April 2006
October 2006
December 2006


The drama since the last review has been variable, as usual, but there have been some good items including a remake of three radio classics, plus Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman", a new play by Alan Bennett, a radio version of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis", more good work from Lavinia Murray and John Fletcher, and a well-known school tale set mainly in the interwar years.

TO SERVE THEM ALL MY DAYS, by R.F.Delderfield (1415, 23-27 Jan 06) took up the Afternoon Play slot for a week. This public school novel was popular in the 1970s. It covers several decades, starting in the first World War and ending with the second. Oliver Milburn stars as a shell-shocked young man who recovers from his experiences of the trenches during his first job as a teacher in a small school in Devon. He starts off befuddled, traumatised and alienated, a Welsh working - class socialist in a public-school environment. Gradually he grows into a mature figure worthy of respect.

Cherry Cookson, the producer, commented that the story appealed to her because she has two sons who are currently going through school, and it reminded her that a good, inspiring teacher can set a pupil on the right track. The dramatisation was by by Shaun McKenna. Other prominent cast members were John Wood as the headmaster, John Rowe, Anthony Calf, Alison Pettitt, Delroy Brown, Josh Freeborn, Steven Williams and Gerard McDermott; Marc Beeby directed.

A new production of UNDER THE LOOFAH TREE. by Giles Cooper (R4, 1415, 7 Feb 06) was made to mark the 40th anniversary of the death of the author.Cooper remains one of the giants of the radio play. His masterpiece Under the Loofah Tree, first broadcast in 1958, made full use of the BBC's radiophonic workshop, then only recently established. This new production displays Cooper's mastery of minimalistic form with a simple premise - a middle-aged man takes a leisurely bath and lets his mind drift over his life. Apart from a couple of interruptions, that's it.

Donald MacWhinnie, Cooper's first producer, called the play "........forty-five minutes of highly distilled experience crystallised into a sound - complex: words, rhythms, evocative noises, fused into a kind of musical score which constantly stimulates the ear and the imagination". The play was preceded by Michael Bakewell talking to Ric Cooper (younger son of Giles) about his father; Michael Maloney was the man, with Jenny Funnell, Thomas Helm, Sam Kelly, Iam Masters, Bernard Cribbins and Sandy Walsh. The producer was Martin Jenkins.

THE LUNEBERG VARIATION (R4, 1430, 18 Feb 06), dramatised by Lavinia Murray from a tale by Paolo Maurensig, was a chilling story set in a Nazi camp. One wonder if the horrors were based on truth. One of the Germans is gifted - famously so - at chess; so is one of his prisoners. He decides to find out which of them is the better ... so they play. Each game the prisoner loses will result in the death of one of his companions. Marilyn Imrie was the producer, and the cast included James Laurenson and Daniel Hart.

MONEY WITH MENACES (R4, 1415, Thur 2 Mar 06) by Patrick Hamilton was a re-make of a radio play first broadcast in 1937. Produced by Richard Wortley, this version was made to celebrate the author's centenary in 2004. Stephen Thorne plays a well-off businessman who finds himself blackmailed by a voice from the past. David Collings stars as the blackmailer, and there's a terrific twist at the end.

The GREAT CHOCOLATE MURDERS (R4, 1430, 4 Mar 06), by John Fletcher, was (John writes) a story of obsessive love, poison, bad drains, royalty, murder and chocolate, set in 19th-century Brighton and based on a true story. Christiana Edmunds, an eccentric, 40-something spinster, falls madly in love at first sight with the tall and handsome Dr Beard, a married man. She visits him, complaining of abdominal pains which he must examine at once, and they begin a passionate but brief affair which he soon regrets.

Christiana visits Dr Beard's wife and takes her some delicious chocolates from Armand's, Brighton's specialist chocolate shop.The chocolates taste foul, and Dr Beard suspects Christiana has tried to poison his wife. However, he daren't go to the police and instead writes to Christiana to accuse her. Christiana is taken aback by his letter. If he suspects she tried to poison his wife which she didn't then she must prove him wrong by demonstrating conclusively that Armand's regularly sell poisoned chocolates to their unsuspecting clientele. (.......thanks to J.F. for permission to use this......ND) The play starred Sian Thomas, Chris Donnelly and Jennifer Hill, and the director was Kate McAll.

