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Harry Turnbull's Radio Drama Reviews:Jun 2022


Barbeque 67

Featuring Robert Glenister and Anamaria Marinca
Directed by Andy Jordan
Written by Andy Barrett

Ah the Summer of Love 1967. Hippies, flower power, anti war demonstrations and countless Sausalito sunsets. But not so fast. A new audio drama claims to tell the real story of how it all started......in the backwater of Spalding, Lincolnshire. In the Tulip Bulb village hall punters paid a pound a piece to see a host of legends just as they were starting to light up the music scene. Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Cream and Geno Washington were amongst those on the bill. How many beatniks turned up is anyone’s guess.

Naturally it has gone down in history in the Hicksville agricultural town in England’s flatlands but did it really beat San Francisco to the birth of the Summer of Love? That’s debatable but it seems it did spark the birth of the music festival, and as the Floyd’s Nick Mason observed, it embodied a moment of huge cultural change.

The story about that momentous time is told in flashback by an old rocker who befriends a young Romanian woman who loves Hendrix. It then becomes clear that the narrator is trying to draw a line from 1967 – when Spalding embraced the world – to more modern times when East European potato pickers were made less than welcome in the communities around Lincolnshire.

This friendship between the old Brit and the younger European I guess is meant to represent how we should all live together in harmony – something the hippies would definitely have approved of.

The narrator Doug was married to the area tulip queen, who has died, and recounts sharing a car journey with Hendrix discussing the finer points of the spring bulb harvest.

As it is of course Brexit put paid to the idea that everyone should rub along together and now agricultural workers are in short supply.

And as the Romanian Tereza commented ‘I can’t believe the summer of love came out of a place like this’. And of course a few slices of music from that era.


Limits To Growth

Featuring Samantha Dakin
Produced by Emma Harding

Fifty years ago Donella Meadows and other academics voiced a dystopian fear that gnawed at the heart of existence on earth. Could the insatiable quest for growth to feed gluttonous consumerism result in a world unable to sustain itself?

The answer appears to be a resounding yes as lessons from their work Limits To Growth appear not to have been learnt. Every economic shock is accompanied by politicians asserting that the only way out is increased productivity, including in solving the current crisis.

This stampede for increased productivity, growth and profits lies at the heart of the modern capitalist world and will ultimate be its downfall if things don’t change. Meadows articulated this fear of an agonising disruption, breaching the elemental harmony of the universe and pushing the boundaries of humankind.

Although the Radio 4 Sunday afternoon slot has traditionally been allocated to book adaptations, this was a little unusual, principally because it wasn’t a drama, more like a documentary or lecture. I guessed the idea was to bring this important subject to a wider audience than a documentary slot.

It turned out this was exactly the idea, as producer Emma Harding explained: “Sarah Woods is very interested in systems thinking and wanted to bring the ideas within LtG to a wider audience. Telling the story of Donella Meadows provides an engaging way to communicate complex ideas. In the broadest sense making the political personal”.

When the book came out in 1972 it was roundly castigated by the establishment. Even now the attention of developed nations is on climate change and little heed is paying to population consumption and resource crises. The model predicted in 1972 states quite simply that the earth cannot viably sustain 8 billion people, which is exactly where we are heading.

Samantha Dakin appeared as Donella, the voice of reason, arguing that the drive for more and more growth was causing economic upheaval, pollution, climate change, resource shortages and unsustainable population growth. What was needed was a massive reset.

Funnily enough the elites are considering this but only an economic reset that will play out in their favour. If we continue to have politicians with no vision like Johnson and Starmer it looks like we’re doomed.


Cocktail Sticks
Radio 4 (First broadcast 2015)

The familiar lugubrious intonation of Alan Bennett acts as a comfort blanket in these uncertain times. Not for him an obsession with shattering world events and sonic technologies, instead he focuses on more immediate matters such as, ‘what’s for tea?’.

One imagines him at home with a brew, face slackened in tranquility, eyes half open and thoughtfully considering the trivial events of the day.

This production was an adaptation of Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre effort featuring Bennett as his older self and Alex Jennings as the younger.

Although Bennett’s Yorkshire childhood appears mundane there is an undercurrent that crystallises the unavoidable truth that riffs and tensions entrench themselves within all human relationships.


