RADIO DRAMA REVIEW Apr 2019
The eighth Audio Drama Awards ceremony, including the Imison and Tinniswood Awards, took place on 5 Feb 2018 in the Radio Theatre at Broadcasting House. The Audio Drama Awards were introduced to recognize the excellent work done in Audio Drama by the BBC and by independent producers, and focus on all members of the production teams, not just the writers and producers. There were two new categories: Best Director, and Best European Radio Drama. This was a welcome development; when it comes to directors, the skills required are many and varied, and the best plays are generally associated with a relatively short list of names. In addition there was now a growing awareness of excellent radio drama coming from Europe and elsewhere, particularly as podcasts, including a large number of items from America.
The event was introduced by James Purnell, Director of Radio and Education at the BBC. James noted that the Awards are the highlight of the calendar for Radio Drama. BBC radio plays are famous around the world for their enormous range and for the way they can enrich our lives. Radio drama takes you on a trip around your emotions, around the world, making you think about a huge variety of human experience; the shortlisted plays covered two sisters living at the end of the world, a woman searching for her father's ashes, a woman in emotional distress because she baby she is carrying may have Downs syndrome, a painting by Holbein, authentic voices from the First World War, Das Kapital in an imaginative new setting and the rescue of the Elfin Oak in London from destruction. James concluded by saying that the new BBC Sounds app is making more plays available for longer, and next year, all of the Audio Drama Award entries will be on there for people to hear. The BBC would like even more people to know about the plays it broadcasts. It's therefore curious that BBC Radio's main Arts programme regards radio drama as a forbidden topic. The last radio drama to be discussed on Front Row was The Dark Side of the Moon (2013), a play which would probably have been ignored if Tom Stoppard hadn't written it. .
Best original single drama was won by Amelia Bullmore for her play "County LInes", produced by Mary Peate. A young black woman sits opposite a middle-aged white woman on a train. Neither of them is what she seems.
Best Adaptation was won by A Tale of Two Cities: Aleppo and London by Charles Dickens, adapted by Ayeesha Menon, producers Gill Parry, Polly Thomas and Emma Hearn, from John Dryden's Goldhawk Productions.
As for the Imison and Tinniswood Awards: Lulu Raczka (pron. Ronchka) won the Imison for 'Of a Lifetime', producers Polly Thomas and Eloise Whitmore, by Naked Productions for Radio 3. The Tinniswood winner was Oliver Emanuel for 'When the Pips Stop', producer Kirsty Williams, for BBC Scotland; a curious play which appeared out of the blue one afternoon; the Archers suddenly stopped, there was silence for about half a minute (I thought the radio had gone wrong) and then the play began. This was all carefully engineered; the printed title in RT bore no relation to Oliver's play. As for the plot: two sisters are living on a remote Scottish island after a catastrophe (probably nuclear); they haven't spoken to each other for years, but whilst listening to The Archers the radio goes dead. Now they have no choice but to talk. Personally I liked Martyn Wade's humorous play Holbeinís Skull, producer Tracey Neale, which I thought might win, but that's the way it went.
The award for "Outstanding Contribution to Drama" was won by the entire production team of the WW1 series 'Home Front'. This has made, over four years, a tremendous contribution in telling an important part of our history. It consisted of 617 episodes, used 500 actors and there were 6 regular members of the production team. Jessica Dromgoole spoke briefly on behalf of the whole team, singling out no individuals but praising the efforts made by all of the contributors.
Alison and I were involved in another radio drama event in March: the UK International Radio Drama Festival, held in Canterbury, 18-22 Mar, in which we assisted Nicholas McInerny with the advertising and attended for the whole week. We contacted academics and others within relevant disciplines at the universities and elsewhere within an 80-mile radius of the city.
