The Audio Drama Awards celebration, including the giving of the Imison and Tinniswood Awards, took place at the end of January at the BBC Radio Theatre, New Broadcasting House, London. Alison and I received invitations to the event, and were pleased to meet a large number of producers, writers, actors and production staff. MC for the evening was Lenny Henry.
Helen Boaden opened the proceedings, and gave a short tribute to Terry Wogan, who had died earlier in the day. Helen remarked on the good health of BBC Radio drama; there is now no other major radio network broadcasting radio plays since ABC (Australia) stopped doing it, and each day, one million listeners tune in. Radio drama remains an important part of BBC output; Alison Hindell instigated the Audio Drama Awards a while back, and in this year, the fifth, there were 100 more entries than ever before.
As a long-time radio play follower I was pleased to see so many members of the younger generation on the shortlists and in the audience. One highlight for me was Julian Simpson's "Fugue State", which actually won two awards: the Tinniswood and the 'Best Use of Sound'. A man in hospital with no memory holds the key to strange events which have occurred in a remote village. Can sound recordings prompt his brain into remembering? Another was Jessica Brown's production of 'Cuttin' It' by Charlene James, which won the "Best Single Drama" Award. Jessica is a young writer and producer; the daughter of radio producer Gary Brown. Her production, along with the soundscape from the studio team, was impressive. There are several reviews of the play on Jessica's page. A few of the award-winning plays were given well-deserved repeats during February.
There were two other presentations: John Hurt received an Outstanding Contribution to Radio Award and June Whitfield a Lifetime Achievement Award - 70 years in radio. We were treated by June to a cameo performance of part of a "Take It From Here" script she had performed sixty-five years earlier.
As for the plays from Jan - April, there have been some interesting items, both new and classic.
At the beginning of the year we had a colourful biography of Alessandro Stradella by F.D.Boyce: HOW TO FLEE FROM SORROW (R4, Saturday Play, 1430 9 Jan 16). Stradella was a composer from 17th century Italy and is quite well-known amongst baroque music enthusiasts for his chamber cantatas. His patron was Queen Christina in Rome. His interesting life and his love for Agnese, the Doge's niece, has been pieced together by the writer from original historical letters. He died young, but he fitted a great deal into a short and eventful existence. Alessandro was played by Trystan Gravelle, Corelli by Harry Treadaway, Lonati: Ralf Little and Agnese von Uffele by Alice St. Clair. Production was by Allegra McIllroy.
On the following day we heard a new production of ARTIST DESCENDING A STAIRCASE, by Tom Stoppard (R3, 10 Jan 16). This is a play where three elderly artists are united by lifelong friendship and some sort of collective guilt regarding the death of a blind woman, a contemporary whom they had befriended in their youth. Now one of their number has died, having fallen mysteriously to his death from an upstairs landing. The plays spins a complicated web of character and incident, enigmatic and playful, with much to tease the listener.
The play, written for radio, was first broadcast on Radio 3 in Nov 1972. It is set in 1972 and uses a curious device; it tracks back in time in each scene, using younger actors where necessary, until the pivotal moment in 1914; then it comes forward again to 1972. The artists are opinionated, deluded and self-important; the only person who can see what they are really like is Sophie, and she is blind.
The cast: Beauchamp: Derek Jacobi, Donner: Ian McDiarmid, Martello: Geoffrey Whitehead, Sophie: Pippa Nixon, Young Martello: Joshua McGuire, Young Beauchamp: Blake Ritson, Young Donner: Hugh Skinner. The producer was Gordon House.
Nick Warburton has written another entertaining play in HOLDING BACK THE TIDE (R4, 1415 28 Jan 16). A middle-aged couple, married for a long time and the man taking his partner for granted, inherits a house in Yorkshire. He wants to sell it and have the money; she wants to keep it. The two are drawn into a group fighting against the modernization of the town, and as they do so, their relationship, troubled by boredom and stress, gradually changes. The couple were played by Paul Ritter and Kate Duchene, and John by Ronald Pickup. The producer was Sally Avens.
FILIAL DUTIES AND SPECIAL GOODS (R4, 4 Feb 16) was an episode of "The Ferryhill Philosophers" by Michael Chaplin, where Joe is a redundant miner and Hermione is a philosophy lecturer. In spite of the difference in their backgrounds, they have much in common. They talk about life's problems and how to solve them. This episode took a close look at caring for ageing parents, and some of the problems commonly encountered by middle-aged people as their parents reach their 80s and 90s. This was an independent production (Catherine Bailey), with Alun Armstrong and Deborah Findlay as Joe and Hermione, strongly supported by Geoffrey Palmer and Anne Reid as the older generation; production was by Marilyn Imrie.
An interesting four-part series about a left-wing theatre company, STAGE LEFT, was broadcast during February (R4, 1415 beginning 7 Feb 16). The plays follow the fortunes of the company over a period of 30 years: in play 1, set in 1985 they settle into new premises and try to find their feet; play 2 is a decade later and changes have had to be made; some members are becoming well-known and others are fading; play 3 sees their director working his debut in the West End; play 4 is set in 2015 and the company has changed beyond recognition; one of the original members is famous; another is dying; some of the others have become moderately well-known middle-aged professionals. The cast included Anna Madeley, Richard Lumsden, Alex Jennings, Gerard McDermott and Ewan Bailey; the producer was Heather Larmour.
LOVE ME TENDER, by Ian McMillan (R4, 1415, 12 Feb 16) was an unusual comedy drama where the characters speak in different verse forms. A radio producer meets a group of trainspotters when his journey is delayed. He thinks they will make a good subject for a feature, but he has reservations as to whether they will be interesting enough. This was great fun. It starred Conrad Nelson, Bernard Wrigley, Jonathan Keeble, Kate Coogan and John Cotterall. The producer was Gary Brown.
