RADIO DRAMA REVIEW Apr 18
The seventh Audio Drama Awards ceremony, including the Imison and Tinniswood Awards took place on 28 January 2017 in the Radio Theatre at Broadcasting House. As readers will probably know, the awards were introduced to recognize the excellent work done in Audio Drama by the BBC and by independent producers. Unlike previous awards, it focuses on all members of the production teams, not just the writers and producers. Alison and I were there, and we met writers, actors and production staff, along with members of the writers' professional organizations.
The event was introduced by Alan Davey, controller of Radio 3. Alan thanked the participants for their contributions. He said that the BBC's radio drama is famous for its quality, both adaptations and original works. Most go out on radio 4 but some are broadcast on radio 3. Those creating the plays show great dedication; it is worth remembering that Louis MacNeice lost his life as a consequence of recording sound effects for one of his radio plays. (he died of pneumonia in 1963 after catching a chill working down a mineshaft as he was checking sound effects - probably for his play "Persons from Porlock". - ND)
MC for the evening was Tracy-Ann Oberman, an actress and writer who has worked on theatre, television and radio. She is a familiar figure on TV; less well-known are her appearances in 600 radio dramas. She has also written some radio plays, including "Mrs. Robinson, I presume' (about the making of the film "The Graduate") and "Rock and Doris and Elizabeth" (about the film star Rock Hudson). Tracy-Ann remarked that radio plays inspire millions of radio listeners every day... the people making it .......the producers and the production teams ..... are geniuses.........the act of listening, which is much more active than watching television, is still hugely popular. "Radio drama is in great shape".
There were also two short tributes. Tracy-Ann mentioned the very recent death of Betty Davies, aged almost 101. Betty was an outstanding radio play producer from the 50s to the 80s. The BBC Genome project lists about 1300 of her productions and adaptations, and she probably had a hand in about two thousand radio dramas in all, many of which were for 'Saturday Night Theatre'. She started off as a "secretary" in 1939 which is what they called female production assistants in those days; she soon became a radio producer in her own right. Her first radio play went out in 1943 and she retired in 1980.
The other tribute, by Celia de Wolff, was to playwright John Peacock, who died in 2017. Celia and John had worked together for 27 years. He began writing in 1979 and ended up with over thirty plays; his first ever play, Attard in Retirement, won a Giles Cooper Award. For more information about his work, see our John Peacock page.
Marcus Brigstocke won Best Original Single Drama with his play about alcoholism, "The Red". Marcus has suffered from alcoholism himself, and the play featured a recovered alcoholic who inherits a wine collection from his father. The long WW1 serial "Home Front", directed by Allegra McIlroy and produced by Jessica Dromgoole won Best Series or Serial. Their research team is very thorough; I once received a message from the producer at one point asking for the names of two apple varieties which would have been common in Kent in 1915. Goldhawk made the lists too; it was was good to see the second series of Tumanbay shortlisted; it was as well-made as the first, but was not placed.
Best Adaptation was won by "Midnight’s Children" by Salman Rushdie, ad. Ayeesha Menon, produced by Emma Harding and Tracey Neale. This went out twice; the first broadcast was 70 years (to the minute) after the Partition of India. Nikesh Patel won Best Actor for playing the lead. The sound design was also commended (Peter Ringrose, with Anne Bunting and Jenni Burnett). The production was by BBC Radio Drama London.
As for the Imison and Tinniswood Awards: "The Book of Yehudit" by Alan Usden won the Imison; a woman wants to divorce her husband for his unreasonable behaviour but he won't let her go. The play shows how the Jewish community deals with the situation. Borderland, by Sarah Woods, won the Tinniswood; this was a play looking into the future showing what might happen if border controls become too heavy.
The award for "Outstanding Contribution to Drama" was won by "Midnight's Children", and the whole production team was called to the stage to receive it: Ayesha Menon, who adapted it for radio, with Emma Harding and Tracey Neale, 27 actors, sound designer and SMs Peter Ringrose, Anne Bunting and Jenni Burnett and production coordinators Maggie Olgiati and Jenny Mendez. It was an outstanding piece of radio drama in every way.
The Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Dame Sian Phillips, who has been in radio, acting and drama for 74 years. Sian said that her most intense professional experiences occurred in her first ten years in radio, from the age of 11. In those days, they broadcast live. "A few years later I became a continuity announcer, then a newsreader, then an interviewer, and I loved every minute of it". A clip from "The Minister" by R.S.Thomas was played, with Sian doing the reading.