The festival consisted of five days of live listening to radio/audio plays from 18 different countries in 15 languages. This yearís theme was 'your best ever work', and it did not disappoint. It attracted over 60 entries ranging in length from a couple of minutes to a full hour, and these were whittled down to 48 plays, to be heard over the five days. Entries came from national broadcasters and independents from all over Europe and elsewhere, and one of the first things I noticed was the wide range of genres; there were a few plays similar in style to those of the BBC, but most were of a type that our national broadcaster never uses. We had audio 'collage', pieces involving spectacular soundscapes and virtuostic monologues; beautiful vivid 'shorts' lasting only a minute or two; a poetic interpretation of a text by Russian poet Khlebnikov, musicals, part of an Icelandic saga, an illustrated Bolivian folktale, the experiences of a cart wrangler (the guy in charge of the shopping trolleys in the car park), a couple of dramas about WW1 from Romania and England; a docu-drama about a little-known episode involving HMS Beagle, another about the Paris attacks; we even had Oliver Emanuel's Tinniswood winner; the variety was astonishing.
Each evening, after the listening sessions, there was an opportunity to talk about the plays. The jury was selected from those able to attend all five days, and each day the group, plus anyone else interested, would meet in a local pub and talk about what they'd heard, under the chairmanship of Jonathan Keeble, a familiar name to those who listen to the BBC's drama output.
You might expect that hearing a play in a foreign language presents a problem... however it doesn't, because English scripts on electronic readers were provided. Once you get synchronised there isn't a language barrier, though you have to concentrate, especially at the beginning of each item. At the end of Tuesday afternoon it was wonderful to hear everyone laughing at David Mairowitz's comic play 'MONO', in spite of it being in German! This was a very amusing piece in which he relates how his brother, a 75-year-old rock fan who sells spare parts for lifts, suddenly loses the hearing in one ear at a 'Who' concert after sitting too near to the front. Henceforth he is known to his friends as 'Mono'. His employer tries to give him the push because he's now deaf in one ear. He turns to his writer brother for help.
My other personal highlight from the festival was THE DEAD OF TIERRA DEL FUEGO, by Ulrike Haage and Andreas Ammer. This was a meticulously-researched piece about a little-known piece of history; how the sailors in HMS Beagle brought back a 'savage', as they called him, to England for three years from 'Fire Island', and took him back there three years later. After this he no longer fits very well into English society or that of his homeland; he's stuck somewhere in the middle. The play is really a drama-documentary; it uses word-for-word text from Darwin's notebook and from the Captain's journal, and there are restored wax-cylinder recordings, 100 years old, of the natives speaking their own language. The indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego no longer exist, so this gives us a fascinating glimpse into a vanished civilization. The piece is in German and English.
On the Wednesday evening we had the opportunity to hear Gillian Reynolds in conversation with Kate Chisholm (of The Spectator) at Waterstone's. It's clear that the radio drama genre is strong; there's an enormous audience for it, but the way it's distributed is changing. Nor should we forget that some sitcom series (e.g. Cabin Pressure, which is quite superb) is drama. Nevertheless there's no BBC children's drama to speak of. We are getting more repeats and more podcasts; there's less innovative drama and radio 3 struggles to keep drama going. Long epics and certain drama series occupy a lot of slots and decrease the opportunity for new writers. Nevertheless there are still about half a million people every day who tune in: people doing the ironing; lorry drivers, sales reps on long trips. The BBC is still strong on storytelling: readings, dramatised narrations, and drama, but unlike drama from Europe and elsewhere, most of it no longer seems to explore the boundaries of what radio can do. Gillian also revealed that the BBC's Maida Vale studio is being sold off. I don't know the ins and outs of this but it doesn't seem to be a good sign.
As for the recent radio output, there has again been a varied selection.
In early January we had two hours of 'RIOT DAYS' (beginning R4 1430,12 Jan 19) by Maria Alyokhina. I approached this with some misgiving; it was her account of her activism, trial and imprisonment as part of the Russian feminist punk protest group Pussy Riot, where five of its members gave a guerilla performance of one of their numbers in Moscow Cathedral. I had assumed that the affair was simply about a loutish punk band desecrating a religious building and getting more or less what they deserved. It wasn't like that at all; it documents state repression of a serious artistic protest. Putin often invokes the Russian Orthodox Church in his public speeches, giving the church a much more prominent place in Russian political life and increasing his own influence in the process.The church has been a willing participant. Three of the band were charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and sentenced to two year's penal servitude. Maria was played by Katie West, Nadya by Kerry Gooderson and Katya by Kathryn Drysdale, with Cameron Percival and Alexandra Meyrick. The producer was Emma Harding.