TIME AFTER TIME, by Gerry Jones (R4, 1415, Thurs 9 Mar 06) has a simple plot - two men end up after a car accident in a strange hotel, with only a hazy memory of their past. They try to leave, but every attempt to do so leads them back to their room. The recent remake by Martin Jenkins (the producer of the original broadcast in 1979) attracted very favourable comments on the BBC messageboard; a representative posting read "I was gripped from beginning to end... couldn't help but feel sad when Wood died; I was so excited that I felt like I had taken every step with him. Brilliant!"

Gerry was a skilful playwright, and a big Sinatra fan, and this production is a fitting memorial to his work. The play is well known in radio drama circles. Michael Maloney and Anton Lesser starred as Wood and Carter.

THE HISTORY BOYS is Alan Bennett's new play about education, recently showing at the National Theatre. The play is adapted by Richard Wortley, probably the most experienced radio play producer in the country, with 2,000 radio plays under his belt . It was recorded in the BBC's premier drama studio, Maida Vale 6, London, and broadcast on Radio 3, 12 Mar 2006. A very unusual feature of the recording was that it was done without scripts, since the actors were playing the same parts on the stage later in the week. The cast included Richard Griffiths, Geoffrey Streatfield, Frances de la Tour, Clive Merrison, Samuel Anderson and Samuel Barnett; the producer was David Hunter and Richard Wortley directed.

Before Bennett started writing the play he re-read Giles Cooper's "Unman, Wittering and Zigo. *The History Boys" are kinder than the murderous schoolboys in Cooper's play, but some of the banter between master and class is similar. In Bennett's play, the boys are meant to be 17 or 18 and clever, and with the beginnings of wisdom. They are tolerant and understanding of one another, and perhaps this explains the spell which their charismatic teacher, Hector, casts over them. At the heart of the play are four characters with contrasting outlooks on teaching and school - Hector, passionate about his subject but with no interest in exams, a young coach, Irwin, dedicated to teaching exams tricks and being an educational yes-man; a traditionalist who teaches history without gimmicks or passion, and a headmaster obsessed with results. The play won an Olivier Award at the National. The play is in the BBC Radio Collection.

THE MIDNIGHT HOUSE (R4, 1415, 15 Mar 06) is an old-fashioned ghost story set in mine workings in Wales where works of art were stored during the Second World War. Written by Jonathan Hall, it features a talkative single lady (played by Caroline John) who covers up the disappearance of her boss when the police arrive. The inspector does some digging, and finds more than he bargained for. James Nickerson was the errant boss, and the policeman Roger Morlidge. Original music (violin-piano) was composed and played by Christopher Madin, and the director, making use of some very creepy sound effects, was Polly Thomas.

I often dislike modern comedies, but the new series of COUNT ARTHUR STRONG'S RADIO SHOW (R4, 1830, beginning 9 Mar 06) is full of inspired silliness. I liked BROWN ON BROWN (R4 1830, 29 Mar 06), which Arnold Brown wrote and presented - a half hour feature on those who share his surname. JUST A MINUTE has had another entertaining run, and more of Simon Brett's "NO COMMITMENTS" has been good value. I've also enjoyed Nick Leather's "The Domino Man of Lancashire", Christina Marshall's "A Bit of a Hole" and Wilde's "Lord Arthur Saville's Crime", broadcast as a two-part Classic Serial; wonderfully produced by Gemma McMullan; some of the sound effects were priceless. There have been several ninety-minute plays, too; not just on Bank Holidays. It's unlikely we'll get a regular 90-minute drama slot back, but there isn't a lot to grumble at.

Nigel Deacon / 1 Apr 06

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.......Note: for family reasons, this review appeared six weeks late.......ND

The big event in the period covered by this review (Apr-Oct) was the ceremony at the Astor Bar in Piccadilly on 3rd October where the Imison and Tinniswood Awards were presented. Jo Hodder of the Society of Authors invited Alison and me to attend, and we met a number of the writers and producers with whom we've been in touch as a result of running the "Diversity" website.

