RADIO DRAMA REVIEW Apr 2019
The eighth Audio Drama Awards ceremony, including the Imison and Tinniswood Awards, took place on 5 Feb 2019 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 the 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 Holbein’s 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 year’s 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) … Epic historical drama now available..... We are delighted to announce that we have partnered with Panoply Media to launch TUMANBAY worldwide as a podcast. It’s 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
This review covers the four months since April. We had a lot of dry weather in the early part of the summer, which took my attention away from radio drama and towards apple trees; however I heard some drama and recorded other plays for listening later. There have been more repeats than in previous years, caused by large and continuous cuts to programme budgets. Gillian Reynolds has commented on this on the 'Feedback' programme. The BBC may believe that online listening is the future, but the present is being robbed to pay for it. The new online 'BBC Sounds' has been under development and heavily promoted. As Gillian has said, there is no commercial network which resembles Radios 3 and 4 in breadth of output, range of subject, encouragement of new talent or fostering of gifted broadcasters. If they are starved of resources they will vanish. There will never be a commercial alternative to Radios 2 and 4. Make your views known to Feedback!
In late April we had THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO, by Nick Perry. (R4, 1430, 27 Apr 19). This was a fact-based biographical drama about the pairing of Eric Ambler (writer of spy thrillers) and John Huston (film director) to make a documentary to support the Allied effort in WW2. Ambler was conscripted to work with Huston on a US Army propaganda film about the Italian campaign. This was an odd coupling: the reserved, cautious British novelist and the gregarious film director. The two men agreed that there would be nothing fake or artificial in their production, but crafting a story in the middle of a war tested their ethics to the limit. The play was a good introduction to Ambler's world of suspense, thrills and intrigue. Huston was played by Elliot Cowan, and Ambler by Joseph Kloska; the director was Sasha Yevtushenko.
On the following day we heard the first episode of Ambler's JOURNEY INTO FEAR (R4, 1500, 28 Apr 19), adapted by Nick Perry, a WW2 thriller. The protagonist is a British engineer working for the Turkish government, traveling back from Turkey, where he had completed high-level technical talks which might help cement a Turkish-British alliance. German spies seek to assassinate him. Most of the plot takes place on board an Italian ship, where the engineer travels with a German intellectual spymaster accompanied by a Romanian hired killer and with a rich cast of other characters. As common in Ambler's books, the protagonist is not a professional spy, and is clearly out of his depth. Indeed, the chief Nazi treats him with open contempt, which for much of the book seems amply justified, but ultimately the German professional pays for underestimating him. Alec was played by Daniel Rigby, Berlinks and Jose by Simon Scardifield, Dr. Haller by Matthew Marsh and Josette by Olivia Ross; the producer was Sasha Yevtushenko.
Another computer / internet-based play, WHAT'S HE BUILDIING IN THERE? (R4, 1415, 30 Apr 19) focused on the unhealthy effects that online chat rooms can have. Kate is a busy teacher attempting to sell the family home. Her younger brother Ryan refuses to leave his bedroom as the sale approaches; he has created an online gaming channel and has adopted an absurd persona which has attracted thousands of followers. Unfortunately he still doesn't have a job, and the channel is becoming more real to him than real life. Kate was played by Christine Bottomley and Ryan by Mike Noble, with Wyllie Longmore as John and Angela Lonsdale as Maeve. Production was by Nadia Molinari.
