Radio Plays, 2021

Sweeney Todd and the string of pearls

Featuring Martin Jarvis
Produced by Jarvis and Ayres for Radio 4
Broadcast 14 and 21 March

The demon barber’s and the pie shop would certainly have some unusual economic challenges in the time of Covid. I assume the pie counter would remain open as an ‘essential business’ but there might be a supply issue. No such problems in the 18th century of course when Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett plied their unsavoury trades.

Marvellous performance from Jarvis as the titled anti-hero whose gruff tones perfectly capture the Fleet Street of 1785. He was able to attract Joanne Whalley, Rufus Sewall and Jonathan Cake to this dark tale of evil enterprise.


The Christopher Boy’s Communion

Featuring Rebecca Pidgeon
Produced by Jarvis and Ayres for Radio 4
Broadcast Radio 4 March 8

The husband and wife team of Martin Jarvis and Rosalind Ayres in action again with this adaptation of a David Mamet stage-play. It is introduced with stage directions rather than a soundscape which indicates how this is going to play out, with dialogue very much to the fore. Mamet’s wife Rebecca Pigeon plays Joan, a somewhat deluded anti-semitic Catholic woman whose son has murdered a Jewish girl. She will do anything to get him off, including bribery and demanding the church pulls a few strings.

Radio 4’s Feedback programme got into a lather over her description of the dead girl as a ‘little Jewish slut’ although of course Mamet is Jewish and this sort of language even in today’s climate is considered OK if it’s about one of your own (although I see Manuel is still being referred to as a ‘dago’ on primetime showings of Fawlty Towers on BBC 1).

Mamet claims inspiration from J.B. Priestley although I think the end is more Faustian than Inspector Goole.


The Ventriloquist’s Dummy

Written by Amanda Dalton
Produced by Nadia Molinari
Featuring Christine Bottomley
Broadcast Radio 4 on March 2

Interview with Amanda Dalton

Of all the subjects I’ve written about over the years it never occurred to me to wax lyrical about Irritable Bowel Syndrome. And as a sufferer for decades it’s a subject I am familiar with. But here we have it, an afternoon drama featuring a talking gut, a ventriloquist’s dummy and a real life doctor.

It actually turned out to be quite amusing - especially the contributions form the gurgling gut.. But also informative, for, I took the advice and started talking to my innards with very positive results, and was introduced to the practice of gastromancy. I was intrigued by the subject matter and asked writer Amanda Dalton what prompted her interest. Amanda is a poet and an associate artist with the Royal exchange Theatre in Manchester.

“This is the first time I’ve used documentary in a drama - I’m increasingly interested in the hybrid, mash-up forms of writing and felt this particular play needed that element of a real doctor and therapist talking.

“Nick Read is both, which is unusual, and proved helpful. I’ve had all manner of inflammatory gut problems for over 20 years. IBS is part of the picture for me but I’ve also had other complications - so this wasn’t a directly autobiographical piece but it did draw on a lot of my own experience. “I’m interested in the mind/body symbiosis but wanted to explore it in a way that wasn’t ‘heavy’ or ‘worthy’ . A few years back I was reading something and came across gastromancy. Hadn’t realised this was kind of the origins of ventriloquism. When I read about it - the notion of the wisdom coming from the spirits of the dead inhabiting and speaking from the gut of the gastromancer.

“It occurred to me that this was like ventriloquism and the gut was like the dummy - that transgressive, anarchic, ‘fool’ figure who is frequently an embarrassment or out of control, but usually speaks a kind of truth - though it may not always be what the vent wants to hear. I was also interested in the psychologist Winnicott’s idea of the transitional object - how through talking with, say, a doll - a child will often communicate things s/he cannot communicate to another human being - the role of such objects in our lives etc. Somehow or other all of this came together to create the play.”

Christine Bottomley plays Jess, the sufferer who finds talking to her dummy more soothing than her less-than-sympathetic partner.

Harry Turnbull


Afternoon drama 22/2/21

Featuring Christopher Ecclestone
Written by Christine Entwhistle
Directed by Kirsty Williams

It was a little puzzling to keep track of this until the penny dropped and I realised Christopher Ecclestone’s strange companions were actually voices inside his head. That explains the brief scattering of profanities not usually associated with Radio 4 afternoon dramas.

