April 2022
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Radio drama is starting to recover from the Covid situation; there is now more recording in the studio and fewer repeats, which is welcome. Unfortunately we have lost the 15-minute drama (a reduction of 60 hours per year of radio drama time) and the Saturday Play is now down to one original play per month, with the rest being repeats. We also have a truncated drama slot each week: 30 minutes instead of 45. Radio 3 is still producing 25 original plays per year.

Regular listeners to radio 4 will notice that there is an increased number of mini-serials and series in the Afternoon Play slot. Some of these are very good, but it must make the situation difficult for new writers trying to get their first-ever radio play commissioned and broadcast.

In the online radio 4 discussion group which I follow, there has been talk about the decline of drama programming. There has also been some comment on the R4X situation; various people saying that the BBC has a vast archive of drama material on which they could draw 'instead of repeating the same old stuff'. It is clear that many people are still not aware that the drama collection of pre-2000 material at the BBC is not vast and that much of the material from this era is not repeatable because it is either impossible or too time-consuming to clear the copyright and the performing rights.

The situation for the post-2000 material is simpler; the BBC holds all rights, which means no repeat fees. Such plays can be repeated any number of times. The fees to writers were increased slightly when the change took place, but it's 20 years ago and I would be surprised if that the 'rights premium' had not been eroded. Understandably there are writers who object to the BBC building up a bank of repeatable material which they can broadcast as many times as they like for nothing.

The UK International Radio Drama Festival took place successfully in Canterbury this year, 21-25 March. there were two audiences, face-to-face and online. Events were managed so that all listened collectively to each play at the same time. The standard of the entries was high, and there was an additional online production broadcast live on the Tuesday evening, with actors performing remotely in both Warsaw and Kiev; 'A Time Traveller's Guide to Donbas'. Those in Kiev were determined to show, even during bombardment, that they were not going to allow Russian invaders to stop them doing what they wanted to do.

Jeff Evans from Icebox Radio (USA) submitted a particularly good creepy thriller entitled The Sweep and there was a nice short from Rumania "The Dictator's Portrait" set three days before the Rumanian Revolution. We had a moving portrayal of dementia from Polish Radio's Marta Rebzda 'Let Me Tell You' and a virtuoso comic sound piece "Mondi Possibili" by Italy's Steffano Gianotti. A space voyage beginning inside a toilet bowl leads an astronaut to stroll around the solar system and beyond, quoting original speeches from the different Apollo missions by heart.

Those who are interested can listen to the performances online through the 'festival' link on the main radio page.

The BBC Audio Drama Awards (along with the Imison and the Tinniswood) were originally scheduled for the end of January, but it soon became clear that the coronavirus restrictions might prevent a face-to-face meeting, so the date was pushed back, and then it was pushed back again. Eventually it took place on 25 Mar, two months later than normal, and because of Covid restrictions, it was a much-reduced affair; a small number of people in the Radio Theatre at Broadcasting House but the majority watching online.

Those who wish to scrutinise the list of winners should refer to the ADA link, again on the main radio page.

My personal highlights:

1.Mirian Margolyes receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award for her outstanding contribution to radio drama over many decades. As I said at the time "much deserved; over 700 radio performances,mainly drama, but comedies, reading and other things too. Well done indeed." This followed the award for best memoir some months ago for her autobiography 'This Much Is True', which fizzes with enthusiam for life and naughty stories and is a great read.

2.John Dryden's second series of PASSENGER LIST being judged as best online drama; another winner from the Goldhawk stable.

There have been some interesting items in the period January-April. McLevy is back; a two-parter about his new life with Jean Brash in the New World, and as entertaining than his police adventures. If enough people enthuse about it by writing to the BBC, more may be commissioned, so please take note. There was a collection over several weeks of short dramas 'United Kingdoms' in the European style; a series about a terminally ill tennis player frozen in a laboratory, waiting to be woken up when a cure is found; a new production of Conrad's Heart of Darkness; a siege in a supermarket; the story of how the young Mozart took Allegri's sacred music from the Vatican; another thriller serial from Matthew Broughton; Brexit in Ireland; a Covid play from Mark Lawson (should we be jabbed or not?); a new series 'Our Friends in the North'; two plays about Ukraine, and a new play by David Pownall.

As for my personal impressions of some of the plays:

STEELHEADS, by John Dryden and Brett Neichen (R4, beginning 1415, 1 Jan 22) was a 5 x 30m thriller series, also available as a podcast. When young British tennis pro, Joleen, is diagnosed with a terminalbrain tumour, she has herself cryogenically frozen at an experimental lab in Seattle, in the hope that one day - perhaps hundreds of years into the future - there will be a cure and she can be revived. After an undisclosed time, Joleen awakes from her slumber in Alaska, and is puzzled by her new surroundings. The world’s population is now split into SteelHeads, people who have been chipped, and ClearHeads, who oppose being chipped. Individuals with the chip lead bland, regimented lives, oblivious to anything negative. The Clearheads are the realists who see life as it is; at least, that's how it seems to them. It's worth pointing out that the story line also coincides with the events we are currently living through, with vaccine-hesitant people reluctant to have Covid jabs for fear of government foul play.