Iphigenia in Crimea
Drama on 3

Lads in ladies drawers apparently wasn’t as unusual as you may think in the days of regimental honour and cavalry charges.

When troops were marauding around places like Crimea in the 19th century, concert parties were one way of relieving tension and dressing up like maids was often a feature.

The idea was woven into Tony Harrison’s retelling of the Greek tale about Iphigenia, the maiden sacrificed by her father Agamemnon on the eve of the Trojan War.

Blake Ritson’s tone was a little disconcerting at first until I realised some of the dialogue was in verse. A timely reminder of the war in which an alliance of nations defeated the Russians.


Round up
Some books are made for adaptations whilst others sadly are not. Giant’s Bread by Agatha Christie writing under a pen name falls into the later category. An hour long and virtually incomprehensible, even after trying to digest the plot summary on Wikipedia. If you’re not familiar with this, it’s a struggle.

Not so Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky on 4Extra; 33 years after first appearing on the network was more like it. The semi-autobiographical trilogy of novels by Patrick Hamilton exude a gritty realism and this is reflected in this production. I hope some day someone will get around to adapting Hamilton’s The Charmer, for me one of the best TV dramas of recent decades. Check it out on Youtube.

Life Rights was an afternoon BBC Scotland drama that explored what could happen when a writer attempts to pen a story about a same-sex relationship from 25 years in the past. These days if you are writing a true story but disguising it as fiction it is best to get permission from those involved. Head of drama in Scotland Bruce Young gave me that advice some time ago. It might not be so easy when, in this case, the subject is now a married man whose family has no idea of his sexual ambiguity.


Harry Turnbull @Turnbullissimo


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Harry Turnbull's Radio Drama Reviews:May 2022


Pretty Vacant
Featuring Tim McInnerny and Jane Slavin
Produced by Eoin O'Callaghan for Big Fish
Written by Hugh Costello

At first the timbre was unmistakable, a haughty rumble so often associated with the upper crust. But this time the voice was raw and unsettling, for Tim McInnerny had taken on the character of a streetwise Mancunian geezer. It seemed discordant at first but soon the ambiguity dissolved as McInnerny grew into the part as a champion of the underdog in the battle for Manchester’s housing soul. And, it turns out, authentic, as the actor himself hails from Cheadle Hulme.

This story about dodgy foreign property investments was aired on both the live radio and podcast platforms so it was also an opportunity to evaluate both versions.

One was seamless and relaxing, the other became rather annoying. You can maybe guess it's the podcast that came a poor second. The introduction, credits, outros and trailers happen with each individual episode so if you tune into a few back- to- back it soon becomes a frustrating, interrupted grind. Why do they do this I wondered? And then I found the answer. Everyone seems to follow a so-called industry template designed to hook new listeners and then retain them by telling at the beginning and end of each interlude what is happening.

Sorry, doesn't work for me, it just became a pain. And unnecessary really as most of these podcasts have an easily accessible stand-alone explanatory intro.

Anyway, to the story itself, which is about a mysterious American who owns an empty apartment block in Manchester and wants to turn it over for social housing. Inevitably this hides a nefarious intent. Jane Slavin plays Nora, a charity campaigner with her sidekick Frankie played by McInernny. A secondary character, Kevin, was a rather puzzling depiction of a reporter because of all those I have known, the story always comes first. He seemed to be a shoulder to cry on rather than concentrating on exposing the foreign investment scam.

At one stage he asks Nora if she has done her ‘due diligence’ on the investor rather than actually investigating it himself. The story was based on the ‘buy to leave’ idea whereby rich types hoover up properties and often then just leave them to appreciate in capital terms. All in all a mixed bag but the podcast format clearly still needs to evolve, perhaps by introducing a TV style 'skip trailer' option.


Macbeth

Featuring David Tennant
A Brill production
Sound: Joe Bedell-Brill

The Weird Sisters could easily be the title of an episode of Dr Who as I’m sure former Time Lord David Tennant would agree. In the Scottish Play it is an alternative handle for the prophetic witches who ignite Macbeth’s calamitous ambitions. In the opening scene the three hags are introduced with symphonically dissonant voices that could have been manufactured by the fabled BBC radiophonic workshop.

