April 2005
September 2005
December 2005


More changes in BBC management have taken place, and more cuts. One can only hope that radio output, operating on a very small fraction of the licence fee, will not be affected too badly. There has been another varied selection of radio drama and comedy, and as usual, some interesting features. Since the last review we've had the following:

A welcome play by Jill Hyem: Down Down, Down You Go (R4, 1415, 31 Jan 05) was set in a beautiful but lonely part of Dartmoor -a psychological thriller about the past haunting the present as a woman who has been involved in a sailing accident tries to come to terms with her feelings of guilt. A creepy tale to put alongside "Remember Me". It starred Helen Longworth, Jamie Glover, Becky Hindley, and Jessica Crossley, and the director was Cherry Cookson.

Life Assurance (R4, 1430, 19 Feb 05), by Chrissie Gittins, was the astonishing tale of the "Black Widows" of Liverpool. In 1884, Catherine Flanagan and her sister, Margaret Higgins, were front-page news. The reason - they had been poisoning members of their families, and others, so they could claim on the insurance policies they'd set up. Sorcha Cusack and Gillian Kearney were the infamous pair, and Robert Hastie the Inspector; Claire Grove directed.

Callum (R4, 1415, 21 Feb 05) was an entertaining comedy-drama by F. Todhunter, directed by the playwright Gary Brown. Set in a vocational college for the disabled, it starred Callum, who wants to keep his head down and get his gardening qualification, Mr. Gough, who doesn't like him, and a young disabled lady who's just been taken on as a new teacher and who's determined to end the status quo, especially if it means that Gough will have to do some work. Callum was played by Deka Walmsley and Sara by Emma Hughes Jones.

Immigrants (R4, 1415, 28 Feb 05) by John P. Rooney (who brought us the hilarious "Summit of Desire" years ago, and many good Irish-based plays since) takes place in 1962. Three unemployed young men from Belfast go to Australia - a Government-inspired scheme- to seek their fortunes. The play tells us what happens to them. The three boys were played by Andy Moore, Gerard Jordan and Joseph Rea; the quarry owner, Clancy, by Peter Ballance, and Pam Brighton directed.

The Glee Club (R4, 1430, 19 Mar 05), by Richard Cameron was set in 1962 in a South Yorkshire mining village. It covers the lives of six miners and their singing group. It wasn't earth-shaking, but the tensions between the singers were well brought out, and the singing, arranged and performed by Terry Mortimer, was very good indeed. The cast included Steve Garti and Mike Burns and the director was Pauline Harris.

The Diary of Adam and Eve (R4, 1500, 20 Mar 05) by Mark Twain was a superb satire on the battle of the sexes. Martin Glynn did the dramatisation, and it gave a very clear picture of how Twain pictured life for the first man and woman as they tried to come to terms with it and with each other. Eve was played by Inika Leigh Wright, Tom Goodman-Hill was Adam, and Tyrone Higgins was God and Satan. The producer was Jenny Stephens and the director Peter Leslie Wilde.

Charlotte's Web (R4, 1415, 22-23 Mar 05) was a 90-minute children's play for adults, broadcast in two halves on successive days during Easter Week. A baby pig is rescued from an early death, only to discover that he's being fattened up for the dinner table. Fern is the farmer's daughter, who is able to talk to the animals; Charlotte is the spider who is able to bring them together in an attempt to save the little pig's life. The dramatisation was by Joe Robinette, from the story by E.B.White; Chris Wallis directed. Ken Campbell plays the sneaky rat Templeton; Ken also featured in a programme a couple of months earlier about radio ventriloquists and gave his usual value for money in both broadcasts.

The Man (1415, 25 Mar 05) by Raymond Briggs, and dramatised by him, is about a miniature man who appears one day in a young boy's room. Bernard Cribbins plays the tiny cantankerous visitor, and Toby Parkes the boy, who soon gets sick of being treated like a servant. The director was Celia de Wolff.