Joleen was played by Jessica Barden, along with a very large cast; sound design was by Steve Bond, script editing was by Mike Walker and producers were Emma Hearn and John Dryden, for Goldhawk Productions.

An unusual item going out in January was a dramatisation of Joseph Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS (R4, 1500, 8 Jan 22) broadcast as the Saturday Play, lasting 85m and repeated from October 2015. This was Orson Welles' unproduced screenplay of the Joseph Conrad novel. The story: a skipper is hired to take a steamship up the Congo river to find a missing company agent who trades in ivory. He encounters a terrifying evil. The script was written by Welles in 1939, but was turned down, and Citizen Kane was filmed instead. The adaptation for radio is by Jamie Lloyd and Laurence Bowen. The story involves some of those frightening artefacts from the jungle which you can see in the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford: shrunken heads, human scalps, and the like. Marlow was played by James McAvoy, Kurtz by Jonathan Slinger and Elsa by Phoebe Fox. It was produced by Laurence Bowen and directed by Jamie Lloyd for Indie company Feelgood Fiction.

Sebastian Baczkiewicz used the Radio 3 drama slot to tell us how Allegri's setting of Psalm 51, now known as Miserere, escaped from the Vatican (WUNDERKIND, R3, 1930, 23 Jan 22). This is one of the most beautiful pieces of music in existence, and to preserve its sense of mystery, the Pope forbade anyone from transcribing it, on pain of excommunication. The work remained uncirculated and unpublished for a century. But Leopold Mozart took his son to Rome in 1770 and the two of them heard the Mass on Maunday Thurday service at the Vatican, at which the Miserere was sung. A couple of hours later, back at home, the young Wolfgang wrote out the whole piece from memory. According to the play, it was to get the young prodigy and his father into hot water. Leopold Mozart was played by Paul Higgins, Anna by Jasmine Hyde and Cardinal Ucelli by Craige Els. Musical direction was by John Chambers and the producer was Toby Swift.

It was some time later that I realised this drama was unusual. The central character,Wolfgang, had not actually spoken a single word during the play. He makes no appearance other than through his brilliant fingers. But as the late, great Don Haworth pointed out many years ago, in his interview with Bernard Palmer: "Anyone spoken of, in radio, is as real as someone who is there and speaking, which is not so in any other medium."

Sebastian introduced the play, and gave some background: "One of the things I discovered when reading Leopold's letters and looking into the history of the Mozartswas that Wolfgang was the youngestof 7 children, 5 of whom died in infancy. The tragedy of that loss affected me quite deeply as I thought about how you would live with it and the expectations you would have for your child, perhaps, if you had experienced that level of grief and loss. It's an extremely delicate time for Leopold; his eldest daughter, who was also a prodigious musician and toured with her younger brother for years, has had to retire because she has reached the age of 18 and it's not seemly for her to continue performing - and the fact that Wolfgang himself is no longer a child. He is becoming a man, and Leopold knows that soon he will want his independence and perhaps to leave this extraordinary life. Leopold suffers all the anxieties and conflicted emotions of that experience. The thing that struck me about all this was the precariousness of our existence, and the vicariousness of Fate".

Matthew Broughton's new 5-part thriller serial BROKEN COLOURS began in late February (R4, 1415, 22 Feb 22). Jess meets Daniel at an environmental protest which gets out of hand. It changes both of their lives. RT described this as a story of conflicting perception. Aside from the story line, which rattled along quite nicely, there was an interesting subtext. Our regular reviewer Harry Turnbull had this to say about it:

"A psychedelic curiosity appeared in the shape of Broken Colours where we have a protagonist who has a condition known as synesthesia. It made me wonder: do we dream in colour? I know the question has been asked before but it’s one I can’t answer. The last dream I had was fleeting fragments of places, people and shadows but no discernible colour, not even black and white.

With synesthesia some sounds are experienced as colours. It sounds surreal but enables a bit of philosophical introspection from Jess played by Holli Dempsey... Difficult to sum this up but there are definite echoes of techniques used in the long running conspiracy thriller Tracks, and little wonder - as writer Matthew Broughton is involved with both.

But what is this actually about? Too little suspense to be a thriller. Is it a love story? Not really, as you aren’t invested in why an artistic young woman would take up with a drug dealing gangster just because he happens to appear to be vulnerable. Girl meets boy and is soon ensconced in a whole heap of trouble."

Dan was played by Josef Altin, Johnny by Tom Byrne and Melissa by Alexandra Riley. Sound design was by Catherine Robinson and Nigel Lewis and the producers were John Norton and Emma Harding for BBC Wales.

