April 2020
Sept 2020
Dec 2020


The ninth Audio Drama Awards ceremony, including the Imison and Tinniswood Awards, took place on 2 Feb 20 in the Radio Theatre at Broadcasting House. The BBC Audio Drama Awards celebrate the range, originality and quality of audio drama on air and online, and give recognition to the creativity of actors, writers, producers, sound designers and others who work in the genre. It was introduced for the second time by James Purnell, Director of Radio and Education at the BBC. He remarked that there was again a good turnout, and that one of the pleasures of his job is spending time with creative people. The BBC was the biggest commissioner of radio drama in the world. Next year marks the seventieth year of The Archers. He enthused about coming productions: more Proust.... Middlemarch.... and more podcasts. BBC Sounds continues to be developed; the future of radio drama is very important.

James wished good luck to the finalists, then handed over to the evening's host, Meera Syal.

Of radio plays, Meera said 'We do radio drama because we love it' and drew particular attention to the new award for European drama, which was tonight being presented for the second time. A number of the European finalists were present in the audience.

Best original single drama was won by Elizabeth Kuti for "Sea Longing", produced by Karen Rose for Sweet Talk Productions.

Best Adaptation was won by Black Water: An American Story by Joyce Carol Oates, adapted by Sarah Wooley, producer Gaynor Macfarlane, for BBC Scotland.

As for the Imison and Tinniswood Awards: Vicky Foster won the Imison for 'Bathwater', produced by Sue Roberts. The Tinniswood winner was Ian Martin, for 'The Hartlepool Spy', produced by Sam Ward. My personal preference for the Tinniswood was for Tanika Gupta's 'Death of a Matriarch', and it must have been a close-run thing. But with awards it's often a question of comparing apples and pears.

The award for "Outstanding Contribution to Drama" was won by the entire production team of "The Amazing Maya Angelou" and was presented by Mohit Bakaya. Maya was a poet, singer, writer and civil rights activist best known for her autobiographical works which focus on her early life and childhood experiences. The producer for the three series was Pauline Harris, Patricia Cumper did the adaptation, and the idea for the programmes came from Helen Perry.

Alison and I were again involved in promoting the UK International Radio Drama Festival, due to be held in Canterbury, 18-22 Mar. We contacted radio writers, producers, actors, along with academics and others within relevant disciplines at the nearby universities. Then the coranavirus took hold ; the whole country was in lockdown and the festival had to be postponed. We hope things will soon return to normal and that it will run later in the year; probably late October or in November. Meanwhile the festival plays are all online on the festival website, and we hope that plenty of you have been listening to them during the lockdown period. There are clearly-laid-out translations on the download page for all plays not in English. One item which stands out for me is a new play by David Mairowitz (q.v.), in German but nevertheless easy to follow.

Recent radio drama output has again covered a wide range. The number of one-off plays is down slightly because there have been some series and serials taking up multiple slots. These items include a 5-episode repeated series of "Brief Lives", a ten-episode run of Gordon Newman's "The Corrupted" series 5, another run of stories from Syria 'Hay El Matar', seven episodes of a series on homicides and repeats of 6 'Zola' episodes from 2015 and four plays about Eric Blair. Brighter fare has come from Kerry Shale, another James Bond story from Jarvis & Ayres, The Pallisers, three new 'interrogations' by Roy Williams and Robert Louis Stevenson's Weir of Hermiston.

Colin Teevan's SEVEN POMEGRANATE SEEDS (R4, 1415,7 Jan 20) was based on Greek mythology. It is summer, and a young girl has been stolen and is under the ground. Up in the world, her mother searches for her lost child, her grief so powerful that the ground hardens into winter. It was originally based on seven of Euripedes’ female characters: Persephone, Hypsipyle, Medea, Alcestis, Phaedra, Creusa and Demeter. It starred Niamh Cusack, Ruth Bradley and Leah McNamara and was produced by Allegra McIlroy for BBC Northern Ireland.

