, the narrator was Elry Thomas, Richard Kemp was played by Alex Waldmann, and Dick Lee by Simon Armstrong. The producer was James Robinson; presumably this was BBC Wales, though RT didn't say.
ND, 27 Sept 2014
RADIO DRAMA REVIEW Dec 2014
This has been a good three months for radio drama; a very wide range of plays, with a few larger projects representing significant investment by the BBC.
In early October we had REYKJAVIK (R4, 1430,4 Oct 14) by Jonathan Myerson, about the meeting between President Reagan and President Gorbachev in October 1986, and the surprise agreement of the Russians to reduce substantially their nuclear stockpile. We tend to forget in today's time of terrorist alert that there were hobgoblins in previous decades. For many years we lived in the belief that nuclear attack from Russia was the most likely military threat. It was only in 1991, when the United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organization (UKWMO) was stood down, that it was openly acknowledged that Russia was not going to unleash a nuclear attack on the West. The cast included Kerry Shale as Reagan, Zubin Varia as Gorbachev, Colin Stinton as Schultz and Michael Bertenshaw as Shevardnadze. The producer was Jonquil Panting.
TOMMIES (R4, 1415, beginning 7 Oct 14) was a series of six dramas, broadcast weekly, illustrating what was happening on the Western Front exactly one hundred years earlier to the day, with episodes written by Michael Chaplin, Jonathan Ruffle and Nick Warburton. They were excellent, but the highlight for me was Nick Warburton's episode on 14 Oct where Walter Oddy, a soldier wounded in action, was among thousands needing medical attention on arriving at a hospital in Boulogne. The doctor who treated him, against the wishes of superiors, was female and hence regarded by the male hospital hierarchy as a cross between a irritating suffragette and an office junior. Without an influential husband (a high-up in the government) she would not have been sent to France.
It is difficult for us now to remember how badly women were treated in the workplace only three decades ago; they had to accept sexism, lower pay, discrimination and they were often relegated to minor roles. In 1914 it was a whole lot worse. Women couldn't get degrees; they didn't have the vote; they couldn't work in any of the professions unless they knew influential men who knew how to pull strings.
The cast for the Walter Oddy episode included Lee Ross, Pippa Nixon as the female doctor, Elaine Claxton and Indira Varma. The series production was shared between Nandita Ghose, David Hunter and Jonquil Panting, with JP as director.
Paul Dodgson's play HOME (R4, 1415, 15 Oct 14) showed that a good plot isn't always necessary for good drama. Injuries sustained during a fall cause the playwright's 81-year-old mother to consider selling the family property. As he wonders what to do, Paul describes with great vividness his childhood, his parents, and his life with them as he was growing up. It's a wonderful evocation of what makes a house into a home, and would be one of my 'pick of the year' plays. It will resonate with thousands of people up and down the country, and it deserves lots of repeats. Paul narrated, Dad was played by Ewan Bailey, Older Mum by Pameli Benham and Younger Mum by Sally Orrock. Production was by Kate McAll.
Moya O'Shea's new play SUPER CHIEF (R4, 1415, 17 Oct 2014) was set on a train in 1947. The story opens as the Super Chief, used by the rich and famous, pulls out of the station in Los Angeles. Nathan, a coloured Pullman porter, finds to his dismay that his son has been assigned to the same train. They clash repeatedly, and then things start to go wrong. They begin to wonder if the guard is behind their misfortunes.
David McGillivray, in the Radio Times, commented that Hollywood often used to set scenes on luxurious passenger trains, where the black porters rarely had much to say. This play redresses the balance; the movie stars here are supporting characters and it is the relationship between father and son which drives the drama along.
Alex Lanipekun played the son, Benji, and Steve Toussaint was Nathan. The producer was Tracey Neale.
A worthwhile repeat of THE HEDGE, by Anita Sullivan, was broadcast in October. (R4, 1415, 20 Oct 14). A couple live peacefully in their private garden, undisturbed by the world and sheltered from it by their enormous hedge. After an argument with their daughter, a hand emerges from the hedge. It stays there, through all weathers, day after day, and they have no idea who it belongs to. Then gradually the outside world starts to affect their haven. I found myself wondering if the play contained a message; every person has to balance personal needs against the wider needs of society, but on the other hand, one cannot solve the problems of the world. Perhaps I was reading too much into it. Fiona Shaw and Peter Ellis played the couple and their daughter was played by Tanya Franks. The narrator was Dorien Thomas; production was by Anita Sullivan and the director was James Robinson.
Lucy Rivers' first radio play, THE DEVIL'S VIOLIN (R4, 1415, 31 Oct 14) involved magic and murder, reminding me of Nick Fisher's creepy 1997 tale"The Chimes of Midnight", in which a clock is partially constructed from gruesome materials. Sixteen-year-old Hannah leads a miserable life; she has a drunk mother and a horrible baby brother. One night she meets a violinist whose music can bend people to his will. He offers to build her a violin which will do the same for her. Unfortunately there is a high price to pay, and it threatens to tear her life apart. Hannah was played by Gwyneth Keyworth, Older Hannah by Melanie Walters and Old Nick by Adam Redmore. The producer was Helen Perry and Lucy Rivers composed the music.