TRIAL BY LAUGHTER (R4, 1430, 27 Feb 16), by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman was broadcast as a Saturday Play. The writers explored the life of the virtually-unknown figure William Hone, using trial transcripts. Hone was a publisher and bookseller in the early 1800s and an early fighter for free speech in an era where speech was anything but free. He stood trial, on three occasions in three days, for the same offence: blasphemy and libel, because he published material which stood up for the working man rather than the ruling class. He lampooned the Establishment, a despotic British government and the monarchy, with the help of Cruickshank, the cartoonist. Hone was played by Robert Wilfort, the Prince Regent by Arthur Bostrun and Cruickshank by Conrad Nelson. The producer was Gary Brown.
In early March (R4, 11 Mar 16, 1415) we had BURN BABY BURN by Sean Grundy.This was a satirical drama inspired by the fire which destroyed Charles Saatchi's collection of works by Hirst, Emin, the Chapman Brothers and others associated with the Young British Artists movement. Their art is usually regarded as 'provocative' which means that only some people regard it as art. Jon Culshaw does an uncanny impersonation of art critic Brian Sewell as he describes a deliberately low-key investigation into a possible arson attack and makes no secret of his opinion of cows in formaldehyde and unmade beds. The cast included Ronnie Ancona as Tracey Emin and Nigella Lawson, Ben Crompton as Damien Hirst and Carl Prekopp as Charles Saatchi. The producer was David Morley and the director Dirk Maggs, for Indie Perfectly Normal Productions.
The well-known book by John Fowles, THE MAGUS (R4, 1415, beginning 20 Mar 16) was broadcast in three parts in the Classic Serial slot, abridged by Adrian Hodges. It tells the story of Nicholas Urfe, a young British graduate who is teaching English on a small Greek island. Urfe becomes embroiled in the psychological illusions of a master trickster, which become increasingly dark and serious. After graduation, he briefly works as a teacher, but becomes bored and decides to leave England. While looking for another job, Nicholas takes up with an Australian girl met at a party, but he still accepts a post teaching English on the Greek island of Phraxos.
He soon becomes bored, depressed, disillusioned, and overwhelmed by the Mediterranean island, struggling with loneliness. Whilst wandering around the island, he stumbles upon an estate and meets its owner, a wealthy Greek recluse named Conchis. Nicholas is gradually drawn into Conchis's psychological games, his paradoxical views on life, his mysterious persona, and his eccentric masques.They grow more elaborate and intense, and Nicholas loses his ability to determine what is real and what is not. Tom Burke played Nicholas, Charles Dance was Conchis, and the twins were Hayley Atwell and Anna Skellern; production was by Heather Larmour.
THE FINAL CALL (R4, 1415, 4 Apr 16) was a black comedy by Michael Hartley. A disgruntled customer, driven to despair by his internet service provider, takes matters into his own hands by confronting the staff the the call centre. This was a welcome flight of fancy which will appeal to anyone who has been passed from person to person when they've rung a helpline and got nowhere. Danny was played by Felix Scott and Mark by Blake Harrison, with Bettrys Jones, Craig Sullivan, Sargon Yelda and Ewan Bailey; the producer was Sasha Yevtushenko.
Mark Lawson's new play, HOLY FATHER (R4, 1415, 21 Apr 16) was set in the Vatican in the near future. 120 cardinals are gathering in the Sistene chapel to elect a new Pope.For the first time since 1159, he might be English. But there is a problem; the front-runner for the position has done something in the past, before he was a priest, which probably makes him ineligible for the job. Mark Lawson has devised an excellent plot; he has a crisp turn of phrase, and the dialogue sparkled. Cardinal Faber was played by Nick Dunning and Cardinal Simouri by Jude Akuwudike; Eoin O'Callaghan was the producer.
One of the best recent dramas has been John Dryden's TUMANBAY, a ten-episode epic set in a fictional North-African city, which began late last year and which finished in February. The series was mentioned in the last review. The city Tumanbay, which has the same name as the Sultan in the late 1400s, draws people from all nations to take advantage of its wealth and opportunities, and it is a place where a slave can become the wife of a sultan. But all is not well; there are spies in the sultan’s palace, and an uprising which is met with brutal retribution. John Dryden says that much of what happens is based on historical events and people from a 300-year period during the Mumluk slave dynasty in Egypt, but there is contemporary relevance: “My intention with Tumanbay is to create a world which has resonance with the world today. There a little bit of North Korea and whole lot of ISIS in there to be found too.”
Other items which caught my attention were more episodes of David Ashton's 'McLevy', the last-ever series of Sebastian Baczkiewicz's 'Pilgrim', the last-ever 'Two-Pipe Problems' (Geoffrey Whitehead replacing the late Richard Briers), and the last-ever adventure of Alistair Jessiman's psychic detective, The Sensitive. Three plays by Peter Jukes were also noteworthy: a man who has murdered twice (played by Lenny Henry) is released from prison at the end of a long sentence. This is when his problems really begin.
ND / 27 Apr 16
RADIO DRAMA REVIEW Sept 2016
Looking at the list of dramas broadcast since April there has been little to complain about. We have had dramatised reminiscences from two remarkable men, both of whom had horrific experiences during WW2; plays about the lives of two of America's best-known politicians; the story of a man who never stopped wanting to be a musician but did something entirely different for decades; a radio version of a famous film, and a remarkable episode of the longest-running drama serial in the world. I was also surprised to be contacted by the producer of HOME FRONT to be asked for the names of two apples which would have been common in Kent during the First War, for the episode which went out on 23 Sept.