A welcome addition to the schedules was a radio version of Ian Fleming's LIVE AND LET DIE (R4, 1430, 4 May 19, 90m), adapted from the novel by Archie Scotney. Three MI6 agents are killed in quick succession under mysterious circumstances in the UN headquarters in New York City, New Orleans and San Monique. James Bond is sent to New York to investigate. Just after Bond arrives, his driver is shot dead; Bond is nearly killed in the ensuing car crash. A trace on the killer's licence plate eventually leads Bond to Mr. Big, a ruthless gangster who runs a chain of restaurants throughout the USA and who is importing gold coins to finance Russian spy operations. It is here that Bond first meets Solitaire, a beautiful tarot reader who has the power to see into the future. [After that the plot gets slightly far-fetched, but it's a cracking listen - Ed]. Toby Stephens played Bond, with Kevin Daniels as Mr. Big, Rutina Wesley as Solitaire, John Standing as 'M', with thirteen other actors playing the rest of the parts. Martin Jarvis narrated and Rosalind Ayres was the producer; an Indie production by Jarvis & Ayres.
When Annie Caulfield was diagnosed with lung cancer, she was determined to complete her book about Cambodia, which describes how she learned about the country by befriending a gifted, entertaining, irritable and effortlessly stylish Cambodian woman: Sophea Kagna. She was and is a practitioner of a sacred ancient dance almost wiped out by the Khmer Rouge. Her mission was to preserve the sacred past of Cambodian dance and give it back to ordinary people, and she was determined that Annie would help her. As Annie discovered the country, she learned of her young guide’s extraordinary life story. Sophea’s childhood was scarred by the murderous insanity of Pol Pot, an episode of Cambodian history from which the country is still trying to recover. The play, MY CAMBODIAN TWIN (R4, 1415, 7 May 19), with the same title as the book, is about Annie’s struggle to finish the book whilst dealing with illness. The radio adaptation was done by Annie's partner Martin, who introduces the play. Annie was played by Pippa Haywood, Martin by Paul Ritter, and Sophia by Uma Jackson; Christopher Harper was the doctor. The producer was Emma Harding.
THE MACEFIELD PLOT (R4, 1415, 14 May 19) by Daniel Thurman was about Edith Macefield, an 84-year-old householder who received much media attention in 2006 when she turned down an offer of about $1 million to sell her home to make way for a commercial development in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. Instead, the five-story project was built around her 108-year-old farmhouse, where she died two years later. In the process, she became something of a folk hero. After she died, Macefield willed her house to the new building's construction superintendent, Barry Martin, in gratitude for his friendship and his caretaker role. Edith was played by Sian Phillips and Barry by Stanley Townsend, with Joseph Balderrame, Helen Clapp and Christopher Harper. The producer was David Hunter.
Katherine Jakeways has now written four episodes of her occasional romantic comedy series "Where This Service...". The fourth episode, WHERE THIS SERVICE WILL SEPARATE (R4, 1415, 15 May 19) maintained the previous high standard of writing and production. Suzie and David met some years ago on a train and since then have encountered each other in two other dramas. This time, they are at a funeral. Suzie's husband, from whom she was separated, has just died, and David, her occasional companion, has arrived to give her some support. Unfortunately he is not known to any of her family, which leads to some very awkward situations... Suzie was played by Rosie Cavaliero and David by Justin Edwards; production was by James Robinson for BBC Wales. For other episodes, search for 'Where This Service".
Jane Rogers' BODY TOURISTS (R4, 1415, 4 Jun 19), part of the 'Dangerous Visions' series, was set in 2045, where scientists have found a digital way to store memory and personality. A dead person's chip can be inserted into other living bodies, bringing that dead person back to life for a short while, as long as he has enough money to pay for it. A consultant is the first person to experience the technology. Fathers can meet grandsons; scientists can see their work completed, but at what cost? The production was adapted from the novel; Octavia was played by Susan Brown, the consultant by Joseph Kloska, Paula by Lotte Rice and Ryan by Will Naylor, with other parts played by Alana Ramsey. This was an Indie production by Brill productions, production by Clive Brill.