This poignant piece came about as the result of Christine Entwhistle’s work with the mental health charity MIND and introduced me to the term ‘voice-hearers’. Any broadcast that seeks to convey the struggles some people have in daily life is no bad thing.

French Like Faiza

Featuring Laila Alj
Written by Ilana Navaro
Produced by Nicolas Jackson
Broadcast on Radio 3 21 February .

A French woman of Algerian descent finds herself excluded in the land of liberty and has the bizarre notion that she will get a warmer welcome in Blighty.

Rather curious piece this. A bit too cliched.

For instance, the leading character Faiza,leaps into bed with someone then objects when he admires her brown skin and when he apologies and calls her a ‘woman of colour’ that too is scorned. Oh what a minefield it must be out there in the real world.

On another occasion someone mispronounces her surname as ‘Ramadan’ and she declares that all British people can’t tell an Algerian from an Indian. I mean this is like clay pigeon shooting, just throw up a few easy targets and blast away without too much thought.

Harry Turnbull

Hardy's Women: Tess

R4 Classic serial slot; Three episodes from 14/2/21

Featuring Faye Marsay as Tess.
Adapted by Katie Hims
Directed by Mary Peate

By Harry Turnbull

Reinterpreting or reimagining old classics is becoming more popular in audio drama. Not only does it enable an update of the story; it can often mean a reconfiguring of characters, gender and language. Perhaps one day soon we may even see a hip-hop version of Twelfth Night or Waiting For Godot.

In this instance it is Tess of the D'Urbevilles that comes in for the treatment. Instead of, say, bringing the tale into the present, this is narrated by Tess herself from her cell on death-row...

Producer Mary Peate tells us how she went about updating Tess twenty years after first bringing the ever popular classic to the airwaves.

How did it come about?

“Graham White, an academic and radio dramatist I’ve worked with a lot, has a deep interest in Hardy and he approached me about proposing a Hardy season to Radio 4. After a long process of thinking and negotiating, my fellow producer Emma Harding, the Radio 4 Drama Commissioner Alison Hindell and Graham and I decided that simply telling Hardy’s enduring stories from the point of view of a female character would allow us to approach the narratives afresh, highlighting the modernity of Hardy’s thinking.”

Did the perspective-shift change the story?

“Tess’s beauty is irrelevant in this telling of the story since she is the person making the observations, and this helps to put the listener in Tess’s situation, focussing our attention on the matter in hand. We feel how each step of the story is contingent on how Tess responds to events.” “In Katie Hims’s dramatisation of Tess, we go through the twists and turns of Tess’s life with her as she weighs decisions and reacts to her changing circumstances, gaining an understanding of her precarious life from her point of view.”

The soundscape is different too, previously you inserted a whimsical musical motif.

“In preparing this production I steered clear of the earlier production and just responded to the drama as we put it together in the edit, but I think you’re right - Katie Hims’s idea of having Tess tell the story from her prison cell the night before she is hanged did lead me to choose some more sombre, poignant music.”

The Brummie Iliad

Drama on 3, 31/1/2021

Dramatised by Roderick Smith

Another stab at innovation, albeit a rather puzzling one. What never ceases to surprise me is, not that such ideas actually occur to someone, but they actually get commissioned by the powers that be. Telling the Homeric epic in Brummie accents is a real head-scratcher.

Nothing wrong with a regional twang, even if every character sounded like Jasper Carrot, but this was like having Brummie broadcaster Adrian Chiles on the wireless in the kitchen while rustling up a classic such as a sausage and egg timbale - eventually it just becomes a background drone while you focus on what’s in hand.

But this is to trivialise a serious matter, for it seems this rendition has been worthy of academic research; whilst an earlier South African dialect version is deemed ‘nativistic and didactic’, the Brummie effort is ‘inherently self-parodic and burlesque’ and an example of ‘contrapuntal expanded translation’.