Jonathan Holloway's play THE DOUBLE (R4, 19 Jan 19, Saturday Play) was an adaptation of a novella by Dostoyevsky. It's about the torments of a government clerk, Golyadkin, who finds that an exact double of himself has appeared in St Petersburg and has set out to destroy his reputation. The doppelganger has all the social ease that the real Golyadkin lacks. The scene is changed in this adaptation; we're in a historical sci-fi version of St. Petersburg, and there are intrusions from the 21st century along with a cyber-weapon. Golyakin and his doppelganger were played by Joseph Millson, Andrei by Sean Murray and Dr. Rutenspitz by Elizabeth Counsell, along with Kerry Gooderson and Lauren Cornelius. The producer was Gemma Jenkins.
NINETEEN WEEKS, by Emily Steel (R4, 1415, 21 Jan 19, rpt.), was the story of a woman with a terrible dilemma; she is pregnant but there is a suspicion that the child may have Down's Syndrome. The weeks go by; she has tests, results, more tests; gradually the odds get shorter and her life descends into utter emotional turmoil. Eva Myles played Emily, with Vanessa Hehir as the doctor and Mufrida Hayes as the social worker. This was a very moving play, and Eva Myles received the Audio Drama Award for Best Actress for her outstanding performance. The producer was Helen Perry.
HELLO CALLER (R4, 1415, 25 Jan 19) by Jonathan Holloway was a gem; a good example of a play which works best on radio. In the words of Jane Anderson of Radio Times, "so many old telephone kiosks have now been decommissioned in the age of the mobile phone, but what would happen if voives from the past had become 'trapped' in the decades-worth of circuitry? This leads to a sequence of telephone calls and voices from around the country. Some are comic: two women who have been sleeping with the same man discuss his peccadillos. Others are genuinely creepy, the boxes revealing their secrets; a myriad of voices in trapped phone calls. Annette Badland, Luke MacGregor, Sean Murray, David Reakes and Alex Tregear supplied the voices and the producer was Alison Crawford.
SUSPICIOUS MINDS sounded as if it could be interesting but unfortunately I missed it; perhaps it will be repeated. This was a play by Tom Fowler (R4, 1415, 1 Feb 19) and according to the RT write-up was a time-travelling fantasy, with the settings ranging from the Titanic to Ancient Rome. 'Mark is trying to repair a troubled relationship with his unfaithful partner so he books the trip of a lifetime involving visits to different periods of history, but without the ability to change known events. Will it work?' Fran was played by Susannah Fielding, Mark by Tom Motherdale and Simon by Christopher Harper; the producer was Sasha Yevtushenko.
TUMANBAY returned to the schedules in series 3 of John Dryden's historical saga (R4, 1415, 4 Feb 19), co-written with Mike Walker and inspired by the Mamluk slave rulers of Egypt; probably as close as radio can get to "Game of Thrones". I waited for the traditional scene in episode 1 in which medieval butchery is carried out on some hapless individual; and was not disappointed. The series was in eight 45m episodes and maintained its previously high standard. The Goldhawk site gives details of the three series, and announces "Slaves, spies, armies, assassinations, desert, plagues, death (....and, one could add, breathtaking casual violence - Ed) Ö Epic historical drama now available..... We are delighted to announce that we have partnered with Panoply Media to launch TUMANBAY worldwide as a podcast. Itís a really exciting development for us and will help the series reach a much larger audience." There is a long cast list with the key figures at the beginning of the new series played by Rufus Wright, Aiysha Hart, Matthew Marsh, Peter Polycarpou and Nathalie Armin. The series producers are Emma Hearn, Nadir Khan and John Dryden and this was an Indie production by Goldhawk.