The Distant Echo (1430, 26 Mar 05) went out in the Saturday Play slot; Bert Coules adapted this Val McDermid story, turning it into an effective one-hour police drama. One night in the snow, some students find the body of a girl. But the police are unable to sort out the details of the crime, and it goes down in their books as an unsolved killing. Twenty-five years later, the case is reopened, and the students think they have an opportunity to clear their names, until one of them gets killed in a suspicious house fire, and another in a burglary. The cast included Jimmy Chisholm, John Paul Hurley, Steven Cartwright, Michael Nardone and Crawford Logan, and the director was Lu Kemp.

You Had To Be There (R4, 1415, 18 Mar 05) by Simon Brett, was something of a rarity - a monologue which held the attention. My usual reaction on finding a monologue in the drama slot is to turn it off. But Stephen Moore is one of my favourite actors, and Simon Brett knows what he is doing, so I persisted. Dan, the narrator, is a writer of sit-coms, but using his marital problems as source material for his scripts has resulted in divorce. Now he has a new girl friend, is behaving in exactly the same way, and wonders if he'll do any better this time. Peter Kavanagh directed.

Another series of stories about the sleuthing priest Baldi has been welcome. The Empty Vessel (R4, 1415, 17 Mar 05), fifth out of six excellent tales, was an investigation of the suspicious death of a student - the leader of the University debating society. These stories are written by a group of writers; this one was by John Murphy, and was directed by Lawrence Jackson.

Flash for Freedom ( R4 1430 2 x 60m, 27 Mar 05) by George MacDonald Fraser let us share some of the high adventures and low behaviour of Harry Flashman VC, from one of the Flashman novels. We join the plot as Flashman considers a career in politics. But he gets involved with Disraeli, a homicidal sea captain with a love of the classics, the West African slave trade, some delectable women, a railroad company, and Abraham Lincoln as he goes from one crisis to another, relying on his native cunning to get himself out of trouble. Joss Ackland played Old Flashman (the narrator), Rhys Meredith was Young Flashman, and other cast members included Nigel Anthony, Christian Rodska and William Hope. The director was Patrick Rayner.

Candy Floss Kisses (1415, 29 Mar 05) was a first play for radio by Simon Farquhar, and was a story of teenage love. An 18-year-old Londoner who's just moved to a remote part of Scotland meets a local girl, and all is set for a romantic summer. But he's naive, and secretive; he doesn't even tell his parents about her. The young couple were played by Steven Geller and Frances Thorburn, and the humourless parents by Gabrielle lloyd and Jon Glover. Martin Jarvis directed this "Jarvis and Ayres" production.

Hattie Naylor gave us Chinese Whispers a couple of years ago - two radio plays about Chinese parents wanting sons and giving away their baby daughters for adoption. There was an equally uncomfortable play about a little-known episode of "ethnic cleansing" in Switzerland which was still going on in the 1970s: Wooden Heart (1415, 31 Mar 05). Large numbers of Jemisch Gypsy children were forcibly removed from their parents by the Swiss government, a policy which continued in Switzerland until 1974. In the play, Anna is a gypsy; she has lived in an orphanage since she was taken from her parents as a baby, but now her foster mother is waiting to put her to work on her farm in the Alps, a life of hard work and little reward. Juliet Aubrey was the unfortunate Anna, and Lisa Hammond, Gerda Stevenson, Stephen Perry, Jenny Coverack and Marlene Sidaway also starred. The antics of the devout but sadistic nuns (including ice in the bath for insolence) were well done by the SMs, and the producer was Mary Ward-Lowery.

The Archive Hour is usually worth a listen, and something very unusual was aired in Down the Wires (R4, 2000, 2 Apr 05). Matthew Paris presented a programme about the "Electrophone", the first sound broadcasting service to operate in Britain. It started in the late 1800s and lasted in some areas up to about 1925. Telephone lines were used to transmit audio signals from theatres, opera houses and news events into well-off people's homes. We heard some recently restored electrophone recordings, and there was an interview with a ninety-year-old lady who remembered what the electrophone broadcasts were like and how you had to listen.