The other radio drama event which preoccupied us early in the year was the UK International Radio Drama Festival, held in Herne Bay, 19-23 Mar, in which we assisted with promotion and publicity and attended on the Monday and Tuesday. There were entries from the UK (BBC and Independent), Ireland (RTE and Independent), Iran, Belgium, Romania, Germany, Czech Republic, Australia, Iceland, Denmark and Russia. English scripts were made available for those plays not in English, so there was no language barrier; it was like watching a film with subtitles. The plays are online until the end of April.
I had two favourites; the first was "ALMANAK" by Wederik de Backer - the story of a struggling relationship set against the background of a historic building important in the couple's lives. De Meibloem (The Mayflower) was a special place for the inhabitants of the Brugse Poort, a working class neighbourhood in the city of Ghent. The Mayflower was a socialist party hall; it was also a youth club and at one time a cinema. It provided entertainment for the poor youth of the area. When it fell into decline it remained meaningful to the people who had used it.
The second was SURVIVING IRELAND, an excellent comedy from RTE about two young people, Holly and Declan, increasingly addicted to their electronic devices. Declan is not entirely happy about it so signs them up for a digital detox week in the middle of nowhere, run by monks. They are led through a series of increasingly surreal treatments - such as appreciating food without having to photograph it first. It goes smoothly to begin with; then less so...
The festival received a good write-up from Kate Chisholm in The Spectator, 7 Apr 18. Here's an extract from her article:
"To Herne Bay in Kent for the UK International Radio Drama Festival: 50 plays from 17 countries in 15 languages broadcast over five days to the festival audience. It’s an opportunity to find out what radio plays sound like in other countries, but also to experience a different kind of listening. About 25 of us were invited into a suite of rooms furnished with flock wallpaper, floral sofas and armchairs to take us back to the great age of radio listening in the 1950s. A kettle boils in the background; buttered scones on a tiered rack are sitting ready for us to pounce on at the next pause between plays."
More information about these productions and the others is on our Herne Bay Festival page for 2018; we will be involved with it again next year.
There has again been a wide selection of new drama on BBC radio since the last review. It included two John Wyndham stories, a ten-episode 'Stone' detective drama, a four-episode series about a string quartet, a play about Spike Milligan, more from Patric Barlow and the National Theatre of Brent, a feminist festival ('Riot Girls'), more Home Front and Tommies as WW1 drags on and on, two Ibsen plays, and a light-hearted look at a famous Holbein painting by Martyn Wade.
THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS by John Wyndham (R4, 1500, Classic serial in 2 episodes beginning 7 Jan 18) adapted by Roy Williams, was another dramatisation of this familiar tale. In the word of Dan Rebellato (Guardian, 20 Dec 2010): " If you don't know the story, the village of Midwich is visited by aliens who put the whole place to sleep for 24 hours and depart; some weeks later all the women of childbearing age find they are pregnant, and give birth to golden-eyed telepathic children whose powers are soon turned against the village and the world." Roy Williams' version is a bit different; it occurs mainly in flashback, and parallels are drawn between the isolation felt by the alien-human children and the isolation felt by the disabled. I don't generally like agenda-driven drama; it's often too preachy . Nevertheless the production was very good. Michaela, whose father destroyed the alien children, is thinking about it six months later. She remembers what it was like growing up with the Cuckoos, and the danger they might pose to the world. There's a brief sound collage, and then suddenly we flash back to Midwich, where the new parents are gradually working out how to look after their strange offspring. The play was a team effort between Graeae, a disabled-led theatre company, and Indie company Naked Productions Ltd. Tyrone Huggins played Zellerby, Alexandra Mathie was Janet, Cherylee Houston was Molly and Zellerby's daughter was played by Herman Berhane. The producers were Polly Thomas and Jenny Sealey.
I enjoyed the new comedy drama entitled 4/4 (pronounced FOUR-FOUR) by Sarah Wooley and Robin Brooks (4 episodes beginning R4, 1415, 22 Jan 18). They all had musical titles: Introduction & Allegro, Scherzo, and so on. A violinist in a well-known string quartet has died, leaving a vacancy for first violin. Will young Paul, able but inexperienced, be up to the job? This is the first time that Sarah has written with someone else. We hear about the exploits and life of the quartet, and some of the scrapes they get into. The series was very entertaining; for me the high point was episode 4, where the plot centres around a dead pig. Paul was played by Alasdair Hankinson. Archie by Robin Laing, Fergus by Simon Donaldson, and Skye by Shauna MacDonald. The producer was Gaynor MacFarlane.