A welcome bit of publicity about events in Sheffield was broadcast in mid-June. OUR TREES, by Frances Byrne (R4, 1415, 15 Jun19) was a docu-drama, narrated by Robert Glenister, about the destruction of urban trees in Sheffield by seemingly deaf, blind and stupid people in positions of authority. It was based on recent events, as reported in the Press. The City Council has embarked on a programme of cutting down most of the trees in the city. Unsurprisingly, ordinary people living took exception to this and decided to put a stop to it. Many were arrested for refusing to move away from healthy, threatened trees. Frances has turned the voices of Sheffield's urban tree campaigners into a melancholy fairy tale. The producer was Kate McAll and sound design was by David Thomas.
Sean Grundy's RITA, SUE AND ANDREA TOO (R4,1415, 7 Jun 19) was a play about the Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar, whose play "Rita, Sue and Bob", about two teenage girls having affairs with the same married man, was briefly popular in 1982. It's told through the words of Jennie Howarth, a film director and friend of Andrea. The play follows how she struggled to make money and how she fought to protect the authenticity of her work as it transferred from stage to film. Andrea died much too young; at the age of 29 after a sad, difficult life; she left behind three children and three completed plays. Andrea was played by Natalie Gavin and Jennie Howarth by Claudia Jessie; the producer was Sally Harrison and the director Sean Grundy.
Mark Lawson's latest play, BASE LINES (R4, 1415, 21 Jun 19) was about transgender individuals. There has been a vigorous debate in the media recently about certain athletes having an unfair advantage in women's sport because they have the musclature of men but are officially women. The play looks at the issue of men transitioning (by surgical alteration) and the problems it raises in women's athletics. It also asks whether surgical and hormonal alterations are sufficient for a person to become a member of the opposite sex. The play starred Rosie Sheehy and Haydn Gwynne as Peter and Sheila Reaney, with Dermot Crowley and Kerry Fox. The producer was Eoin O'Callaghan.
Sarah Wooley's play about Tennessee Williams, EVERYBODY'S GOT CONDITIONS (R4, 1415, 26 Jun 19) was set in 1961. He had written 'The Night of the Iguana' which had some good parts for women but Katharine Hepburn wasn't interested in performing in a long run so he did some rewriting and offered the supporting role to Bette Davis. This led to a number of problems, most of them originating from Ms. Davis. Williams was played by Justin Salinger and Davis by Amelia Bullmore; Gaynor MacFarlane was the producer.
In June we had a repeat from 2017 of THE LEN DIMENSION (R4, 1415, 27 Jun 19). It was written by Peter Strickland and was a sequel to his first radio play "The Len Continuum'. Len has his first opportunity to take part in a public information film which will receive immense circulation. Will he be up to the job? Jane Anderson, writing in RT two years ago, approved: this is actually a sitcom, but the psychological insights into a man who believes himself to be a failure, despite his outward bravado, puts it into the same league as 'Fawlty Towers or 'Reginald Perrin'. Jane also remarked on the very unusual sound effects. Len was played by Toby Jones, Alice & Trish by Belinda Stewart-Wilson, Josh by Steve Oram and Miles by Harry Mead. The producer was Russell Finch and the director Peter Strickland.
THE FIRST MAN ON THE MOON AND HOW THEY DONE IT (Saturday Play, R4, 1430, 13 Jul 19, 60m) was the latest comic play from the National Theatre of Brent, written by Patrick Barlow, John Ramm and Martin Duncan. Desmond Olivier Dingle and Raymond Box, in their ill-fitting suits, describe the earth-shattering moments in 1969 when the brave astronauts first stepped onto the lunar surface; the fifty-year centenary of the Historic First Walking on the Moon, as done by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Phil Collins. In their words...'besides this historic and – we believe first ever – reconstruction of a historic astronomic event ever done on radio as it almost certainly probably happened, we will also delve controversially into the often stormy on-board relationships of the space men themselves and also - even more controversially perhaps - glimpse into their often stormy domestic lives too, in particular what it meant and how it felt to be Mrs Armstrong and Mrs Aldrin. Did they support their space men husbands or were they, in fact, deeply divided and bitter about it, having to stay at home basically and do the laundry and dusting?' Desmond was played by Patrick Barlow and Raymond by John Ramm; the director was Martin Duncan [.... with acknowledgements to the BBC website - Ed.]