Adrift (R4, 1415, 5 Apr 05) by Judy Upton, her fourth radio play, was the tale of a young woman's struggle to accept that one day long ago, her mother decided to abandon her for her lover. Many years later, after her mother's death, she meets the lover, and they re-enact what happened, which provides some release for both of them. Raquel Cassidy was Daisy and Nicholas Boulton was Freddie; Claudine Toutoungi directed.

Family Cover (R4, 2102, 8 Apr 05) by Jonathan Holloway, well-known for his gothic-style thrillers, concerned a family holiday in Sweden. The father, after an argument with his wife and children, goes walking on his own and is found dead some time later at a remote beauty spot. This is the story of the police investigation. Polly Walker played the wife, and Martin Wenner, Katia Linden, Jonas Finlay, Kim Romer and Jon Glover also starred; Patrick Rayner directed.

There have been other good things, too - a very witty six-part comedy serial by Mark Taverner called Higher Tables, Lower Orders, another series of the hilarious Giles Wembbley Hogg, and a play by David Mamet on Radio 3 (Glengarry Glen Ross) about property salesmen slitting each other's throats in the USA. I've not listened to much of it yet. Lots of effing and blinding, but it sounds interesting; we shall see.

Nigel Deacon / 16 Apr 05

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A lot of the drama over the last sixth months has been by relatively unknown writers - at least to radio, though it was good to hear new work by Alick Rowe, Dawn Lowe-Watson, Nick Warburton and Lucy Gough. There have been good features too, especially in the Archive Hour slot, and Test Match Special has been wonderful, carried along by a sequence of unforgettable matches.

THE NEXT DARJEELING (R4, 1445, 5 Jun 05) was an interesting fifteen-minute feature about growing tea in England. Surprisingly, the Tea Institute is located here, not in India, and you may not know that tea is actually a camellia - camellia sinensis. The flowers are smaller than the floral ones (they're about as big as a new 50p piece) and the leaves are soft and bright green, not shiny like the floral variety. A guy in Cornwall, Jonathon (sic) Jones is growing tea in a sheltered site on the banks of the river Fal, at Tregothnan. This is the first tea plantation in Europe. The tea reputedly tastes like Darjeeling and is on sale as "Single Estate 2005". Matthew Harvey presented the programme. ,

GRIEF (R4, 1415, 7 Jun 05), by Ellen Dryden, the widow of the late, great Don Taylor is a play about the relationship between two couples. One of the women, Sarah, is killed in a car accident, and the remaining members of the quartet are confronted with the emotional fall-out. But for years, friend Nick has been closer to the dead woman than her husband. He has no-one with whom to share his grief. It drew some comments from the BBC messageboard....The play is very sensitively acted by the four central characters and the direction is good. .......it does not try to gloss over the flaws and frailties that bedevil us all. The cast: Michael Pennington, Michael N. Harbour, Abigail Thaw and Isla Blair; the director was Ned Chaillet.

CHUKWUDEBELU - PRESERVED OF GOD (R4,2102, 24 Jun 05) was a memorable Friday play. Written by Ben Okafor and Justin Butcher, it was a dramatisation of Ben's experiences as a child soldier and refugee during the Biafran War of Independence. People of my age will remember those dreadful images of Biafran refugees on the BBC News.

Ben is a middle-aged singer-songwriter, but he was 12 years old in 1967 when his homeland in eastern Nigeria split from the rest of the country. The fledgling republic was given the name Biafra - Land of the Rising Sun - a name full of hope and promise. The new state was invaded by the Nigerian Army. Ben became a child soldier, and witnessed many harrowing events. In the play, Ben was the narrator; the production was by Richard Shannon.

TEACHER'S PET, by Robert Shearman (R4, 1415, 28 Jun 05) is a very odd comedy: Peter has just bumped into his old French mistress. Years ago he had a crush on her - perhaps more than a crush - but now, many years later, there are serious developments. The play starred Simon Templeman and Stephen Geller as Peter, and Carolyn Seymour as the teacher; Martin Jarvis directed.