FIVE RACHELS by Katie Hims (R4, 1415, 15 Mar 19) was described by RT's David McGillivray as a Priestley-like memory play. The title was strange; I only counted two Rachels, but never mind; Rachel is trying out a new medication and after several weeks on the new drug she discovers memories she didn't used to have. She thinks they must have originated in her past, but the doctor doesn't agree. Then Rachel meets another person doing the same clinical trial. They talk.... The two Rachels were played by Rachel Ridley and Kika Markham, of 'Just One Cornetto' fame, and the doctor was Michael Bertenshaw. The producer was Allegra McIlroy.
A new production of ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD, by Tom Stoppard, was broadcast in the Saturday Play and Classic serial slots at the end of March (R4, 30-31 Mar 19). R and G are two minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet who are condemned to an existence in the wings, with no control over their destinies. There was an outstanding cast including Mathew Baynton, Andrew Buchan, Toby Jones and Sam Dale, with production by Emma Harding.
The production was reviewed in some detail by Jane Anderson in RT. It is a stage play adapted for radio; originally performed by the National Theatre, and there have been other radio productions (WS 1983, R3 1990, R3 2007. ) This is the play in which the action of HAMLET takes place largely off-stage, while the Prince's hapless school friends twiddle their thumbs and toss coins to pass the time. It was broadcast in 1978 with Edward Petherbridge as Guildenstern, repeating his stage performance for the National. This new production stars Mathew Baynton, Andrew Buchan and Toby Jones. Jane comments "I really struggled with this and am not convinced ....that it can ever work as well in audio form. It requires full-on attention or one is baffled, lost and confused within minutes'. This is exactly the effect it had on me; it was certainly interesting and I had no trouble in getting to the end, but I couldn't pretend to have followed it very well.
I was interested last year to discover an entertainer who calls himself "The Lost Voice Guy" who, amazingly, won the contest "Britain's Got Talent". Lee Ridley has cerebral palsy and the main effect it has on him is that he cannot talk; everything he says has to be communicated via his I-Pad computer. He types on it and it speaks. If you want to know what his voice sounds like, he jokes that you've heard it already on the London Tube, when the guy says "Mind the Gap". He has now been given a radio series (to my surprise, it is series 2; I missed the first one) and it is first-class. The title is ABILITY (R4, 11.30am Wednesdays, beginning 3 Apr 19). The script is by Lee along with radio playwright Katherine Jakeways. Matt, who has cerebral palsy and speaks via a computer, is still sharing a flat with his best mate, Jess. He's in love with her, but she's not in love with him. In the opening episode he introduces himself as a bloke who suffers from a terrible affliction - "I'm a Geordie". The programme was reviewed very favourably by Jane Anderson in RT. Matt was played by Lee Ridley, Bob by Allan Mustafa, Jess: Sammy Dobson, and Matt's Matt's inner voice by Andrew Hayden-Smith. The producer was Jane Berthoud.
One series which has made a great impression on many people, if my friends are typical, is "THE FERRYHILL PHILOSOPHERS", by Michael Chaplin. There have been several series, starting in January 2015. Joe is an ex-miner; Hermione is a University philosopher, and they have become friends. Together they discuss moral conundrums, either local or from their own lives, and try to sort out the problems they encounter from their very different viewpoints. This year we have so far had four repeats and the beginning of a new series (R4, 1415, 8 Apr 19). A recent episode saw Hermione disappear from her job as Philosophy Professor to look after her ailing father; elderly and suffering from dementia. Her world starts to unravel as she struggles to cope with his increasingly odd behaviour at all hours of the day and night. Joe tracks her down and endeavours to assist. The point about these programmes is that they succeed both as first-class drama and in making the listener think hard about the problem, without being judgmental or preachy. Alun Armstrong plays Joe and Deborah Findlay is Hermione. The plays are made by Catherine Bailey Productions; producer CB, director: Marilyn Imrie.
There has also been (according to my listener friends) an excellent 11-episode reinterpretation of the "Five Town" novels by Arnold Bennett, set in the Stafforshire Potteries, dramatised by Shaun McKenna and Lin Coghlan and entitled 'China Towns'. I managed to miss this, but I hope to hear it at some point.
ND / 21 Apr 2019
RADIO DRAMA REVIEW Sept 2019
RADIO DRAMA REVIEW Dec 2019
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