In early July there were two very vivid plays commemorating the centenary of Roald Dahl's birth. Both were autobiographical; the first was BOY (R4, 1430, 2 Jul 16) broadcast in the Saturday Play slot, a dramatization of his early years at junior school and then at Repton. Sophie Dahl, Roald's grand-daughter, recalls that one treat for Repton boys was the delivery of plain cardboard boxes from Cadbury's, asking the boys to test them and score the bars of chocolate. There were less happy memories too; ask a young man today what is meant by 'fagging' and he'll probably look blank. Dahl knew exactly what it meant: beatings and bullying, and it took some getting used to. Patrick Malahide (as older Dahl) was the narrator and Dahl as a child was played by Tarkan Uzun.
On the following day in the Classic Serial slot we had the second play GOING SOLO (R4 1500 3 Jul 16) which continued the story: Dahl's joining the RAF, training as a fighter pilot, and finally being involved in air-to-air combat. But for the bravery of men like Dahl, we might now be under German rule.
Young Roald was played by John Heffernan and mother by Joanna van Kampen. Both productions were adapted for radio by Lucy Catherine and produced by Helen Perry.
As a chemist I was aware for years of Primo Levi's book "The Periodic Table" but never got around to reading it. The BBC produced a fascinating set of programmes based on the book, which consists of a series of short tales, reminiscences and other episodes. He was a chemist and many of these 'splashes' from his workbench are autobiographical or have a chemical twist; each one is given the title of one of the elements. For part of WW2 Primo was incarcerated in Auschwitz and was one of the tiny minority which survived. 11 dramatizations of varying lengths were broadcast, adapted for radio by Graham White, R4, July 18-24. The younger Primo was played by Akbar Kurtha and older Primo by Henry Goodman. The series producers were Emma Harding and Marc Beeby.
THE VICAR, THE AUTOMATON AND THE TALKING DOG (R4, 1415, 26 Jul 16) by Lavinia Murray was about a day in the childhood of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, and his early experiments in reproducing speech. I'm not sure how closely this was based on fact, but it was an entertaining listen. Alex was played by John Bell (no relation) and the unpleasant Rev. McReady by Stuart McQuarrie; production was by Pauline Harris.
BRIEF LIVES, the legal series starring David Schofield by Tom Fry and Sharon Kelly, gets better and better. Episode 4 (R4, 1415, 1 Aug 16) concerned a judge accused of rape who said that the accusation was malicious. His explanations were plausible but there were twists in the tale and the outcome was unexpected. Frank Twist's colleague Sarah was played by Sally Dexter and the judge by Kevin Doyle; production was by Gary Brown. I was surprised to learn that this is series 9, which says something about the programme's quality.
POETRY IN MOTION by Katie Hims (R4 1415 2 Aug 16) was a good example of a play which can only work on radio. Five people board a train bound for Manchester and sit in the same carriage; they have never met before. But instead of hearing what they say, we hear their thoughts, and these soon move from practical matters to what is troubling each one of them: how to present a new play to a producer; the trauma of running away from one's family; the death of a child. The play is rounded off beautifully with a cheerful ending. The five were played by Rachel Davies (Valerie), Alan Williams (Leonard), Karla Crome (Karla), Ashley Kumar (Reece) and Adie Allen (Bridie) and the producer was Mary Peate.
Three plays by Jonathan Myerson about Bill and Hillary Clinton were broadcast in the Saturday Drama slot during August . The timing seemed slightly odd because Hillary is currently in the middle of her election campaign against Donald Trump and the papers and the internet are full of it. However the Clintons have been involved in politics at the highest level for a very long time, and their story is interesting. First we had 'HECK, DON'T VOTE FOR HIM by Jonathan Myerson (R4 1430 6 Aug 16) in which Bill launches his campaign to get the Democratic nomination; will he be stopped by a woman coming forward saying that they had a long-term affair?
A week later we had THE COUP, set in 1995, when independent counsel Kenneth Starr tackled Bill Clinton over the failed Whitewater property scheme. Plans to derail Clinton's presidency were foiled when Susan McDougal, a partner in the scheme, refused to implicate Bill in return for her own immunity. However, Monica Lewinsky entered the frame ... resulting in the possibility of Clinton being removed from office.
Lastly we had THE MAN SCALE; the story of Hillary Clinton's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, and the rise of Barack Obama. It is set in 2008, when Bill Clinton was assisting her campaign. Hillary was played by Fenella Woolgar and Bill by Corey Johnson; Jonquil Panting produced all three plays.
MUSIC TO SEE BY by Jeremy Raison (R4 1415 8 Aug 16) was inspired by Jeremy's own struggles with blindness. In 1776, the Viennese physician Franz Mesmer offered to treat the blind musical prodigy Maria Theresia von Paradis with a new technique using his glass harmonica. Maria was an unwilling patient because she had already endured a lifetime of treatments from doctors unable to help her; she had had enough. She eventually complied but there were unexpected consequences. Maria was played by Nicola Ferguson and Mesmer by Neil McKinven. The producer was David Ian Neville and the writer assisted with direction.
Paul Dodgson's latest play, ON THE ROAD NOT TAKEN (R4 1415 24 Aug 16) was a touching autobiographical play about what might have been; as a teenager, Paul had a head full of songs and he longed to head out on the road with a guitar, but he was too scared and got a proper job instead. He became a staff producer at the BBC for drama, poetry and music programmes. Over the years he also wrote a number of radio plays and devoted a fair proportion of his time to teaching. After many years of being an employee he's now going around the country doing live gigs of his own songs. We hear in the play how his first band was formed, what his dad thought, and what happened when his group first played in public. The drama finishes with present-day Paul waiting to play (and then performing) a new song to an audience of about 500 people; the first time he's sung in public for thirty years. Young Paul was played by Isaac Rouse, Fred by Max Abraham, Paul's dad by Ewan Bailey and Paul's mum by Sally Orrock. Production was by Kate McAll.