A LEAP IN THE DARK by Ron Hutchinson (R4, 1415, 26 Feb 22) was commissioned to celebrate the approaching centenary of the UK’s first ever radio play. In 1922, when producer Cedric Maud and his assistant Grace first proposed the idea of a play to be performed on the newly available wireless sets, the idea was initially regarded as impracticable and perhaps impossible to execute. How would listeners know what was going on if they couldn't see the stage? A young writer, Richard Hughes, was commissioned to write a piece which would exploit the potential of the new medium. The play takes a light-hearted look at the way the first drama producers faced the challenge and invented a new art form destined to become very popular - radio drama. Nigel Playfair, stage actor, was played by Alex Jennings, May Playfair by Jane Slavin, along with Rufus Wright, Clive Hayward and other well-known radio names. The producer was Eoin O'Cllaghan, for Big Fish productions.

A new play by David Pownall, one of our most experienced playwrights, was broadcast in early March. BED FOR THE NIGHT (R4, 1500, 5 Mar 22) was about the aftermath of Britain's colonial past and the issue of illegal immigration. It's set in Brighton, 2022, and the story begins with a knock on the door of a retired couple. Daniel, now in his 80s, is confronted by a black man outside who asks him for a bed for the night. Daniel finds that he is the grandson of a man he used to employ as a servant when he worked in Rhodesia. He invites him in; he feels obliged to do so because of a promise he made many years ago. But Amos came over the Channel illegally in a boat. The play follows Amos' attempts to stay in the country and in touch with his family. It was produced by Martin Jenkins, who has worked with David Pownall on over thirty previous occasions. Daniel was played by Nigel Anthony, whose first radio performance was on 11 Nov 1956, in a Children's Hour drama, which probably makes him the longest-serving radio actor in the country. Amos was played by Stefan Adegbola and Flora by Sarah Badel. Sound design was by David Thomas and the production co-ordinator was Sarah Tombling, for Pier Productions.

JABBER JABBER, by Mark Lawson (R4, 1415, 14 Mar 22) was a play looking into the Covid vaccine rollout from the point of view of those who wanted it and those who didn't. Mark Lawson says that he has had two jabs, a booster, and a mild dose of Covid. But after seeing news reports that 90% of British adult population had received the first jab, he was interested by the 10% (about five million people) who refused it. A tenth of the NHS workforce also declined it, even under the threat of dismissal; a threat which was hastily withdrawn when it was realised that the NHS would collapse if a large number of its workers were suddenly forced to leave. The play was a thought - provoking listen going far deeper than the polarised discussions normally encountered on the national media and it highlighted many real concerns about what has been going on over the last two years. There was an excellent cast: Nimmy March, Nicholas Murchie, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Jane Slavin, Clive Hayward and Tom Glenister. The producer was Eoin O’Callaghan, for Big Fish Productions.

OUR FRIENDS IN THE NORTH (R4, 1415, beginning 17 Mar 22), by Peter Flannery, is a ten-episode radio version of his TV series. The drama follows the lives of four friends over three decades beginning in the 1960s. It looks at corporate, political and police corruption in the 1960s, the rise and fall of the Soho porn empires in the 1970s, the nouveau riche and the Miners’ Strike of the 1980s and the rise of New Labour in the 990s. Some of the stories are directly based on real-life controversies. The adapted series will end with a tenth episode by writer Adam Usden, which will bring the story to the present day. The first episode opens in 1964, with 20-year old Nicky (James Baxter) meeting his girlfriend Mary (Norah Lopez Holden) on the beach. Harold Wilson is PM.

Harry adds: ........ "an audio version of the hit 90s TV series .... which helped propel the likes of Daniel Craig and Christopher Eccleston to fame. The action moves between the regional, with activist Nicky, and the capital, where our everyman hero Geordie traverses the cesspit of Soho. What binds the two together is the breathtaking corruption of real-life Newcastle politicians like John Poulson and T. Dan Smith and the grotesque dishonesty of Scotland Yard vice squad cops, also all too true. And of course recent events at the Metropolitan police and Downing Street merely underline the timelessness of these themes."

Sound design for the play was by Eloise Whitmore, the producer Melanie Harris, and the executive producer Jeremy Mortimer, for Sparklab productions.

Unfortunately I missed 'STRINGS', an interesting-sounding R3 drama broadcast on Sun 13th March, scripted by Linda Marshall Griffiths and produced by Nadia Molinari. Apparently it imagines a future world where all life is threatened and decisions must be made about what is worth saving. The Longyears spacecraft is on a mission to launch into the future by entering interconnected cosmic strings. It's on listen-again so is still available. I hope it's easier to follow than 'Solaris'; I struggled somewhat with the plot of Lem's classic at the Radio Drama festival whilst following the Rumanian version with my English translation. There was also a play by David Morley about Ben Santer, a climate scientist, highlighting the difficulty of integrating the complex issue of climate science with easy-to-understand public statements and political manoeuvering.

ND / 28 Apr 22



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