LETTERS FROM AFRICA (R4, 1415, 29 Jun 05, the story of Karen Blixen's years in Africa, was dramatised by Sheila Hannon, from her letters. Karen had an unusual life: marriage to a man old enough to be her father, moving from England to Africa, and a long, passionate love affair. Eleanor Bron was Karen, Ian McElhinney played her husband, and Sara Davies directed.

GREENMANTLE, a lesser-known story by John Buchan, was due to go out as the Classic Serial, beginning R4, 1430, 9 Jul 05, dramatised by Pat Hannah. Unfortunately the entertaining (and preposterous) plot involved Muslims, so the second episode was pulled, after the London bombings. It still hasn't been broadcast; disappointing for the producer, Bruce Young. I hope we'll hear it soon.

HAUNTED HOSPITAL (R4, 1430, 16 Jul 05) by Trevor Hoyle was a ghost story set in a hospital in Rochdale; it was based on two parallel storylines, in the present day and two hundred years ago. This was a very effective piece, and starred Jo-Anne Knowles and Michael Begley; Liz Leonard was the director.

Nick Darke, the Cornish playwright, died suddenly in June. As a tribute, Radio 4 repeated two of his broadcasts: DUMBSTRUCK (R4, 1330, 17 Jul 05) and HOOKED (R4, 1415, 18 Jul 05. DUMBSTRUCK has appeared in these pages before; it's the remarkable audio diary which Nick kept when he lost the power of speech after a stroke. HOOKED is a comedy drama-documentary telling the story of a Cornish couple who are asked for their advice by a Londoner on how to fish for sea-bass, who subsequently cashes in on his new knowledge.

FOG AND SHIFTING PEBBLES (R4, 1415, 22 Aug 05) marked a welcome return to radio drama by Dawn Lowe-Watson, who has entertained us in the past with FATHER FIGURE, CASA CLARA and many other well-written plays taking a look at relationships between men and women. Dawn writes: "It began with my own emotional reaction to that wild piece of English coastline called Dungerness Point - a wild place at the best of times made even more forbidding by an enormous nuclear power station. But it caught my fancy. Bleaker you could hardly get. A landscape of pebbles and fishing boats......". The play starred Paul Rhys, Colleen Prendergast, Patience Tomlinson, and was directed by Cherry Cookson. Dawn's son, Andrew, wrote the music forming the plays main theme - "Trafalgar 1805", which is out on CD, played by the Moscow International Symphony Orchestra.

The Richard Imison Award, given by the Peggy Ramsay Foundation for the best original play of 2004, written for radio by a newcomer, was awarded on 8 Sept 05. It went to Steve Coombs for MR. SEX, an entertaining docu-drama about Kinsey, a researcher on gall wasps at Indiana University. The Dean asked Kinsey to give the sex module on a marriage course for students engaged to be married, and Kinsey insisted on doing some research beforehand. He was astonished by what he found, and so was the public. Neville Teller commented, as he gave the award, "MR. SEX is a wonderful piece of writing for radio. The storyline is clean and clear, the dialogue terse and sharp, and the characters spring to life in the mind."

VIOLENCE AND THE BIG MALE VOICE by Alick Rowe, from the novel by Gwyn Thomas (R4, 1415, 12 Sept 05) was a comic tale of passion, set in South Wales in the 1930s. There is comedy when you meet the members of a male voice choir. I met some recently in a pub; they sang in parts, drank a lot, and told ribald true stories about newlyweds. Alick's play was similarly amusing, but there was a darker side. Jonathan Floyd and Mali Harries starred; Gilly Adams directed.

There have been other worthwhile plays: a three-part Roman epic by Mike Walker, an adolescent comedy by Simon Brett about a school play entitled CLEOPATRA'S NOSE, another drama about schools by Nick Warburton (INTERVIEWS), another series of Alexander McCall Smith's THE NO. 1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY (wonderful!); a play about Gilbert Harding by Stephen Wyatt, more episodes of Brian Thompson's TRUEMAN, the Hull detective, and a thought-provoking play MAPPING THE SOUL by Lucy Gough. There have been others, too, but the standard of TEST MATCH SPECIAL has been so high this year that I've missed a lot of the drama. Never mind; perhaps the best of it will be repeated.