I enjoyed LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER (R4, 1430, Saturday Play 27 Aug 16) by Alan Sillitoe, adapted for radio by Robert Rigby. The film is well-known: a borstal youth recalls his crimes and works out his future as he trains to take part in a big cross-country race. He is unusually talented as a runner, and there's every chance that he will win. The borstal governor is keen for him to succeed, and says that taking part in the race may turn him into an honest man. If only life were that simple! Smith was played by Lee Rufford and the governor by Karl Johnson; the producer was Carl Prekopp.
A curious supernatural tale repeated from about a year ago found its way into the series 'Hatch, Match and Dispatch', a set of stories which all end with a birth, marriage or death. TIME AND TIDE by David Hodgson (R4, 1415, 1 Sep 16) begins with Teddy awakening after his stag night, naked and tethered to a lamp post. But after his release, he is haunted by prior knowledge; re-living episodes he's seen before as if in a dream. What is frightening is that the final episode culminates in the death of someone he knows. Can he change the narrative and prevent it from happening? The old onlooker was played by Will Tacey; Alan Morrissey played Teddy, Will Ash was Lawrence and Hannah Wood was Megan. The producer was Gary Brown.
THE ELECTRICAL VENUS (R4, 1415, 5 Sep 16) by Julie Mayhew was set in an 18th-century travelling circus. Such circuses were not like the ones of today; they contained freaks such as the human skeleton, the dog-faced boy and the human gorilla as well as horse riders, acrobats and jugglers. In the story, a man arrives one day with a proposition and a new invention which could make the circus's fortune and the beautiful mixed-race girl into a star. He has a primitive Van de Graaf generator, a device which produces static electricity, capable of making a person's hair stand on end, or of producing other uncanny visual effects. It catches on... .... Mim was by played by Hannah John-Kamen, Alex by Arthur Hughes, Fox by Mark Edel-Hunt and Grainger by Michael Bertenshaw; production was by Emma Harding.
Georges Simenon wrote many sinister short stories, and TEDDY BEAR, a sombre tale dramatized by Robert Frame, (R4, 1415,9 Sep 16) concerns a surgeon trying to escape the tedium of his life by starting an affair with a girl he met as a patient. Unfortunately she is not one of life's winners, and the worthy doctor, played by David Holt, gets more than he bargained for. Hannah Newton was the producer.
The Saturday Drama, TRUE WEST (R4, 1430, 10 Sep 14) was a 90-minute adaptation by John Peacock of a story by Sam Shepherd, about the rivalry between two brothers. The drama is set in the kitchen of their mother's home, 40 miles east of Los Angeles. Austin is house-sitting whilst their mother is in Alaska, and is confronted there by his brother, who has decided to pay a visit. Lee manages to bully his way into the house and to borrow his brother's car. The screenplay Austin is writing and about to pitch to a Hollywood producer somehow gets taken over by the pushy con-man tactics of Lee. The brothers have no choice but to co-operate in the writing of a different story which could make or break both their lives. The pair are played by real-life brothers Robert and Philip Glenister. This is a powerful play, in a style comparable to David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. Philip Glenister played Austin, Robert played Lee, William Hope was the man from Hollywood and Mom was Julia McKenzie. The producer was Celia de Wolff, for the Indie company Pier Productions.
The drama which has had the biggest audience for months was a special episode of "The Archers". This was a 60-minute special, broadcast without a title but which I'm calling DELIBERATIONS OF THE JURY (R4, 1900, 11 Sep 16); the culmination of a three-year gradually-escalating conflict between Rob Titchener and Helen, the wife whom he sought to control by a systematic campaign of bullying and sexual abuse which ended when Helen, goaded beyond endurance when Rob put a knife into her hand and told her to kill herself, drove it instead into her husband's chest. The trial took place over several days, and this extended episode, which covered the discussions between the jury members, attracted a lot of attention by newspaper columnists. Before the broadcast I wondered whether the programme would be a fair reflection of the way the legal system operates; would the result be fair, or would there be a miscarriage of justice?
The Methodist Recorder contained a long a piece about the programme, and commented on Rob's Oscar-winning performance in court, where he said how much he loved Helen and that everything he had done was in her best interests. The article went on to say "Many believe this is the biggest event to take place in The Archers since Grace Archer died in a fire in 1955. Judging by the reacion from human rights' lawyers and domestic violence organisations, this may well be right".
Allison Pearson, in a full-page article in the Daily Telegraph, described it as an hour of radio which left us in an exhausted, sodden heap. A friend of mine, not usually an Archers listener, described it as riveting. The script for the episode, the acting and the production were all faultless. A fundraising social media page called the Helen Titchener Rescue Fund raised £150,000 following the episode. The jury contained a good cross-section of society stereotypes; they have to be slightly over-the-top in a drama, for obvious reasons. Lisa, played by Catherine Tate, was the woman who can't speak for long without making racist comments; Carl (Nigel Havers) was the jury foreman who believes that women should be kept in their place; Graham Seed was the pro-Brexit ranter; Nigel Anthony (who completes 60 years in radio drama in November) was the judge. Eileen Atkins was the elderly woman providing the voice of sanity; it is a sobering thought that if the jury doesn't contain a person with brains prepared to go against the crowd, an innocent person could easily be pronounced guilty and go to prison.