The Imison Award is given for the best drama script by a newcomer to radio drama broadcast during the previous year. Fiona Shaw presented the award, which went to Nazrin Choudhury for MIXED BLOOD. The official press release mentioned "great humanity ...... emotional depth ... skilfully propelled by dialogue ... wholly authentic ... not a false line anywhere". It was about an Asian girl who discovers that her mother had an affair with an Englishman many years ago. There's a possibilty she isn't quite as Asian as she thought, and it was a skilful and entertaining piece of writing. The cast included Shelley Islam, Paul Bhattacharjee and Gerard McDermott, and was directed by Naylah Ahmed. The Peggy Ramsay Foundation donated the 1,500 prize-money. The play was repeated on Radio 4 on 24 October 06 and was available for a week on the bbc listen-again website.

The Tinniswood Award is given for the best original radio drama script broadcast during the previous year. This time there were (unusually) two winners. The runner-up was Jeff Noon's DEAD CODE: GHOSTS OF THE DIGITAL AGE - "highly recommended" by the judges, and broadcast on radio 3. Gordon House, Jury Chairman, called it a tale about "a nightmarish world where memories can be bought", set in the distant future.

The top position, however, went to Nick Warburton for THE BEAST. Set a couple of centuries ago, the story begins when a strange, harmless creature is fished out of the sea by a lone fisherman. The play tells of what happens to it. It was an understated play with emotional power, totally conceived for radio, and Gordon House commented that it would be diminished by being performed in any other medium. It was given a repeat on 23 Oct 06. Nick has written about 35 broadcast radio plays, including an excellent chiller which went out on 20th Oct (see below). He also dramatised the Peter Pan sequel which was broadcast during October, PETER PAN IN SCARLET (R4, 1415, 14Oct 06), by Geraldine McCaughrean.

As regards the drama broadcast since the last review, these are my highlights:

A new play to mark Howard Barker's sixtieth birthday was commissioned by radio 4; THE ROAD, THE HOUSE, THE ROAD (R4, 2000, 18 Jul 06), directed by his long-time colleague Richard Wortley, veteran of 2,000 radio plays and probably the most experienced radio drama producer in the country. It concerned Johannes Aventinus, a humanist scholar of the 16th century. Like many scholars of the time, he travelled the roads of Europe on foot, collecting material for scholarship, visiting libraries and begging hospitality from wealthy patrons. At the age of 53, Aventinus married for the first time. His only child was born in his absence, and on hurrying home in winter to join his wife and child, he perished on the way; no-one knows how.

In this play, we encounter the scholar in the course of his last journey. The weather is appalling, but he sees distant lights at a big house, so he assumes that he will at least get lodgings for the night. When he reaches the house, he is let in by an elegant, intelligent woman who shows him the library - where, to his surprise, she has his works in profusion. Has he been led there deliberately? And why? The cast included Michael Pennington, Sean Baker and Barbara Flynn.

KEEPING THE SCORE (R4, 1415, 29 Aug 2006) was another cricket play produced by Jane Morgan, passionate follower of the game; written by Martyn Wade. Gerald's winter refuge is the score box at the village cricket ground, where he's the official scorer in the summer. His wife is unaware of his hiding place, and he's determined she won't find out. Then one day a man turns up with a message which is to change both their lives. The cast and producer had fun making this; it starred David Troughton as Gerald, Sam Kelly as Derek, and the music was written and played by Neil Brand.

LONG ROAD TO IONA (R4, 1415, 30 Aug 06) was an interesting play about an inveterate walker, an elderly widow who is not prepared to sit out the rest of her days at home just to please her relatives. She embarks on some serious long distance walking. It had Ann Scott-Jones in the lead, and was produced by Ian Neville.

DARKNESS (R4, 1415,31 Aug 06) concerned a surgeon who's been on duty in Iraq. Now he has a more straighforward job, but he's beginning to lose his sight. He volunteers for a dangerous experiment in a diving bell. This was a claustrophobic, tense drama with Steffan Rhodri, produced by Kate McAll.

THE MIRONOV LEGACY, by Helen Dunmore (R4, 1415, 5 Sep 06), was based on the letters of Helen Mirren's grandfather, Pyotr Mironov, a military attache cut off by the Russian Revolution in England from his family, friends, and the country he loved.