Tennant is no stranger to Shakespeare but hadn't before been able to utilise his natural brogue in this role. One thinks of Macbeth as a visual experience but this auditory excursion resonated between the ears in a much more intimate way. This is particularly true when whispers and soliloquies take centre-stage and that feeling of claustrophobic confidentiality invades the headphones.

There is a strong Scots’ element to the casting too and a wonderfully evocative cameo from Forbes Masson as the Porter. Of course Tennant has to drive the action forward and does so in a clear and expressive manner, becoming ever more frantic as the matters reach a bloody crescendo.


The Reckoning
Dramatised by Mike Walker
Narrated by Charles Nicholl

Every true crime drama seems to start with the end these days. In this case it’s justified as the mysterious death of playwright Christopher Marlowe is depicted as an Elizabethan murder mystery.

Many will be aware the young contemporary of Shakespeare lost his life in what is usually described as a tavern brawl. Historian Charles Nicholl - who acts as narrator in this three episode drama - is on the trail of a far more sinister truth involving plots, secret agents and a complex web controlled by spiderman himself, spy chief Francis Walsingham. Although Walsingham died several years before Marlowe’s dispatch there is some suggestion that he ran the writer in intelligence operations. Of course all this is speculative and given the time that has elapsed it has involved quite a lot of detective work.

There are three episodes featuring Chris Lew Kum Hoi as Marlowe and a variety of characters who inhabit the murky world of Elizabethan espionage. Nicholl guides us through this, putting forward his theory that Marlowe became mixed up in it all and had to be eliminated for a variety of reasons.

A intriguing mix of history and drama documentary.


Make Death Love Me - Anthony and Cleopatra re-imagined
Produced by Bona Broadcasting

Dear Jupiter, where to start with this? The BBC has produced many versions of Anthony & Cleopatra over the years so quite why it has to be reimagined is a difficult question to answer. However, there is an answer, courtesy of the BBC’s media team, who conjure up a wonderfully imaginative premise: “With strong parallels with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this classic drama has chilling relevance and resonance”

I’m glad they told me as it’s not the message I got from this. Was it supposed to be a comedy version? It seems so, as the main characters speak in ludicrously extravagant tones as if they are in a West End farce. This is no slight on Tim McInnerny (Mark Anthony) or Adojah Andoh (Cleo) who were obviously instructed to ape the parts. However their lip-smacking snogs and moaning are truly cringeworthy. Also, the narrator sounds like Bela Lugosi in Dracula, although I guess the intention was to produce a Romanesque dialect.

This was produced by an outside company, Bona Broadcasting, but I am left wondering just what quality control process the BBC uses to monitor the progress of these productions or why it was even sanctioned. Baffling.


BBC 4 Extra reprise - The Raj Quartet

When contemporary creativity fills the airwaves with new thinking, new voices, the under represented, diversity and whatnot, it’s sometimes comforting to return to a production which doesn’t require any thinking about, just soak in the atmosphere. This 2005 representation of Paul Scott’s series of novels stands the test of any time; scripts, casting, production; all simply quality.


Harry Turnbull @Turnbullissimo



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RADIO WAVES IN A NORTH-EASTERLY DIRECTION

Harry Turnbull

I wonder if the good folk at BBC Drama North have been reminded there is life in the North East of England? For a long time we natives have felt excluded from some parts of economic and cultural Britain. OK, Ruth Archer is from the region, but you never hear her telling Pip what's best for the bairn or adding 'man' or 'like' to the end of a sentence.

Last year Geordie icon Sting was involved in afternoon drama 'The Great North Road' and has now collaborated on 'I Must Have Loved You', a line from one of his tunes.

The songsmith slathered on his best 'why aye' twang to play Vince Doyle, a curmudgeonly old singer whose daughter got fed up of him and did a runner. Years later a reporter turns up to find out what happened to her.

Sting worked with another North-Eastener, writer Michael Chaplin, on the story.

Drama commissioning head Alison Hindell described it as a powerful story but that wasn’t exactly the view of The Guardian reviewer who described it as having 'no wit, no pace, no purpose, no charm'.

I'd probably fall between the two. There was no doubt a sentimentality which one might expect from someone thinking wistfully of rainy days in Whitley Bay while slurping on a pina colada in one of your mansions many miles away.