The highest praise however must go to the actors who played Helen and Rob over the preceding weeks and months (Louisa Patikas and Timothy Watson) and the production team, headed by Julie Beckett. Sean O'Connor, who created the storyline, said that he was humbled to have been able to shed light on the urgent social problem of the domestic abuse of women.
Most people aged 50+ will remember the tragedy of the fire at Bradford football ground in 1985, which resulted in the death of 56 people and serious injuries to many more. Jane Anderson described the play about the event in some detail. It was entitled THE 56 (R4, 1415, 14 Sep 16), and used material from 100 hours of real-life testimonies and interviews with witnesses. Every sentence in the script came from the mouth of a survivor, and the playwrights condensed the content into three main characters for dramatic clarity. Since that event, all football stadia have been dramatically improved to avoid any repetition. The cast was headed by Duncan Preston, Melanie Kilburn and Vincent Franklin and the producer was Toby Swift.
THE BARGAIN by Ian Curteis (R4, Saturday Play, 1430 17 Sep 16) was an interesting play based on an encounter between Robert Maxwell and Mother Teresa which took place in 1988. They met when Teresa was visiting London; she died in 1997 and Maxwell died at sea in 1991. He was a Czech emigre who dragged himself up by his bootstraps; the son of Jewish parents who perished in Aushwitz. Here's my summary of what Jane Anderson said about the production in Radio Times:
.....They make an odd couple at first glance; not just because of the size difference: Mother Teresa, recently declared a saint, and media tycoon Robert Maxwell. But as disparate as their lives may have been, their paths crossed for a few hours in 1988, when the nun petitioned him for funds for her orphanages.
The play is an imagined glimpse of their meeting. There is no written record of what happened, but there is plenty of information available about both. The play is written as a mental wrestling match; both are fighting for something they really want. Teresa is seen as media-savvy with a sense of humour; Maxwell has unexpected grace and humility.....
It is noteworthy that when Maxwell pocketed the cash from all those pension funds, he never touched the money he'd put aside for Mother Teresa. The leads were played by David Horovitch and Charlotte Cornwall, and their assistants by David Sibley and Geraldine Alexander; David Ian Neville was the producer.
Other plays of note were two plays based on works by Daniel Defoe, including MOLL FLANDERS, based on the strange life of Elizabeth Atkins, another play about Defoe's life, some excellent episodes of TOMMIES; a play about the composer John Field called FIELD NOTES, and a cracking SCHOOL DRAMA in three parts by Andy Mulligan made by Indie producer Goldhawk. I also enjoyed Mark Lawson's HOLY FATHER on the election of a new Pope, Hugh Costello's financial drama about the slaying of the Celtic Tiger GREED IS GOOD, and another Peter Whalley thriller REASONS FOR LEAVING.
I am pleased to report some good choices of classic repeats on Radio 4 Extra. These do not usually find their way into the review, but LIFE LINES was an outstanding drama about a young woman on the sharp end of the '999' phone line, and there have been a number of other noteworthy choices: The Jinx Element (Stephen Wakelam); The Amazing Ratman Story (Dave Sheasby), and plenty of others. (Well done AJ and Radio4 Extra!)
ND / 27 Sep 2016
RADIO DRAMA REVIEW Dec 2016 I didn't realise how much good stuff had been broadcast over the last three months until I started to write about it. It has been a superb quarter. But before describing my own personal choices, there is one other matter to discuss - the annual Imison Award, for the best radio drama script by a newcomer.
It must be getting increasingly difficult to find entries for it. The reason........ this year, we have had 7 episodes of "The Forsyte Saga", multiple broadcasts of 'Tommies', lots more episodes of Zola adaptations, nine McLevy plays, a 3-programme series of 'Silk', Philip Palmer's series 'Red and Blue', a nine-episode thriller from BBC Wales, and a lot of repeats; in one week during October, five of the seven afternoon plays were repeated. This means there are not very many slots left for first-time writers to show what they can do.
Nevertheless I hope that the Award persists; the prize money has recently doubled (it's now
£3,000, bigger than the Tinniswood's £2,000) and it's a great sweetener to help get people
started on writing plays for radio.
If you do decided to write for radio, be careful. Anyone contemplating writing radio plays full-time needs to be aware that they are likely to need another source of income, and that many experienced radio writers have been suddenly dropped by the BBC through no fault of their own: Frederick Bradnum and Rodney Wingfield are examples; I could name a dozen more. I was in touch with Yuri Rasovsky for a while. He wrote radio plays and dramatisations for several decades, and he was only half-joking when he described it as "the happiest and most stimulating road to penury and obscurity."
As for my personal choices of plays this quarter:
COMMENT IS FREE (R4, 1415, 5 Oct 2016) by James Fritz was a scathing comment on the
superficiality of Facebook and other social media. I am a user of Facebook as a way of keeping
in touch with friends and the radio drama world. However it has to be kept under control. People at the other end of the internet are an unknown quantity; they are not really friends, though obviously they may become friends if you meet them. Secondly, there's a lot of very useful information on Facebook and similar sites; it's a way of becoming better-informed about many topics, but the amount of superficial, ill-informed and spiteful comment also on there is enormous.
Anyway - to the play. A woman with an outspoken media-man as a husband goes through very
hard times after he goes a step too far on a television programme and someone stabs him.
The play then speculates about the sickly social-media aftermath to this event. You can imagine it ... platitudes plastered all over social media: comments like 'Love Matters', followed by the ubiquitous and mindless 'Share if you Agree'.
The cast: the wife was played by Rachael Stirling and the husband by Tobias Menzies. A few media personalities appeared as themselves and the producer was Becky Ripley.