Geoffrey Whitehead played grandfather, and Helen Mirren played her own aunt Lena, writing to him about the death of his mother, the changes in the country, and their altered circumstances since the revolution.

The old man believed that the play-acting of his grand-daughters would come to nothing, and that a profession was what they needed because no-one could take it away. He tries to tell them of his own history, where their family home used to be, how wolves would come out of the forest at night, and how nightingales would sing. A beautiful play, produced by Mark Smalley.

THE GLASS MAN, by Martin Sorrell (R4, 21 Sep 06, a repeat of a play broadcast in Dec 05) was about an unusual medical condition causing sufferers to believe they are turning to glass. The 'glass delusion' - a state of profound anxiety now associated with severe depression - was relatively common in the Middle Ages. King Charles VI of France was a sufferer and had iron ribs sewn into his clothing to protect himself in case of a fall while in 1610, Cervantes wrote a novella The Glass Graduate about the condition.

Neil Sorrell, Martin's musician brother, senior lecturer at York University, was asked to create 15 minutes of music for the play, using only the sounds of glass. He used as his instruments wine glasses, large vessels from the University's Department of Chemistry and even the inside of a vacuum flask. He enlisted the help of second-year postgraduate student in the Department of Music, Chilean Felipe Otondo, to act as recording engineer.

It took 24 hours of studio time to produce 15 minutes of music. Directed by Sara Davies, it starred Cark Prekopp, Saskia Reeves, Barbara Flynn and Stephen Perring.

The play included interviews with glass makers and also had a contribution from Andrew Solomon, who has written about the delusion.

Nick Warburton's play, FRIDAY WHEN IT RAINS (R4, 1415, 20 Oct 06), was in the style of "Fear on Four". It's the age of steam, and a girl on a late-night train journey hears a frightening tale from a fellow passenger. Riveting stuff; Clive Swift and Lyndsey Marshal starred, and Claire Grove directed.

Two other plays worthy of mention, by David Pownall: BORN FOR WAR (R4, 1415, 26 Oct 06) about the Suez crisis, directed by Martin Jenkins, and the following day, SAND, by Tilly Black, also set in Suez, where the political drama is seen through the eyes on a ten year old girl, were recommended to me by friends, and I hope to hear the recordings soon. We also had a comic play, TWENTY CIGARETTES (R4, 2100, 18 Aug 06), by Marcy Kahan, starring Anton Lesser as a smoker who must give up the weed to secure his girlfriend's hand in marriage; first-class Friday night entertainment.

Nigel Deacon / 31 Oct 06

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The review is a bit shorter than usual, since the previous one didn't come out until mid-October. There's another series of I.S.I.H.A.C is in progress as I write this - still the best comedy on radio by a fair margin. Gyles Brandreth and Nick Revell have written an amusing sitcom entitled SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY going out in the 1830 comedy slot, and another good series CLARE IN THE COMMUNITY is making a welcome return in the mornings. The last two series will doubtless be covered soon on Steve Arnold's British Comedy website (www.britishcomedy.org) , which is amassing a comprehensive archive of articles on radio comedy. As for the drama:

THE CAIRO TRILOGY, by Naguib Mahfouz, dramatised by Ayeesha Menon and brought to life by director John Dryden (3 episodes, beginning R4, 15 Oct 06) was a family saga about a middle-class family in Egypt adjusting to turbulent changes in their country. Episode 1 starts in 1919; episode 2 is the twenties and thirties; the last episode covers the second war. The cast included Omar Sharif as old Kamal, and was recorded in Egypt with a largely Egyptian cast.

SAFE AS HOUSES, by Peter Wolf (Saturday play, 28 Oct 06) was a repeat of an excellent play from a year ago; two women (a cleaner and a bright young M.O.D. investigator) are sent to a safe house to remove all traces left by the previous occupant. They find disturbing clues about the person's identity. Then they hear that an attempt has been made on his life, and he's on the run. Juliet Aubrey and Paula Jacobs played Ruth and Ellie, and the director was Cherry Cookson.

MUMMIES AND DADDIES, by Rony Robinson (R4, 1415, 6 Nov 06) was a follow-up to the play he wrote about love in an old people's home. This time he's gone to the other end of the age spectrum; it's about unmarried mums and their boyfriends and the problems they face. Sally Goldsmith wrote another set of saucy songs (she makes a very good job of them), Katie Griffiths and Matthew Hall were the errant couple, and Pauline Harris directed.