A play which I have not yeard heard but which has been highly recommended to me is BLACK WATER, by Joyce Oakes, adapted from the novella for radio by Sarah Woolley (R4, 1430, Saturday Play, 20 Jul 19). A young political writer, Kelly, meets a U.S. senator and the pair hit it off. They leave in the evening by car but there is an accident; the car ends up underwater and the girl dies. The story is clearly based on the Kennedy / Chappaquiddick Island incident, in which Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge into swampy waters, got out of the car, left the scene and did not report the accident for several hours. His female companion drowned. Kennedy was found guilty of leaving the scene of an accident. Kelly was played by Lydia Wilson and the senator by Elliot Cowan; Laurel Lefkow played the mother and also narrated. The producer was Gaynor Macfarlane.
Rebekah Harrison's bitter-sweet play FADED GLORY (R4, 1415, 25 Jul19) was a lovely story about a reunion between two ex-sweethearts, twenty years on. Sue went to University and now has a successful career; Dave continued to live at home, inherited the family business and now finds that he is threatened with having his premises taken over by a new development. But in spite of their very different experiences, they still experience a little of their former attraction. Sue was played by Shobna Gulati, Dave by Roger Evans and Gemma by Annie-Rose Tate. The producers were Nadia Molinari and Rebekah Harrison.
ULVERTON, by Adam Thorpe, was an interesting audio project, broadcast as a twelve-episode epic over the course of about a week (beginning R4, 1500, 4 Aug 19). Ulverton is a novel set in a fictional village in Berkshire and traces family stories through the generations, from 1650 to the late 1980s, using diaries, letters and other formats to create the voices of each era. The first and last episodes were dramatisations and dramatised narration; between them were serialised readings from 5-9 Aug, including a newly commissioned epilogue by the author, set in 2019. The radio adaptation was by Sara Davies and Jill Waters. The first instalment consisted of three very odd tales from 1650, 1689 and 1712, with John Sackville, Emma S Hussey, Tristan Sturrock, Rory Wilton and David Threlfall. One of the stories concerned a vicar involved in the separate deaths of two of his parishioners in a snowstorm at night after covering one of them with a dead sheep. For the readings, all at noon, the readers included Eleanor Tomlinson, Clare Corbett, Tristan Sturrock, David Threlfall and Richard Goulding. The producer was Jill Waters and this was an Indie production by the Waters Company.
The 'Dangerous Visions' continued in August with I'M DYING TO HELP by Jon Canter (R4, 1415, 13 Aug 19); a cynical science fiction tale about a world where, when you reach 80 years of age, you will be encouraged to volunteer for a 'goodbye', or a termination. A cyanide capsule, and that's it. If you agree, money will be left to your dependants; this means vast savings for the NHS, and no more money wasted on those elderly people who consume the majority of the Health Service's resources. Sam, the first volunteer, was played by Tony Robinson and the Prime Minister by Haydn Gwynne; Sally Avens was the producer.
I didn't know what to expect when I started listening to Proust's IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME, dramatised by Timberlake Wertenbaker (10 parts, beginning 1430, 24 Aug 19). I switched on; it seemed a bit dull but the first five minutes weren't quite bad enough to turn it off. Ten minutes in and it seemed a bit better. After half an hour I realised how interesting it was. RT described it as "a novel reflecting on time, memory, art and love"; certainly it is full of detailed observations and incidents to which most people will be able to relate. That seaside Summarising Proust competition years ago would have helped; never mind. A couple of episodes were missed and some were heard out of sequence but it didn't seem to matter; there were lots of self-contained scenes and stories in the text anyway. Derek Jacobi narrated; there was a cast of 38 actors including Oliver Cotton, Susan Brown, Sylvestra le Touzel and Joanna David playing about 70 parts. The producer was Celia de Wolff.