Nigel Deacon / 19 Sept 05

All of the above recordings are held by ND.


Lots of interesting drama since September; with items of better quality sometimes hidden away on radio 3 or the morning slot on radio 4.

The Recall Man, by David Napthine, returned for another series. The main character is Dr. Joe Aston, a psychologist and a specialist in "recovered memory". In "Can't see for looking" (R4, 1415, 3 Oct 05) a witness to an arson attack thinks she saw a rhinocerous throwing a petrol bomb. Aston tries to work out what really happened. Jeremy Swift plays Aston, Janet Dibley is his irascible boss, and the director Mary Peate.

Mike Daisey's The Ugly American (R4, 1415, 5 Oct 05) was from his own own stage performance, following on from "Twenty-one years at Amazon.com" a couple of years ago. I don't like most monologues, but this one is unmissable - it's a hilarious account of his experiences in London as he trains for the stage. Daisey tells us that he went to England seeking the ghosts of Gielgud and Olivier as mentors. What he found instead was two of the worst roles in which an actor could be cast and a deep first love for the wispy Tamsin, his co-star in one of the plays. As time goes by, he learns that Tamsin has other talents. It will spoil the plot to say here what they are. Judith Kampfner directed.

Getting the Joke, by Neil Brand (R4, 1415, 20 Oct 05) examined an incident in Donald McGill's life. For 60 years, McGill had created some of the most popular seaside postcards in the land. In 1954, aged 80, he was arrested on obscene publication charges. In today's climate, his humour seems harmless enough, but things were different then. McGill's were time-honoured themes: the saucy chamber maid, the eager old maid, the flirt, the suave seducer, the final surrender and the bungled honeymoon, all sketched with meticulous care and capped with a clever double-entendre. Obscene? Nonsense! John Wood played McGill, Ann Beach was Molly, and the director was David Hunter.

In The Waterloo Model by Peter Roberts (R4, 1415, 3 Nov 05), Lieutenant Siborne (played by David Birrell) is commissioned by the army in the 1830s to create a model of the battle of Waterloo, celebrating the famous victory. He starts off with great enthusiasm, but it takes longer than expected, and there's a change of government - which leads to some problems. The Whig government thinks the project will glorify the Duke of Wellington (who's in charge of the Opposition), and Wellington thinks Siborne is putting too many Prussians on his battlefield, undermining his own definitive account of the battle. The actual model survives - it's in the National Army Museum, Chelsea, and few who see it will realise how many years of work and arguing went into it. The play was narrated by David Hargreaves; David Birrell was Siborne, and the director was Peter Leslie Wilde.

Cut me and I bleed Elvis, by Louise Wallinger (R4, 1415, 4 Nov 05) possibly has relevance for people we know. The central character, Sarah, collects voices on tape; she goes through life with a cassette recorder in her bag, and a microphone. She can't talk without recording the conversation. She has hundreds of tapes, going back to her schooldays. It is an obsession. Eventually she gets help - the remedy, apparently, is to reduce, day by day, the time she spends with her recordings. The play was a gentle exploration of the psyche of the collector. Sarah was played by Jo McInnes, Michael by James Fleet, there were contributions from real-life collectors (one of whom collects sand, incidentally) and the director was Pam Marshall.

Shelagh Stevenson brought us the superb Experiment with an Air Pump a couple of years ago on Radio 3. Recently we heard Nemesis (R4, 2102, 11 Nov 05 ). The physicist Robert Oppenheimer, working at Los Alamos, won the race against the Nazis to make the atomic bomb. He was regarded as a hero in the scientific community and elsewhere. But later, when the full horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki became apparent, and the war had ended, Oppenheimer was isolated and reviled in America, even though the decision to use the bomb was not his. Nemesis focuses on his attempts at damage limitation, as one by one, he unintentionally betrays his colleagues. He is academically astute but politically naive, and once the process of betrayal has begun, he can't stop it. Colin Stinton was Oppenheimer, Amanda Donohoe was Frances Tyler, Andrew Sachs was Bernard Peters, and Eoin O'Callahagn directed.