Samina Baig's play JOURNEY TO PAKISTAN (R4, 1415, 6 Oct 2016) was a moving play based on true events; a man's search for his roots. Peter is a fashion designer adopted as a baby and
raised in Suffolk. He goes to Pakistan in search of where he came from, looking for the mother
he never knew. Eventually he has some success, but there is a catch.... Peter was played by Akbar Kurtha, Ameera by Ayesha Dharker and Waseem by Kulvinder Ghir; the producer was Liz Allard.
It has been a memorable year for long-time fans of David Ashton's Victorian policeman,
McLevy. In October we even had a remake of the pilot episode from 1999, MEET JAMES McLEVY (R4, 1430, 8 Oct 2016) expanded from the original 45 minutes to an hour. McLevy, a dour Scotsman, meets up with a sharp-minded brothel owner, Jean Brash. They work together to unravel the mystery of a lay preacher found dead and naked in a canal.
Two days later we had four more episodes running more or less as a serial: a) a high wire
circus artiste is threatened; b) Constable Mulholland chases a man across the rooftops, who falls,
with serious consequences. c) McLevy as the officer in charge is victimised by an increasingly
obnoxious Chief Constable; d) Roach is injured, but McLevy will not be bested...and that's about
all I can say without introducing spoilers. I considered these four programmes to be the finest
I'd heard, and wrote to David to tell him so. It was something of a shock when the final scene
was played out and I realised that this was the last McLevy play I'd hear.
There have been 12 series, though 'series 5' was just a one-off Christmas special back in 2006. The
first six series were produced by Patrick Rayner; Bruce Young took over in 2011 when Patrick
retired. 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' was reviewed in Roger Bolton's 'Feedback' a few days after the series finished. A
listener rang in to say .... It's very evocative. I have no idea what Victorian Leith was like, but I
find I can put myself there; it has perfectly self-contained little vignettes; a good example of
why radio is better than film or television because it works your imagination.
David was interviewed, and he explained how his character 'McLevy' had originated. ......'I was
in the British Library researching a film I was writing for television about Conan Doyle. I came
across this reference to James McLevy, which I asked to see, and I got this little book - yellow,
with a ribbon around it. They were his memoirs, and he wrote these series of vignettes; little
three-page vignettes, of crimes on the streets. None of them on the stuff I cover myself, but he
had a slightly grandiose, boastful quality... wonderful.
Roger asked David if McLevy had 'taken over' and developed in unforeseen ways.
...They all did. McLevy's is a stellar performance, and you pick up from what he does and
enlarge it. Siobhan's performance as well....and Michael Perceval-Maxwell who plays Mulholland
is probably the character who has developed the most. McLevy is a creature of instinct so he
can smell his way to a crime. Jean Brash is more intellectual; razor-sharp, so that's the great
balance between them.
McLevy signed off, after nearly 20 years, as follows:
I am James McLevy, a policeman no longer; just an ordinary soul........ I have a good woman on my arm............. ahead is a new world ..............I know no more than that.
There was an interesting play broadcast on Radio 3 entitled THE STROMA SESSIONS, by Timothy Atack (R3, 2105, 30 Oct 2016). It was a fantasy recorded on location, about four musicians who disappear whilst making an album on the Scottish island of Stroma. The Blackletter
Quartet want to make music in a ghost town...... Stroma was abandoned by its last residents in the
early 1960s and its few remaining buildings, battered by winds and the North Sea, stand
dilapidated. The tale is told through a series of audio files found on the internet five years after
they went missing. It reminded me of Julian Simpson's work: plays based on a discovery of lost recordings.
Jane Anderson wrote about the play in RT: ..it appears to be the perfect setting for a string
ensemble to record some atmospheric music, with the old church and empty houses providing
suitably effective acoustics. But the island does not let go of its sounds, or its visitors, ever.
The four musicians are caught up in an increasingly terrifying sequence of events.
The narrator was Colin Salmon; the actors were Valene Kane, Rebekah Staton, Jade Matthew
and David Carlyle. The producer was Nicolas Jackson and the music, written by Danny Norbury,
was played by Danny, Hazel Correa and Patricia Ramirez.
There have been three plays about Brexit since our decision to leave the EU. The first was broadcast during October and was entitled LEAVING, by Gregory Evans (R4, 1415, 17 Oct 2016). A dying man, in favour of the EU since the days of the Common Market, adds a codocil to his will following the EU referendum which voted the UK 'out'. Unfortunately his son thinks that the EU is undemocratic and dictatorial, that unelected bureaucrats should not have the right to pronounce on our future, and that the sooner we are rid of them, the better. The play gave a good snapshot of the attitudes of the 'Remain' and 'Leave' viewpoints. The father's will causes severe ructions in the family, but in the end, relationships are more important than politics. The play starred Izabella Urbanowitz, John Bowler, Alison Belbin, Luke MacGregor and Keziah Joseph; the producer was Marc Beeby.
THE GOOD LISTENER (R4, 1415, 31 Oct - 2 Nov 2016) was a play which highlighted the
importance of the energy supply. It was a spy thriller broadcast in three episodes on successive days. Workers at GCHQ are monitoring delegates of a G20 summit when they discover
evidence indicating a possible cyber attack on the National Grid. The drama was written by three
people; Fin Kennedy wrote part 1; Hassan Abdulrazzak's part 2 followed the cyber
attack where GCHQ tries to neutralise the threat and find out where it came from. Finally
suspicions fall on a very unlikely individual as Anders Lustgarden concludes the story in part 3 and ties up the loose ends. The cast included Owen Teale, Dominic Hawksley, Lucy Phelps, Ashley Kumar and Alison Newman; production was by Boz Temple-Morris.