Five MISSING HANCOCK SHOWS (R4, 1130, weekly, beginning 31 Oct 14) have been re-recorded; they were broadcast during October and November.
I stumbled across the first one accidentally; the impressions of Kenneth Williams, Hancock, Bill Kerr and Andree Melly were so close that I thought for a while that it was just a Hancock repeat. There are apparently fifteen more shows where the original recordings no longer exist, and I hope that these, too, will be re-recorded. The titles were: The Matador, The Newspaper, The Hancock Festival, The Breakfast Cereal and The New Neighbour, in that order. There are plenty of details about this series on the BBC website, so I will not say any more about it here.
Hugh Costello's latest play, DESECRATION (R4, 1415, 5 Nov 14) was an interesting piece of fiction based on recently released documents confirming Hitler's wartime plans to invade Ireland. The play imagined what would have happened if the Germans had moved in, and showed some of the dilemmas which would have had to be faced when the nation's leaders decided whether or not to resist. Ireland might easily have become a base from which a German invasion of England would have been feasible. The cast featured Patrick Fitzsymons, Dawn Bradfield and Owen Roe; the producer was Eoin O'Callaghan.
One of the biggest radio events for a while was THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING, by 'Tim' White, dramatised by Brian Sibley in six one-hour episodes, broadcast in the Classic Serial slot (R4, 1500, beginning 9 Nov 14). Neville Teller's 'The Sword in the Stone' is part of this tale, but this is the first setting of the whole thing by the BBC.
"The Once and Future King" actually consists of four main books: The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air & Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind. In an online interview, Brian describes the difficulty of holding the tale together, because The Sword In The Stone was really written for a younger readership. You have to go from the world of young Wart, with its magic and enchantment, to more serious topics like war, peace, infidelity, bravery and deceit, which fill the later books. White actually produced a fifth book, 'The Book of Merlyn', published posthumously, in which Merlyn comes to Arthur on the night before his final battle and they have a long conversation, looking back over Arthur's life. This provided Brian with the idea of how to tell the story.*
The six plays take place in the few hours before Arthur's last battle, whilst he is waiting for the dawn.. Merlyn and Arthur look back across every aspect of his life; his childhood, all the things they did together, the things he learned when he was turned into a fish and a bird and an ant and so on, and the battle with Madam Mim, and drawing the sword from the stone. And then it goes on to later events: Guinevere, meeting with Lancelot, foundation of the Round Table, and so on. The events are not visited chronologically; we don't hear Wart as a fish until episode 2, and Madam Mim appears as a flashback in episode 3. After Arthur becomes king, the events are more or less in sequence.
Laurence Joyce, writing in radio Times, reviewed the drama very favourably, calling it a tale of vast breadth; the Arthurian legends used as a framework to explore themes of war and human responsibility, both at the kingly and personal level; a world of magic and anachronism in which owls and mustard pots speak. "An oddball masterpiece, enhanced by a dramatic score by Elizabeth Purnell. Paul Ready (Arthur) and David Warner (Merlin) lead a superb cast." The producers were Gemma Jenkins, Marc Beeby and David Hunter. More information on the production, including a fairly complete cast list, can be found on the NOTES page for 2014.
PLANNING PERMISSION (R4, 1415, 13 Nov 14) was Sarah Wooley's new comedy drama based on a true story; the architect Erno Goldfinger planned to buy a row of Victorian terraced houses with a view to demolishing them and building a modernist home for himself. This was the story of his battle for planning permission, against some particularly stubborn locals. It was interesting to learn that Goldfinger did in fact have a connection with Ian Fleming. Goldfinger was played by Justin Salinger, Ursula Blackwell by Melody Grove and Cecil, the dominated husband, by Michael Maloney. The producer was Gaynor Macfarlane.
Boccaccio's DECAMERON NIGHTS (R4, ten 15m episodes beginning 1 Dec 14) were a welcome addition to the Radio 3 schedule. Gillian Reynolds described them as a 14th-century collection of funny, rueful and truly timeless tales of merchants and prostitutes, knights, nuns and artful dodgers, inspiring writers in every generation. Jane Anderson, in RT, commented on the lightness of touch and the use of colloquial speech, possibly better suited to radio 4 rather than radio 3. The adaptations were by Robin Brooks, and the producer was Jonquil Panting. These are excellent stories, some of them resolved with an unexpected twist.
The veteran playwright David Pownall has written about seventy radio plays since 1972. His latest, TONGUES OF FIRE (R4, 1415, 4 Dec 14) had as characters the poet Bill Yeats, the playwright Sean O'Casey, and the Indian poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, on a visit to Ireland. Bill wants to stage a play by his Indian visitor, but is taken aback when he develops a friendship with O'Casey; very much an 'angry young man'. Much of the play is an imagined argument between the two Irishmen, with Rab providing occasional illumination. Yeats was played by Dermot Crowley, Rab by Sam Dastor, and O'Casey by Stephen Hogan. The producer was Peter Cavanagh.