FREEZING TO DEATH, AND HOW TO AVOID IT (R4, 1415, 25 Jan 18) was based on a very odd incident. In 1739, the Empress Anna Ivanovna arranged for two of her jesters to be married. After the ceremony the couple were forced to spend the night in an ice palace. This is the story of what happened, and the strategy they adopted to avoid being frozen to death. Did they survive? (no spoilers here). The couple were played by Karl Theobald and Mandeep Dhillon; other parts by John MacKay. The producer was Alison Crawford.
In early February there were some repeats of plays which had recently won awards. One of these was BORDERLANDS by Sarah Woods, the Tinniswood winner mentioned earlier. (R4, 1415, 2 Feb 18). In these days of arguing about Brexit, foreign control of British laws and regulations, and border controls or the lack of them, it is highly topical. It's a thriller from an idea by John Norton, set a few years into the future, based on real stories of migrants. In the play, a mother and daughter travel across the borders of England and Wales and then to Ireland in search of a better life. They meet obstacles everywhere. Layla was played by Juliet Cowan and Rabaa by Sirine Saba. The producer was James Robinson, for BBC Wales.
The National Theatre of Brent paid a return visit with its "ILLUSTRATED GUIDE TO SEX & HOW IT WAS DONE" (R4, 1415, 10 Feb 18) by Patrick Barlow and Martin Duncan, performed by Patrick Barlow and John Ramm. The entire company, Desond Olivier Dingle and Raymond Box, guided us through various representations of sex, with sketches ranging from Oedipus Rex to Brokeback Mountain. Jane Anderson described this memorably in RT as "like Carry-On for Mensa members". The producer was Liz Anstee and the director Martin Duncan.
John Priestley's THE GOOD COMPANIONS was broadcast in a new adaptation by John Retallack (R4, 1430, Saturday Play 24 Feb 18). A factory worker from Yorkshire, Jess Oakroyd, disillusioned with his job and prospects, leaves work and sets off to make his fortune. He joins a concert troupe, and the play focuses on their trials and tribulations between WW1 and WW2. Intertwined with the story of Oakroyd's travels are those of Elizabeth Trant and Inigo Jollifant, two other discontented individuals. Miss Trant is an upper-middle class spinster and Jollifant is a teacher at a down-at-heel private school. All three ultimately encounter each other when a failing concert troupe ('The Dinky Doos') is disbanding as a result of the manager disappearing with the takings. The independently wealthy Miss Trant, against the advice of her relatives, decides to refloat the troupe, now known as 'The Good Companions'. Inigo plays piano, Oakroyd is the odd-job man, and other assorted characters include some members of the original troupe: including Jimmy Nunn, Jerry Jerningham and Susie Dean, along with Mr Morton Mitcham, a travelling banjo player. The time allowed for the story was rather short; condensing a novel effectively into 90 minutes requires great skill. The play was directed by David Hunter and featured Ralph Ineson as Jess Oakroyd, Fenella Woolgar as Miss Trant, Roy Hudd as Jimmy Nunn, Oliver Gomm as Inigo Jollifant and Isabella Inchbald as Susie Dean.
Jane Anderson (of RT) struggled with this and actually had to listen to it three times. "I found it hard to invest in the fates of a self-indulgent variety troupe". She rightly points out that the class divisions seem rather like caricatures in 2018 and it certainly shows some of the social attitudes of the time. However I found it a very cheerful and pleasant listen, and it was good to hear Roy Hudd in the cast, with his encyclopedic knowledge of Variety. Previous versions of "The Good Companion" include the three-part Eric Pringle dramatization in 2002 and the 13-episode Neville Teller abridgement read by Wilfrid Pickles in 1971.
The first Saturday Play in March was SHAFTED, by John Godber (R4, 1430, 3 Mar 18). This was billed as a comedy drama in Radio Times. We follow a bad-tempered former miner and his wife in the 30 years following the Scargill miners' strike of 1984-5. I enjoyed the broadcast but it might be described by some as a bad-tempered play; not everyone would get to the end feeling better than when they switched on. The wounds caused by the miners' strike run very deep. Harry was played by John Godber and Dot, his patient wife, by Jane Godber. Production was by Toby Swift.