It began with that grating melancholy but it did grow on me and had a great plot twist ending.


Still on a north-easterly direction we have an audio version of Peter Flannery’s hit 90s TV series Our Friends From The North, 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 underlines the timelessness of these themes.

From a down-to-earth tale of ordinary folk to a galactic adventure, Strings was a complex affair that for some reason mysteriously appeared out of the Radio 3 ether. What followed was something of which the king of convolution Chrisopher Nolan (Interstellar, Tenet) would have been proud.

Writer Linda Marshall Griffiths, with the assistance of a batch of cosmologists and producer Nadia Molinari, unfurled a cosmic adventure based on string theory; theorists argue a model that describes extra dimensions of space. In string theory, at least six additional dimensions go undetected because they are tightly compactified into a complex folded shape called a Calabi-Yau manifold. You get the drift…….

Consequently we had fleeting images, ghosts, memories or perhaps even scenes from the future?

Inhabitants of a spacecraft are sent into a time warp to try and prevent earth's destruction but they float into dreamlike territory in an effort seemingly designed to subvert and distort the minds of listeners. Time drifts on a steam of solar consciousness.

Of course these shifts in time and perception are all very well with the visual aid of movies but a bit harder to pull off in an audio setting. So is our narrator Enda seeing her mum's spirit, simply imaging her voice or is she herself in fact the ghost?

Our gang of space cadets naturally number the inevitable billionaire who attempts to put a spanner in the galactic works.

The Lostyears probe is sent from a dying earth with an abundance of flour and fauna with a plan to return in the future when Mother Earth is on its knees. The idea is to catch a ride on a string and catapult into that future, arriving on earth to save the day.

You may need a second listen.

Another 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.


A docudrama about a Caribbean slave trade uprising had all the hallmarks of a guilt trip. White Debt author Tom Harding explained that his Jewish family had received reparations from Germany but then he later learnt they had benefited from slavery and was asking the question; should we be made to pay?

The answer appeared yes; family members agreed to fund a PHD post for a black British student.

Does doing it in such a public way reduce the validity of the token gesture?. I can't say but it did bring a fresh perspective to a historical topic that continues to reverberate today.

On the other hand I did hear an author of historical fiction say recently that her publisher would not accept slavery novels that were not authenticated, i.e written by someone with skin in the game. But if writers of historical fiction are going to be confined to their own bloodline it will narrow the field a bit.

The question about this production is whether commentary, documentary-style interviews and script acting can work effectively in tandem. Producer Sasha Yevtushenko knitted it all together but I’m not sure this format hits the mark. You either tell a story with facts or by a dramatic interpretation; trying to do both seems to fall between two stools.


Ambridge Extra - The mystery of the Easter Bunny - has had us hopping for weeks. Who could be inside the bunny suit? All was revealed when an Easter Ambridge resurrection occurred - the reappearance of Kathy Perks. The Grey Gables employee had become a silent member of the cast back in 2015.

The character was sidelined alongside others like Mike Tucker under the reign of Eastender Sean o' Connor. Mike also recently returned to action. The returnees are presumably an admission by the current hierarchy that O'Connor got it wrong.

Meanwhile the vicar of Ambridge would of course condemn betrayal of a friendship with wanton casual sex. Well, he would; unless it’s his own daughter, it seems. When Amy did the dirty with Chris she not only betrayed best friend Alice but could have set off her pal off on a drinking binge with potentially disastrous results.

Instead of having a firm word, like most fathers might, he merely raged about village gossips. Is this then the church in 2022?


Harry Turnbull, 20 Apr 22


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HITS AND MISSES IN BBC RADIO DRAMA’S OUTPUT AT THE START OF 2022

Harry Turnbull


Toby Jones cultivated a love of Moliere during a period studying mimodynamics at the Jacques Lecoq school in Paris. Radio is no medium for mime of course but nevertheless Jones’ versatility of expression is very much on show here in an adaptation of The Miser (R3) celebrating the 400th anniversary of the French comic writer’s birth.

The production bounces along in lively fashion with occasional bursts of Abba’s ‘Money, Money, Money’ played on the harpsichord. Jones plays the mean old miser Harpagon whose ambitions for himself and his children are firmly based on financial outcomes. Plenty of modern day allusions in Barunka O’Shaugnessy’s script which reflects that tribulations over love and money with a touch of irony and sarcasm are as relevant now as then.