I missed Hugh Costello's play DESECRATION (R4, 1415, 3 Nov 2016) when it was first broadcast
in 2014. It was set during WW2 and was inspired by recently-discovered documents showing
that Hitler had intended to invade Ireland. The play imagined how the first few days of such an
invasion might have taken place. It also highlighted the dilemmas faced by Ireland's leaders
when choosing between resistance and giving in. Patrick Fitzsymons, Dawn Bradfield, Owen
Roe and Nicholas Grace starred, and the producer was Eoin O'Callaghan.
HOW THE MARQUIS GOT HIS COAT BACK (R4, 1415, 4 Nov 2016) by Neil Gaiman, adapted by Dirk Maggs, was a short but very welcome sequel to his epic 'Neverwhere', set in 'London Below'. The BBC blurb runs like this: The Marquis de Carabas has been having a rather stressful time of it. Being killed by the villainous duo Vandemar and Croup, having his body sold by the sewer people, and brought back to life with the aid of Old Bailey is enough to test the endurance of
most people. But as if that isn't bad enough, the Marquis has lost his coat. It's not just any old
coat. It is mysterious and unique and makes him the man he is. And he wants it back.
In 'Neverwhere', the Marquis was played by David Harewood; this time he was played by
Paterson Joseph, along with Adrian Lester, Don Warrington, Mitch Benn, Divian Ladwah and
Bernard Cribbins and a host of other actors; an enormous cast. The producer was Heather
Larmour and sound design was by Dirk Maggs, for BBC Northern Ireland.
The second Brexit play was MICHAEL AND BORIS: THE TWO BREXITEERS (R4, 1415,9 Nov 2016), a political docudrama by David Morley about how Michael Gove and Boris Johnson's alliance during the EU referendum campaign descended into bitter political fallout. The
portrayal of Boris reminded me of Bertie Wooster in the Jeeves stories; slightly dreamy,
over-the-top and very funny, but there was no disguising the seriousness of the subject matter.
Jane Anderson, writing in RT, said that the play covered a compelling slice of recent history.
Boris was played by Alistair McGowan and Michael Gove by David Rintoul. The producer was
Dirk Maggs; one of his 'Perfectly Normal' Indie productions.
I enjoyed SUPERSTAR ME (R4, 1415, 10 Nov 2016), a light-hearted comedy by Jessica Mitic (aka
Jessica Brown). This was a comedy about two unlikely travelling companions backpacking
across Thailand. Mike is searching for cultural enrichment, whilst Laura is searching for the
perfect selfie! Laura was played by Gwyneth Keyworth and Mike by Liam Williams; James
Robinson was the producer for BBC Wales.
We have had a further series of TOMMIES (R4, 1415, beginning 11 Nov 2016), by Jonathan
Ruffle, Nick Warburton and Avin Shah. The first episode focused on the women combatants and
drivers of the Serbian Army. Next we were at the last day of the Battle of the Somme and
Signals-Captain Mickey Bliss is back, close to where he started, with 141 days and countless
deaths behind him.
In episode 3 we joined Mickey on leave in Paris, where he's drawn into the shady world of
intelligence and politics; the war continues in spite of enormous loss of life and zero military
progress. The final play was very different (it is credited to Jonathan Ruffle in RT but to Avin Shah
on the BBC website); we are in a prisoner-of-war camp in Turkey; it's 2 Dec 1916 and the
starving captives are working as slave labour on the Baghdad - Berlin railway. This drama is far
removed from the trenches; it's more about survival of the individual than World War 1. On
hearing it I wondered how the oriental mind could be so rigid, brutal, and unthinking.
The producers for 'Tommies' are David Hunter, Jonquil Panting and Jonathan Ruffle. The series 'Tommies' is becoming an amazing collection of WW1 material, entirely based on documented facts - diaries, letters, etc., many of them obscure and unknown until now. There has never been a
drama project like it. One learns more about the reality of the conflict than one could find in a dozen textbooks. So far we have had 24 episodes, and because each is broadcast 100 years to the day after the event, there will be plenty more.
ROAD TO OXFORD (R4, 1415 30 Nov 16) by Douglas Livingstone was the latest in a long line of
'Road' plays (there are now nine of them) created on location in his partnership with producer
Jane Morgan. This one focuses on young David as he goes up to Oxford; the first member of his
family to go to university. The drama is set at the celebration of the dawn on 1 May, when
choristers sing from the top of Magdalen tower and after a night of partying and drinking, the students, still in their evening dress and some of them throwing up, shiver in their evening clothes and listen to the singing.
The production team went to Oxford to record the event, and some of the actors made their
radio debuts as graduates of the Oxford School of Drama or from the University itself. David
doesn't settle happily into college life; eventually he goes missing, and the substance of the play
is about where he's gone and why. The play starred John McAndrew as Dad, Michael Gilbert as
David and Annabel Smith as Shirley. The producer was Frank Stirling and the director was Jane
Caryl Phillips' play SOMEWHERE IN ENGLAND was a dramatization of his novel 'Crossing the
River' (R4, 1430, 3 Dec 2016). Caryl was born on St. Kitts but has lived his whole life in England
and America.The story is set in Yorkshire during WW2 and is about a love affair between a
white working-class Englishwoman and a black US soldier being treated as second-class by his
officers because of the colour of his skin. Listening to this play makes one realise how much social
attitudes have changed for the better in the last thirty years; certain scenes made me cringe with embarrassment. Joyce was played by Helen Longworth and Travis, the black officer, by Rhashan Stone, with support from David Seddon, Jason Barnett, Karen Bartke and others. The producer was Gaynor MacFarlane.