There were other items of note: Robin Brooks' dramatization of "Ivan Denisovich", a Classic Serial about the life of Giorgio Vasari, the man who painted the dome of Florence cathedral (Brill Productions), The Summer Snows, by Jonathan Smith (Father of Ed, the Test March selector) and Christopher Nicholson; another excellent series of Roy Williams' 'The Interrogation', 'The Bulbul Was Singing' by Judy Upton - her first radio play for a while, and Katharine Chandler's play 'Found' about a man who comes home from the shops carrying a tiny baby instead of a bottle of wine. I also note a repeat of Alison Leonard's six-part series "After Eden" from 1995 on Radio 4 Extra.
ND / 28 Sep 2019
RADIO DRAMA REVIEW Dec 2019
A feature of recent drama is the feeling 'have I heard this before?'. The number of new plays is dropping. If we count repeats: there were 38 in 2000, 54 in 2010, and 109 in 2019. At a time when the BBC is paying some of its leading televisiion presenters seven-figure salaries, this decline in new commissions is disappointing. Every repeated episode denotes a slot which might have been filled by a new commission. It should also be pointed out that BBC coverage of Brexit over the last three years has not been impartial, and as a result it has made some powerful enemies. I read today that there is a distinct possibility that non-payment of the licence fee will be decriminalised. A possible follow-up to this would be the disappearance of or reduction of the licence fee. If this happened, the future of radio drama would look precarious. No commercial channel broadcasts radio drama; it has also disappeared from most national broadcasters, including ABC (Australia) and CBC (Canada).
On 5 June 2018, the BBC said that the Maida Vale studios would close by 2023, and that the studios were wholly unsuitable for the 21st century. It was further reported that the building would be sold to property developers as part of cost-cutting measures. Gillian Reynolds pointed out earlier in the year that this also does not look good.
In spite of this gloomy picture there have been some interesting plays since the last review.
We had a repeat of MASTER OF THE MINT, by David Ashton (R4, 1500, 22 Sep 19) in the Classic Serial slot, previously broadcast as a Saturday Play in July 2018. After 30 years as a don at Cambridge, Newton is offered a new job at the Royal Mint. He is asked to investigate and put a stop to the manufacture of false coin. The penalty for those caught doing it is a slow painful death because it qualifies as treason. William Gaminara played Newton, with Gunnar Cauthary, Kerry Gooderson, Nicholas Tizzard and Michael Nardone. Production was by Bruce Young. This was followed later in the year by another at look the story in a two-episode version (see later)
THE SLOW KAPOW (R4, 1415, 26 Sep 19) was a remarkable play by Ed Harris, in which he recounts an episode from his childhood. It was a comedy drama about memory and how vivid impressions of a traumatic event in the formative years can send waves crashing through the routine of ordinary life. The trouble with memories is that they're not always accurate, because of the way memory works. Memories are apparently synthesised from snapshots of vivid incidents which the brain locks away. This was a good example of a play which works best on radio. Ed was played by the writer, Ricky by Carl Prekopp, JJ by Ewan Bailey and the expert by Clare Corbett. The producer was Jeremy Mortimer.
There has been an increase in the number of environment-related plays this year. Some of them have followed the usual BBC narrative on climate change but others have been more interesting. For example, THE CALL OF THE REWILD (R4, 1415, 30 Sep 19) by Kieran Lynn was a tale about a businessman who decides to reintroduce wolves onto his land. You may have seen an interesting video circulating online about the positive effect wolves can have in certain situations when reintroduced into the wild. You may also be aware of the red-deer problem in the UK. The number of deer has grown enormously in recent years and now exceeds 1.5 million. Culling has had to be stepped up, usually by shooting with rifles. Deer destroy young trees, they spread Lyme Disease (responsible in previous centuries for the Plague) and they overwhelm delicate moorland ecosystems. Well-meaning environmentalists are now beginning to object in large numbers to the culling which takes place each year, but it appears that many of them are unaware of the reasons for having to do it. To return to the play: the release of the wolves causes problems for local farmers, and these gradually escalate until there is head-on conflict. Marcus was played by Robin Laing and Dorothy by Anne Lacey. The producer was Bruce Young.