The Sicilian Expedition, by John Fletcher (R3,1945, 4 Dec 05) was about the collapse of a remarkable civilisation. In the words of the author: "Athens. The most extraordinary, the most beautiful, the most terrifying civilization of all time. The template we all live out. Effortlessly its drama, its art, its science and philosophy bestrode the world. But despite its superb democracy, all-powerful economy and a "shock-and-awe" military the envy of the world -- out of a clear blue sky came sudden, terrifying and total collapse. The Athenians had their very own Iraq War -- The Sicilian Expedition.”

John admits to some historical distortions: History is a science which looks at all the evidence and says at the end - this could have happened, or this might have happened. Drama, on the other hand is an art. An audience needs to know where it is, and historical accuracy can make for lousy drama. This play was first-class; it showed the personality clashes, the greed and the political ambition: the driving force for war. James Laurenson was Socrates, Julian Rhind-Tutt was Alcibiades, original music was by John Hardy and Kate McAll directed.

Catching the Fly, a first play for radio by Alison White (R4, 1415, 7 Dec 05) was a reconstruction of an important piece of scientific discovery. In 1932 Ernest Walton was a young scientist at the Cavendish Laboratory attempting to split the atom. He was the first to observe a nuclear reaction in the laboratory; he fired a proton beam at lithium and detected microscopic flashes on his scintillation counter which he realised were explosions of alpha particles. This was the first artificial transmutation of an element, and it opened the way to nuclear energy in the atomic pile and later in the fission bomb. Ernest Walton was played by Lloyd Hutchinson, Freda, Walton's girl, by Michelle Fairley, Cockroft by Nick Dunning and Rutherford by Owen Rowe; Eoin O'Callahagn directed.

Unimaginable, by Ray Connolly (R4, 1415, 8 Dec 05) concerned the events surrounding the death of John Lennon. Connolly, a journalist, was due to fly out to New York to interview Lennon for the Sunday Times. Then Lennon was shot, and Connolly, who had known the singer from their Liverpool days, became the focus for other journalists' attention. Connolly was played by Robert Glenister, and the director was Martin Jenkins, who, in his days at Liverpool University, booked the Beatles to play at the Union.

I was pleased to see a Perry Pontac play on the schedules; he's one of our best comic writers. Readers may remember his "Hamlet, part II" and "Nothing Personal" - the play about the eskimo and the bank manager. In the words of a guy on the R4 messageboard: I was having a lousy day...dealt with Alzheimer afflicted mother...sat in cat vomit on the window sill..put off yet again cleaning filthy house...then I heard the start of Perry Pontac's "Incurable Romantics" (R4, 1130, 16 Dec 05) and my day was transformed. Three geriatric gents in a rest home in Florence turn out to be Shelley, Keats and Byron who, contrary to popular myth, did not die tragically and romantically but are eking out their old age no doubt paid for by the top sales of their oeuvres due to their early demise. Fanny Brawn, Keats' early love interest arrives as a raddled old hag looking up her old flame after her Texan husband dies. Byron chats her up and she comments "I'm sweatin' like a weasel in a waffle iron". Funny, literate, and beautifully comically acted. John Moffatt played Keats, John Rowe was Shelley and John Wood was Byron; Sandra Dickinson was Fanny, and the director David Hunter.

This list isn't definitive; I would have liked to comment on Frederick Raphael's Glittering Prizes, John Mortimer's The Last Adventure (about Byron and his activities in Greece), and The Elizabethan Beauty Law, which imagines how a law passed by Elizabeth I, against women trapping men into marriage by embellishing their natural looks, might work out in real life. This was by Lizzie Hopley, and I heard good reports of it.

I'm grateful to Bob Thirsk, Greg Linden, Hans Kieft (not in VRPCC) and Barry Pike for sending copies of plays which I missed, some of which are reviewed above.

Nigel Deacon. 20 Dec 05.

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