In QUICKSAND, by Lucy Caldwell (R4, 1415, 8 Dec 14) a family holiday is shattered by a life-threatening incident. A couple and their children are wandering over the dunes when mother and daughters get stuck in quicksand. The husband can do nothing without getting sucked in himself, so he runs off to get help. The wife's take on this is that she has been deserted and left to drown. The story is told in flashback by an elderly woman in a care home, describing how her husband deserted her in such vitriolic langauge that you can (in the words of Jane Anderson) feel the hatred pouring from the radio. But for each of her outbursts we hear the husband's response. His version of events is the opposite of hers. They all survived, but whose memory is correct? Tessa was played by Barbara Adair, James by James Greene, young Tessa by Laura Pyper and young James by Gerard McCarthy. The producer was Heather Larmour.
Another excellent comedy by Jon Canter, entitled THE DOG (R4, 1415, 9 Dec 14) starred Richard Wilson as a relationship counsellor trying to save the marriage of Charlie and Apples, a couple who started out as boss and secretary, but who have ended up as adversaries. It was originally a stage play, which Richard described in another BBC programme as follows:
"This year, I was in the summer theatre season in the genteel Essex town of Frinton-on-Sea. I played the lead in Jon Canter's new play "The Dog". I was the dog lead! We had one week of rehearsal; it was heaven and it was hell; sometimes I felt like swimming in the sea; sometimes it was like throwing myself in it. BBC Radio 4 recorded it all ... from the first day of rehearsal in the town scout hut, to the final curtain-call. The highs, the lows, the garden parties, the raffle..."
I found the story well-paced with believable, sympathetic characters; the counsellor is essentially kind, and his attempts to sort out the warring couple are quirky, sometimes humorous and occasionally touching. Jasmine Hyde played Apples and Patrick Wilson was Charlie. It was an independent production (Pacificus) produced by Clive Brill and directed by Edward Max.
THE SOUND OF ROSES, (R4, 1415 AD 10 Dec 14) by Adrian Penketh was a thriller about two people adrift from their lives in a sea of globalisation. Alice teaches business English near Grenoble and when Serge asks her for a late-night lesson there's no way she suspects his true motive. A couple of days after the broadcast I was contacted by a friend who also teaches business English in France. He loved it, and I've summarised his comments below; his full account is on the 2014 notes page.
From the play’s opening scene between Alice, the teacher, and Serge, the learner, it was obvious the writer had first-hand experience of the job. The plot also rang true when Serge began to tell Alice about his employment, family and emotional problems. People sometimes use the bubble of the English lesson to unburden themselves of all kinds of problems; from time to time a lesson can be similar to therapy, where domestic or other problems might be discussed.
I enjoyed the authentic use of spoken French and the peculiarly French radio station “Nostalgie”, which plays bygone hits and gives the feeling that it is part of a pre-globalisation France when the sun shone and there was no economic crisis. As the plot darkens and Serge abducts Alice in a doomed attempt to re-create the Welsh Sons of Glendower (remember all those burned Welsh holiday cottages?) we learn about one of the downsides of globalisation - the removal of national identity.
Bethan Walker was Alice and Serge was Stephane Cornicard; production was by Abigial le Fleming.
Mike Walker's new play EBOLA (R4, 1415, 18 Dec 14) was a vivid account of the story of an Ebola outbreak in Africa in 1976. Following the death of a Belgian nun, a team of virologists flew out to the Zaire rainforest to a rural hospital to fight a new unknown virus. When they arrived, the scene was horiffic; the hospital was taped off and quarantined; the maternity room full of dead bodies, most of the patients dead and buried; a few remaining staff still alive; others had run away.
The account was narrated by one of the virologists, Prof. Peter Piot, who at the time was young and inexperienced, but who went on to become well-known in medical circles. The cast consisted of Jude Owusu, William Hope, Tracy Wiles, Nathaniel Martello White and Martin T. Sherman. The producer was David Morley and the director Dirk Maggs, working for Indie company Perfectly Normal Productions.
Gillian Reynolds, writing in the Daily Telegraph, hoped that the BBC would be able to make the play available to NPR in America, where Ebola panic is high.
Other plays which I've enjoyed have included 'Atlas', where a young cross-dresser decides to do some bodybuilding; 'Beyond Contempt', about the live-tweeting of the phone-hacking trial from the visitors' gallery of the courtroom; a very peculiar early play by Alan Bennett entitled 'Denmark'; and 'The Electrical Venus', a fictional tale of a mixed-race girl who earns a living with a travelling fair in the mid-1700s.
ND / 20 Dec 2014
*I am indebted to the www.denofgeeks website where the entire Brian Sibley interview can be found.