Martyn Wade's HOLBEIN'S SKULL (R4, 1415, 5 Apr 18) was another of his 'biographical' plays. He has written about involving Percy Grainger, William Baines, Ben Britten, Delia Derbyshire, Jack Moeran and Sergei Rachmaninov. Holbein is the first artist he has used as a subject, and the play was light and playful, inspired by Holbein's painting 'The Ambassadors'. In the picture there is a collection of ephemera surrounding the two men, causing historians to interpret it in different ways. Martyn's play imagines two French ambassadors to the court of Henry VIII negotiating Henry's argument with the Pope. They are persuaded to have their likenesses put onto canvas. Holbein seems fairly amiable but he is definitely a bit odd, and we learn that he likes painting skulls. Jean de Dinteville was played by George Farthing, Georges de Selve by Sam Alexander, and Holbein and the King by Clive Hayward. The producer was Tracey Neale.
I liked FINDING LOVE AT THE END OF THE WORLD (R4, 1415, 3 Apr 18) by Declan Dineen. This was a gentle story of romance, set at the South Pole. A reclusive scientist's old flame arrives at his research station. Now, she has a dreadful husband who's more interested in his job than her. Her former boyfriend is, from her point of view, equally useless; he's so used to ice and penguins that he's forgotten how to relate to ordinary human beings. Can he re-learn to be normal? Rory was played by Owen Whitelaw, Isobel by Jasmine Hyde, Wanda by Buffy Davis and Vance by Ryan Early. The producer was Bruce Young.
Another memorable John Wyndham play went out recently: THE KRAKEN WAKES (R4, 14 & 21 Apr 18: Saturday Play slot), adapted by Val McDermid in two episodes. I had reservations about the climate alarmist predictions we were given before each broadcast, which sounded almost as obsolete as acid rain, given that global temperatures stopped increasing twenty years ago. That said, however, this is is an adaptation quite different from any which has gone out before, updated to the present day and performed in front of an audience. Once the action started it was first-rate; a tremendous buildup in episode 1 to the first appearance of the Kraken. There is also a 4-minute video clip on the BBC website of the recording taking place, with actors sitting at a table delivering the lines and the BBC Philharmonic supplying the music; well worth a look. For those who don't know the story, it's the well-known sci-fi tale of monsters from the sea. Mike and Phyllis Watson were played by Paul Higgins and Tamsin Greig, with Richard Harrington, Sally Carman and Abdullah Afzal. The producer was Justine Potter.
I also need to mention THE ELFIN OAK, by Ian Billings (R4, 1415, 16 Apr 18. ). This was an excellent comic fantasy inspired by Spike Milligan's attempts to preserve the Elfin Oak in Kensington Gardens fifty years ago. Ian is a children's stand-up comedian by trade (see his website www.ianbillings.com) and this was his first radio play, so it would qualify for the Imison Award. There were plenty of appearances of Goon Show gags in the script, and David Threlfall's impression of Spike was uncannily accurate; David is well-known to radio drama enthusiasts as Paulo Baldi, the Franciscan detective, but the two voices are completely different. Jane Anderson gave the play a good write-up in RT, commenting that Spike was more interested in preserving this iconic hollow trunk for its elves and fairies rather than toning down the political references in his play "The Bed Sitting Room" for the Lord Chancellor. Along with David threlfall we heard Charlie Brand (aged 9) as young Spike, Norma Farnes, Kerry Gooderson, and some excellent performances by those voicing the elves and fairies. The producer was Gemma Jenkins, and Neil Brand supplied the music.
Other programmes worthy of note included Ibsen's "Enemy of the People" (Classic Serial in two episodes), a ten-episode police marathon "Stone" lasting seven and a half hours, another play by Sarah Wooley "Spark", about Muriel Spark's time with MI6, Milton's "Paradise Lost" (great production), an interesting feature about Spike Milligan by Michael Palin, "The Things we Never Said" by Ming Ho about the fragmentation of a mother/daughter relationship, and "Real Worlds" by Jane Rogers, where a disabled mother lives in virtual reality. I also noted a play part-written by Guy Meredith, a production of Ian Fleming's "Moonraker" by Jarvis & Ayres, and Christopher Green and Roy Hudd telling us about the life of the music hall singer, Fred Barnes. The last three I still haven't heard; they are on my 'to do' list.
ND / 23 Apr 2018
RADIO DRAMA REVIEW Sept 2018
ND / 25 Sep 2018
RADIO DRAMA REVIEW Dec 2018
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