SONG AND DANCE, by Barney Norris (R4, 1415, 3 Oct 19) had a curious plot; Anne and Pete, two people on a birdwatching trip, witness the fatal heart attack of another of their group. They decide to pay the widow of the deceased, whom they've never met, a visit. They say a lot, but they are nevertheless strangely inarticulate when talking to each other. Fiona Hughes (RT review) described them as "...unable to express what they really feel, whilst leaving the listener in no doubt". The production was excellent and in spite of the story being almost non-existent it was impossible to switch it off. Anne was played by Susan Brown, Pete by Robin Soans and the widow by Tessa Peake-Jones. The producer was Sally Avens.
Peter Nicholls died recently, and as a tribute, PASSION PLAY was broadcast (R4, 1430, 5 Oct 19), repeated from 1981. Nicholls also wrote the 'Joe Egg' play in which a couple's marriage shatters because of the burden of raising their hopelessly handicapped child. 'Passion Play' is about marriage, infatuation, love and betrayal and it follows the situation of a middle-aged married couple whose life is suddenly hit by an encounter with Kate, the much younger widow of an old friend. An unusual feature of this play is that although we hear the dialogue, we also hear what each person is thinking. James, who falls for Kate, was played by Nicholas le Provost, Eleanor by Joanna David, Agnes by Gemma Jones and Kate by Emily Bruni. The producer was Colin Guthrie.
Another welcome repeat was the play by Daniel Thurman THE LAMBETH WALTZ (R4, 1415, 10 Oct 19), though I can't quite see the relevance of the title to the subject of this interesting real-life tale: the musician and psychic Rosemary Brown, who was famous for a while in the 1970s. Rosemary said that a number of deceased composers were dictating music to her: Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and others. She produced hundreds of piano pieces, many of which were very good. Only a few were ever published for general circulation; I have a thin volume originally published by Novello & Co, released by Paxtons in 1974 (they must have bought the rights) containing 7 pieces purportedly by Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms and Liszt, which were recorded by pianist Peter Katin. The 'Chopin' nocturne is attractive and there are recordings of this and other Rosemary Brown pieces on Youtube. Rosemary was played by Marion Bailey, Liszt by Matthew Steer, Sandra by Chetna Pandya, Johnny Carson by Kerry Shale and John Lennon by Charlie Clements. The producer was David Hunter.
Three plays about Republican Presidents, all by Jonathan Myerson, were broadcast during October, as 45-minute Saturday Plays: Ronald Reagan on 12 Oct, George W Bush on 19 Oct and Donald Trump on 26 Oct, all produced by Jonquil Panting.. (R4, 1415). I found the Reagan and Bush plays interesting and informative. In 1987, during Reagan's second term, Congress investigated the Iran/Contra arms-selling deal, where it seemed at one point that the USA had been selling arms illegally to Iran, and secretly diverting the proceeds to fund anti-Communist Contra guerillas in Nicaragua, all with the President's knowledge. Reagan was played by Kerry Shale, with Madeline Potter as his wife Nancy, Mark Heenehan as Bud McFarlane, Paul Hickey as Oliver North and Peter Polycarpou as Admiral Poindexter.
The George Bush play was set in 2000 and looked at the contrasting opinions of George Bush, Sr. and George Bush, Jr. The younger George Bush was elected in the year 2000, narrowly beating Al Gore, after recounts and legal battles to determine who had actually won. George W was a declared Christian and teetotaller with the evangelist Billy Graham as a family friend. George Bush Jr. was played by Joseph Balderrama, Sgt.Harkrader by Melody Grove, Barbara Bush by Amanda Boxer and Laura Bush by Debbie Korley.