Judge for yourself as it is still on BBC Sounds. Personally, I won’t be rushing back to have another listen to Achilles mooning over a bird ‘with his arse in his hands’ or Zeus stomping about Mount olympus ‘with a cob on’.

Those West Midlands rock gods Black Sabbath provide a few background battle riffs but sadly the greatest rhyming couplet in heavy metal history is missing:

‘Generals gathered in their masses
Just like witches at black masses’.

Harry Turnbull

Breaking Blake
Radio 4 19/1/21

Featuring Michael Maloney.
Produced by Barnaby Kay

I always imagined George Blake to be a cunning spy who had been sprung from jail in an outlandish plot masterminded by the KGB.

The real story - if this is it - is more like a Terry Thomas comic caper.

Some anti-nuclear activists tossed a rope ladder over the walls of Wormwood Scrubs and drove him in a campervan to East Germany.

The motive was apparently outrage over Blake's 42 year sentence. One of them, Michael Randall, is still around. I wonder if he tuned in to this remarkable sixties farce?

Heart of Darkness
Radio 4 January 17

Featuring Georgia Henshaw and Peter Bankole
Written by Anita Sullivan
Directed by James Robinson


Last year a trio of African tales were broadcast on Radio 4 which led me to reference Conrad in a review on these pages. This re-imagining of Heart of Darkness was in the pipeline at that stage and was only actually commissioned in October.

In this production, Marlowe is transformed into a female, Maya, and Kurtz has gone AWOL working for a large corporation.

Writer Anita Sullivan emphasised the point that nation colonialism may be largely a thing of the past but that company’s with global operations are still very much at the heart of resource extraction and human exploitation.

That reminded me of Unilever, a company I had dealings with for many years and is famous for its philanthropic founder Lord Leverhulme. I thought I knew a lot about the company which created the picture-postcard model village of Port Sunlight for its workers, but apparently not. For only recently have I learnt it was a major player in Congo, using forced labour for many years. You will not find this in its history pages.

There are any number of older stories that have a peculiar resonance today and this is one of them. As Anita Sullivan explained to me: “My interest in Conrad is longstanding. My first theatre play was a notoriously terrible adaptation of Lord Jim, with a student theatre company. Thirty years and sixty plays later, my interest was rekindled when I read about oil prospecting under swamp forest in the Republic of Congo, and the toxic mineral-grab in Eastern and Southern DRC.

“I thought of Heart of Darkness, reimagining it as a contemporary story where corporations replace colonial powers as the exploiting force. I was excited by the idea, but also daunted by both the book’s literary status and cultural legacy.”

Anita called on some local experts to help her gain a penetrating insight into modern Congo. She added: “I wanted my own version to put DRC characters at the heart of the story as active protagonists who spoke for themselves, in their own languages. I wanted the landscape to be rich and beautiful, with 'light glancing off the stained-glass wings of enormous dragonflies, and iridescent Congo sunbirds'. I also knew I was carrying an ‘intolerable presumption’ of understanding, and a big responsibility.”

The result is a haunting production which reverberates both with the rhythm of the interior and the heartbeat of history. Our modern day Marlowe is played with a quietly serene but expressive presence by narrator Georgia Henshaw. She travels upriver to find Kurtz who had been working on an environmental impact assessment report.

A dark interior, still full of horror.

Rodgers & Hart & Hammerstein

Drama on 3. 27/12/20

Featuring Jamie Parker.
Written by Sarah Wooley
Directed by Abigail Le Fleming

It's curious that so many dramatisations of revered artists focus on their human frailties. In this case it's lyricist Larry Hart who comes in for the treatment. A paranoid drunk who lived with his mother and worried about his short stature.

Despite’s Hart’s gradual decay, the songwriters were phenomenally successful; who could forget such lines as 'The city's clamour can never spoil, the dreams of a boy and goil'.

Fame and fortune, so often bedfellows of tragedy.

Of course, Richard Rodgers went on to even more success in musicals and films with his next songwriting partner Oscar Hammerstein.

Harry Turnbull

Thanks Harry for these reviews .... ND

Back to top

Radio Plays
Wine Making
Cosby Methodist Church
Gokart Racing
Links to other sites
Contact Us