In PROMISES, another drama by Hugh Costello (R4, 1415, 6 Dec 2016) a middle-class couple
whose relationship is on the wane campaign raise money for a child with medical problems. The money is needed to fund a life-saving operation. To their surprise, the money-raising goes more
smoothly than expected, but then the child's father dips into the fund. Do they expose the
crime? This was very good listening. Sarah was played by Emma Fielding, George by Nick Dunning, DC Moore by Patrick FitzSymons and Judy by Julia Dearden; Eoin O'Callaghan was the producer.
I thought everything which could be said about the abdication of Edward VIII had already been
said, but THE KING'S MATTER, by Christopher Lee and THE CRISIS OF WALLIS SIMPSON, by Nicola Baldwin (R4, 8-9 Dec 2016) looked at the events leading up to the abdication from two
different viewpoints. Christopher took the king's perspective, where Stanley Baldwin and the
Archbishop of Canterbury decided that Edward VIII should not impose his will on the
governance of England by marrying Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee. Nicola looked at
the affair from Wallis's point of view; Wallis escapes to France to escape press harassment
(incidentally it's pronounced HARassment, not harASSment), and then tries to persuade the king not to abdicate, saying that they can continue their relationship without marrying. It didn't work.
PM Stanley Baldwin was played by Jim Broadbent, The Bishop by Hugh Ross, Hardinge by Mark
Straker and Edward VIII by Anthony Calf. In play 2, Frances Barber played Wallis, with Jane
McKenna as Kitty Rogers, Mark Straker as Herman Rogers, Richard Dillane as Lord Brownlow
and David Collings as Goddard. Both plays were produced by Celia de Wolff.
A day later we had THUNDERBALL, by Ian Fleming, dramatized by Archie Scotney (R4, 1430, 10 Dec 2016). This was from the ninth James Bond novel. It was great fun, but please forgive
me for not attempting to summarise the preposterous plot. Bond was played by Toby Stephens, Largo by Tom Conti, and Blofeld, the arch-baddie, by Alfred Molina. Ian Fleming was narrated by Martin Jarvis, the producer was Rosalind Ayres, and this was a 90-minute Jarvis & Ayres production.
ONE NIGHT IN LILLEHAMMER (R4, 1415, 13 Dec 2016) was set in a sleepy Norwegian town in
1973. There is a murder; the first in the town for many years, and on the face of it, it's just an
act of senseless violence against an innocent man. However there is more to it; it turns out
there is a link to the tragic events which took place at the 1972 Munich Olympics, where there
was a massacre of Israeli athletes. Andrea Lowe plays the female detective, and Emma
Fielding is the mysterious foreigner who seems to be linked to the killing. The producer was
Brexit play no. 3, ANGELA - 7 DAYS TO SAVE EUROPE (R4, 1415, 14 Dec 2016), again by Hugh Costello, looked a few months into the future, to examine the dilemma to be faced by
France and Germany when the UK leaves the European Union. It asked whether the EU can, or
should, be saved. Perhaps the title should be "Angela - 7 Days to Save the European Union",
because there's nothing wrong with Europe itself; it is a wonderful place. There are many who
believe that the EU is intent on quietly removing the ability of separate countries to make democratic decisions on key issues such as energy and border controls, and to impose so much regulation on companies that only the bigger outfits can survive. It is not surprising that the British referendum split the country down the middle. Heike Menzel was played by Haydn Gwynne, Angela Merkel by Pamela Miles, Petra Hannah by Bryony Hannah and Jean-Luc Chardy by John McAndrew. The producer was Eoin O'Callaghan.
STARDUST (R4, 17-18 Dec 2016 in two episodes and repeated over Christmas) was one of the
best plays of the year. It was based on the story by Neil Gaiman and adapted by Dirk Maggs. It
tells of the adventures of a young man from the village of Wall, which borders the magical land
of Faerie, and which has contact with it just one day in every nine years. The hero is Tristran,
a youth whose origin can be traced back to a magical encounter between his father and a
young lady on one of these special days. Tristran foolishly promises his sweetheart that he will bring a fallen star back to her, and if he succeeds, they will marry.
In Faerie, stars are living creatures, and the one Tristran seeks is called Yvaine. In the quest, we
meet many curious creatures which can only exist successfully on radio: three ageing witches
who need to capture and kill Yvaine to regain their lost youth; four dead sons of the Lord of
Stormhold and three living ones; the dead sons appear as ghostly observers, while the
living sons plot constantly to kill each other to succeed their father. Stardust is a story of great
imagination, and Gaiman has enough ingenuity to ensure that every loose end is securely tied up. The result is that we can identify with his world and want his characters to succeed.
Eleanor Bron narrated the tale beautifully; there was a cast of 25 not including the production
team, which is enormous for radio drama these days, with Matthew Beard as Tristran and Sophie Rundle as Yvaine. The producer was Heather Larmour and this was another BBC Northern Ireland production.
There were other plays worthy of note; a nine-episode conspiracy thriller TRACKS, by Matthew
Broughton, more excellent ZOLA episodes broadcast as afternoon plays, a very funny play
FAIRYTALE OF NEW MALDEN about a grumpy old man (Geoffrey Palmer) reluctantly agreeing to dress up as Santa for a Christmas Fair and everything going wrong, MERCURY 13 - the women
who passed all their astronaut-training tests in the 60s and yet who were never allowed to go
into space; there were also some interesting-sounding stories set in the South Seas by Robert
Stevenson adapted by Jane Rogers; these I recorded but I have not yet heard them.
There are people who think the BBC licence fee should be abolished. I can see why: the bloated salaries of some individuals should obviously be reduced, and there are faults with the Beeb, but just look at the wealth of creativity above.... if the BBC disappeared, this amazing resource - BBC Radio Drama, the best in the world - would disappear.
If you would abolish the licence fee - shame on you!