The Trump play illustrated the difficulty of writing about a politician still in office. If you are standing next to a man and attempting to describe him it's difficult to get the perspective right; you need distance and time to do it accurately. The play contained a continuous stream of anti-Trump criticism and invective; not a single positive thing was said about him. Nor was there mention of the current disarray amongst the Democrats. For me this was not a believable picture of the most powerful man in the Western world, or of the current state of politics in America. It will be interesting to see how Trump appears in drama in future years. Trump was played by Lewis MacLeod, Ivanka by Christy Meyer, Abraham Lincoln by William Hope and Richard Nixon by Ian Conningham.
ESCAPE KIT (R4, 1415, 5 Nov 19), by William Thirsk Gaskill, short story writer, was his first play for radio. Bradley is a fourteen-year-old school boy who escapes his troubled home life to visit his grandparents in Stevenage. On the train, he finds himself trapped on a train with a middle-aged man who, apparently, is escaping from a WW2 prison camp. Bradley is held hostage by the man and suspected by him of being a member of the Hitler Youth. As I listened, I wondered..... Is this a 'timeslip' play, or is the escaper off his trolley? And can Bradley get away? An entertaining story slowly unfolds. Bradley was played by Will Taylor, Arthur by Reginald Edwards, Celia by Verity Kirk and Edmund by Patrick Knowles. The producer was Clive Brill, for Indie company Brill Productions.
Sian Ejiwunmi-Le-Berre's first radio play, WHEN FANNY MET GERMAINE (R4, 1415, 7 Nov 19), looked at the friendship between Fanny Burney and Germaine de Stael. Fanny Burney was a novelist, diarist and playwright and the daughter of Charles Burney, the composer and music historian. Germaine de Stael was a French writer and historian, politically active, whose lifetime overlapped with the events of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era. She was famous for her novels, social analysis and history writing. Byron admired her as a brilliant writer little read in England: a woman of great ability and ambition, unlucky in love, hugely influential in European politics at a crucial period and an adversary of Napoleon. Fanny Burney was played by Heather Craney, Germaine by Fiona Button, General D'Arblay by Alexander Devrient and Louis-Marie by Lorna Gayle. The producer was Jonquil Panting.
>It was good to hear again THE RULES OF PALSHIP (R4, 1415, 8 Nov 19), repeated from Nov 2017. This was a first radio play by Jonathan Tafler (not counting his adaptation of the diaries of 'Private Wheeler') about the early life of Noel Coward. Noel is on tour as a cast member in 'Charley's Aunt; he has an intense relationship with both a male and a female colleague. He demanded loyalty from his friends, but could he live up to his own high standards? Noel was played by Joel McCormack, Esme Wynne by Isabella Inchbald, Graham Henshaw by Tom Forrister and Fraser Stanhope by Wilf Scolding. The producer was Peter Kavanagh.
David Ashton's second story about Isaac Newton's tussle with the counterfeiters in his role as Master of the Royal Mint (R4, 1415, 14-15 Nov 19, 90m) was entitled NEMESIS. By now you will probably be aware that England was facing a financial crisis because of coins being clipped and forged. Newton, in charge, decided to recoin all silver currency, which means melt down the old coins and mint new ones. However there were politicians and others with vested interests who didn't want this to happen. This version weaves in a sub-plot in which an Irish rogue and counterfeiter (and mistress) comes into contact with Newton's team at the Mint; there is a murder; then another ... Newton gets personally involved in tracking and attempting to trap his adversary. A fanciful story but compulsive radio listening and a great cast. Newton was again played by William Gaminara, with Gunnar Cauthray, Laura Christy, Rick Warden and Sean Murray. The producer was Bruce Young.