In Patterdale (R4) we had a midweek afternoon drama that served up a gritty slice of Liverpool life. But whereas in BBC TV’s oppressive cop drama ‘The Responder’ we have an out of towner Martin Freeman affecting a Scouse accent, here we have the bona fide thing with standout performances from youngster Oscar Tyndall and Eithne Brown.

The script by Paul Jones is an Alfred Bradley award winner for northern writers and features a lad called Tommy trying to make his way from his foster parents house to his nan’s. His trek across town also reflects a metaphysical journey from leaving an unstable mum to staying with his nan and then into foster care.

His is no linear story; it is told in scenes and fragments, sequences of alienation and connection, memories coalescing into form. The voice is of a child, a ten year old, but even so conveys a sense of self-awareness about his estranged mother, the pain of grandparents making a bridge of connection and ultimately the middle-class foster parents he longs to escape. The Scouse kid is played with a natural confidence by Tyndall Brown as his long-suffering nan is perfect for conveying Liverpudlian phrases such as ‘me blood pressure’s through the bloody roof’.

Patterdale is but is a road in the rundown area of Smithdown Road inhabited by his nan. A mile away in distance and imagination from the middle-class suburb his foster parents live. That gap is symbolised in the sort of food Tommy loves - egg and chips - and the fancy crap dished up by his foster mother Sophie. During Tommy’s run he narrates his story, but is he running from something to or to something? Writer Paul Jones is a native Liverpudlian who drew on his own experiences: 'Although there are autobiographical aspects to Patterdale I should say I was never in foster care. However I don't think you necessarily have to walk the walk to tell a good story.... Every writer puts something of him or herself into what they produce and of course in this case it's a story set in streets I know well.'

The plot unfolds via flashbacks, as Paul explained: 'I originally wrote this as a short story in a stream of consciousness style and I felt confident it would translate into a listening experience. 'I hope that came across as Pauline Harris and the production team did a great job.' Patterdale is currently on BBC Sounds.


In very stark contrast 2022 has also started with a slew of highbrow efforts with varying degrees of success. Nabokov's Pale Fire presented an esoteric journey through a poetic manuscript from recently murdered writer John Shade. His story is told within the verse whilst the narrator weaves in his own narrative via commentary and text additions. An abstruse piece of work that may perhaps have found a more sympathetic audience late night on Radio 3.


Similarly I question why an hour of primetime Sunday afternoon was devoted to a docudrama about Iranian poet called Let Us Believe In The Dawn of the Cold Season. Forugh Farrokhzad is a feminist icon in Iran an although worthy of airing I am again unsure as to whether this is weekend afternoon fare. Or maybe it is a good idea to bring lesser known artists to wider attention? But whoever thought a Persian poet should be voiced by an American? Incongruous and unnecessary.


Another arcane offering was Berlin Alexanderplatz. Apparently a classic of the Weimar Republic it was rather disjointed and another example of a cardinal audio sin - making things difficult for the listener to follow. The narrator Claes Bang spoke in neutral tones except when pronouncing Germanic names in a markedly 'parody' fashion. Merely my opinion of course, but others may think it a work of breathtaking genius.


We also had a return to the poetic intellectuals who gathered around Lake Geneva in 1816. This time in Darkness we have Lord Byron nursing on life amidst a bleak summer caused by a Volcanic ash cloud.


Cardboard Citizens was a bit of a curious one. The plight of the homeless in previous generations explored via newspaper readings of misdemeanors committed by unfortunates who fell foul of the Vagrancy Act. Not sure this worked as a drama; probably more like documentary material.


One broadcast, Mahabharata Now by B7 Media, really captured my attention as it bore a remarkable similarity to Takeover from Goldhawk Productions which featured in several midweek afternoon slots in July 2021. Both are tales set in India about a billionaire with dynastic family issues in play. Both feature actor Ranjit Kapur and Ayeesha Menon had a hand in writing both. Of course the plotlines diverge in the stories but the concepts are awfully similar. Surely there are enough stories out there without duplicates?

HT, 1 Mar 22



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