The life of a young travelling photographer in 1913 was the subject matter for UPSIDE DOWN AND BACK TO FRONT, by Lance Woodman (R4, 1415, 14 Nov 06). He starts in his father's shop, but realises he has to make a name for himself, so he travels around Worcestershire looking for business. A little girl he meets teaches him a lot more about photography than some of the oddballs he meets. The director was Peter Leslie Wild, and the cast included Oliver le Sueur, Richard Derrington, Alex Kelly, Helen Monks and Alex Jones (the odious "Clive Horrobin" from The Archers, the author of several plays for radio 4).

THE LOSS ADJUSTER, by Richard Monks (R4, R4, 1415 , 17 Nov 06) was a thought-provoking Friday play about corrupt business practices. Martin's house has been built along with hundreds of others on a flood plain. When the estate gets flooded, and a young girl dies, he discovers first-hand how big business operates. The producer was Sally Avens.

OLD MAN GOYA, by Julia Blackburn, adapted by Penny Gold (R4, 1415, 24 Nov 06) was a welcome repeat of a Richard Wortley production. An illness causes the painter to become completely deaf but he goes on to produce some of his greatest work. Sean Barrett played Goya and Maggie McCarthy was Josefa; the play had original music by Paul Aguilera and Mike Sykes.

THE LOST WORLD OF PHOEBE MILES, by Bernard Kops (R4, 1415, 28 Nov 06) was commissioned to mark the playwright's eightieth birthday. It was a love story set in wartime London, and was beautifully done. A first-class script; it starred Tracy-Ann Obermann, David de Keyser and Heather Coombs; Ned Chaillet directed.

REGRESSED, by Chris Sussman and Dan Hine (R4, 1415, 4 Dec 06) had an extraordinary plot; a guy with a psychological problem undergoes regression therapy. Unfortunately the hypnotherapist has a heart attack before he can bring Leo back. Leo was played by David Armand, the couple who look after him were Philip Jackson and Alison Newman, and the director was Clive Brill.

EVERY BOOK IN THE WORLD, by Nick Warburton (R4, 1415, 5 Dec 06) showed the same quality as "Beast", which won the 2005 Tinniswood award. You don't need a world-shattering story to write the best drama, but you need to show what makes people tick. Here we had the Victorian book-collector Sir Thomas Phillipps moving his collection, his long-suffering wife, and a carter moving the books; a three-hander for Benjamin Whitrow, Lia Williams and Peter Gunn. Sparks fly; Mark Smalley directed.

THE MALINGERER'S MANUAL, by Gary Ogin (R4, 1415, 6 Dec 06), repeated from a few months ago, was a classic comedy. A prospective bridegroom wants to get out of his impending marriage without upsetting anyone. He meets a man in a pub who tells him about the Malingerers' Club. There's a subscription, then a questionnaire to assess your "quotient" - your plausibility when giving an excuse. Along comes an unexpected social engagement. You tell the Malingerers' Club and they supply your get-out, with detailed instructions on how to use it. Imaginative, witty, and a lovely twist at the end. This was Wodehouse standard. The cast included Andy Taylor, Katherine Heath, Christian Rodska and Rupert Vansittart, and the director was Jeremy Howe.

HEART (day 1) and TRANSPLANT (day 2), by Jonathan Holloway, narrated by Rosie Goldsmith (R4,1415, 14-15 Dec 06) was a re-run on two successive days of the story of the world's first heart transplant. A ex-boxer, Louis Washansky, is waiting to receive a heart; he's dying. the heart of a young girl. It's 1967, Cape Town, and Christian Barnard, a charismatic medic, goes into action with his team of surgeons. Unmissable, it starred Miles Anderson as Barnard and Ian MacNeice as Washansky; Jeremy Howe directed.

There's no problem with the quality of drama on offer, and with the listen-again site you can even hear broadcasts if you miss them during the day. The only comment I have concerns Friday nights; the plays here are usually top-class, but they're on weighty issues. Is this the best time for them?

Nigel Deacon / 19 Dec 06

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