A trilogy of plays about the National Theatre, THE NATIONAL, by Sarah Wooley (R4, 1415, 19-21 Nov 19) examined the struggle to establish the National Theatre, which eventually opened in 1963. The project's success was largely due to the relationship between Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Tynan. The first play looked at the setting-up and some of the problems which were encountered.
The second play followed the story through to the 1980s, starting in 1971 when Sir Laurence Olivier was coming to the end of his tenure as Artistic Director and the Board was trying to find his successor. In part 3 we learned about plans for the opening of the new National Theatre building, which were threatened by construction delays and industrial action. The new director, Peter Hall, faced much criticism from inside the organization, but it must be said that finding the correct direction for the National was never going to be an easy job. Laurence Olivier was played by Robert Glenister, Kenneth Tynan by John Heffernan, Lord Chandos by Michael Pennington and Cecil Tennant by Neil McCaul. The producer was Marc Beeby.
From 1963 – 1976 The National Theatre was based at the Old Vic Theatre in Waterloo. The Company remained at the Old Vic until 1977, when construction of the Olivier Theatre was complete. The National Theatre Building actually houses three separate theatres: the Olivier, the Lyttelton and the Dorfman. Additionally, a temporary structure 'The Shed' was added in April 2013 and closed in May 2016. The current building is next to the Thames in the South Bank area of Central London. It was designed by architects Sir Denys Lasdun and Peter Softley and structural engineers Flint & Neill and the three stages were opened individually between 1976 and 1977. The construction work was carried out by Sir Robert McAlpine.
TRIP THE LIGHT FANTASTIC, by Miriam Battye (R4, 29 Nov 19) was adapted from a stage play of the same title, performed at the Bristol Old Vic in November 2015, and reviewed by Rosemary Waugh in Exeunt magazine, http://exeuntmagazine.com. Jack and Freddie are men fifty years apart in age. Jack, the older, wants dancing lessons; Freddie can supply them. This unlikely 'couples' two-hander takes place in an unidentified recreation centre where they meet once a week. Jack is not as flexible as he once was, but he's determined to make the effort so he can cheer up his melancholy wife. There are some nice politically-incorrect lines in the script, and Paul Copley (Jack) and Lorn MacDonald (Freddie) are well-cast. The producer was Becky Ripley.
Ian Billings' tribute to the brilliant comedian and singer Ken Dodd, HAPPINESS (R4, 1415, 23 Dec 19) was set in the year in which the Inland Revenue accused the madcap comedian of tax evasion. Ian also wrote 'Spike and the Elfin Oak' in which David Threlfall won the Audio Drama Award for best solo performance when he played Spike Milligan. In 'Happiness', David gave another uncannily accurate impersonation. The play imagines what it must have felt like for a man confronted with the prospect of being cut off from doing what he loves most in the world: performing in front of an audience and making them laugh. The story tracks his year-long battle with the tax-man including the 1989 trial where the entertainer is finally acquitted on all charges. The tax fraud allegations came to light in 1989 and related to activity by the Liverpudlian, spanning about 15 years. Dodd even had his passport seized because of fears that he would flee the country. The court was told about his eccentricity, including hiding wads of cash in wardrobes, cupboards and under the stairs. He escaped the criminal charges largely thanks to the brilliance of George Carman QC who insisted the case must be heard by a jury in Liverpool. As a friend remarked at the time ' there's no way Dodd will be found guilty in his home town.' George Carman was played by Clive Hayward, the judge by Neil McCaul, and the music was arranged and performed by Neil Brand. The producer was Gemma Jenkins.
Other items of interest have included Mike Harris's new dramatization of Trollope's THE PALLISERS, Katie Hims' adaptation of MIDDLEMARCH, Mike Walker's adaptation of STALINGRAD by Viktor Shtrum and a two-episode version of Colm Toibin's NORA WEBSTER, where a newly-widowed young woman with young children has to come to terms with living alone.
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