SOMEONE DANGEROUS, a thriller by Andy Mulligan (R4, 1415, 8-9 Jan 20) concerned a couple moving into a house with an unpleasant history. The "qtalent" website describes it like this: 'The lives of recently married Jed and Ida are thrown into turmoil when they discover the previous occupant of the house they have just bought killed herself in the bath. When Ira finds the young woman's diary under the floorboards, she begins to suspect murder'. The couple were played by Rob Jarvis and Lizzie Aaryn-Stanton, with Harry Myers, Keir Charles and Emma Carter. Music was composed by Jon Quin, sound design was by Laurence Farr, and the producer was Emma Hearn, for John Dryden's Goldhawk Productions.

An interesting Saturday Play, THE DREAMING CHILD, went out in in mid-January (R4, 1430, 11 Jan 20). It was an unmade movie by Harold Pinter,based on a Karen Blixen short story. It's Bristol in 1868 and Emily, married to Tom Carter, is haunted by her first love affair with a young soldier who subsequently dies at sea. Seven years later and unable to have children themselves, they decide to adopt a boy from the slum. Jack however is not an ordinary child, and seems to know everything about his new home and family. The narrator was Anne Reid, Emily was Lydia Leonard and Tom was played by Bertie Carvel. It was adapted for radio by Joanna Hogg and Laurence Bowen and produced by Laurence Bowen. The director was Joanna Hogg, for independent radio company Feelgood productions.

From 13 Jan to 17 Jan we heard a series of plays set at legal hearings, all written by Clara Glynn under the general heading BEHIND CLOSED DOORS and produced by David Ian Neville for BBC Scotland. We had a young anorexic dangerously ill and refusing treatment. Then we had a Jewish mother trying to stop her ex-husband from changing her children's school; a vulnerable adult who wants to have sex but others deem it inadvisable; a widower leaving his entire estate to a young dog-walker and a father accused of causing the injuries which led to his baby's death. All thought-provoking and interesting though it must be said that none of them were light listening.

THE TRIAL OF THE WELL OF LONELINESS (R4, 1430, 25 Jan 20) was an adaptation by Shelley Silas of Radclyffe Hall's novel 'The Well of Loneliness' (1928, Jonathan Cape) about love between women, which became the centre of a 1928 obscenity trial. The book became the target of a campaign by James Douglas, "Sunday Express" editor; in court it was judged obscene because it defended "unnatural practices between women". It starred Kate Fleetwood as the novelist, and Anastasia Hille as Lady Troutbridge, Rick Warden as Norman Birkett, with Laura Christy and Will Kirk. Research papers were supplied by Morris Ernst Papers, the Harry Ransom Center and the University of Texas at Austin. The producer was Emma Harding.

BATHWATER by poet Vicky Foster, which won the Imison Award winner, was repeated on R4, 1430, 1 Feb 20 ( it received the award a day later). The play explores Vicky's real-life experience of domestic violence. what happens when violence spills over into family life. What's the impact on a son of having a violent father he never really knew? How does society view those whose partners are violent? It was written and performed by Vicky Foster, with Finlay McGuigan as her son Joseph. The sound score was composed and played by Broken Orchestra - Pat Dooner and Carl Conway-Davis, and was produced by Susan Roberts for BBC Drama North.

THE HARTLEPOOL SPY (R4, 1415, 3 Feb 20), this year's Tinniswood winner, was repeated from Christmas Day 2019. This was a comedy-drama; Britain is at war with France; it's 1804. Bonapart's spies are everywhere. Invasion is expected any day.Then a French ship is spotted; it’s heading their way. But there's a storm, and a single survivor washes ashore: a monkey. For reasons which become clear, the town needs to arrest a foreign spy. What about arresting the monkey? The play starred Michael Palin, Jim Moir, Toby Jones and Gina McKee; the producer was Sam Ward.

I enjoy H.P.Lovecraft's creepy tales, so was keen to hear a play about his life by Sara Davies and Abigail Youngman, an Audio Drama Award finalist entitled TALK TO ME (R4, 4 Feb 20). The drama was as strange as his stories and was about his marriage. Lovecraft was eccentric; he favoured human contact by letter, rarely left his home, and even then only at night, walking the empty streets. He preferred the company of men and hated foreigners and Jews. His relationship with Sonia Greene transcended these prejudices for a while. She was a businesswoman whose family had fled Ukraine to live in the USA.She swept Lovecraft up in her enthusiasm for his work and her romantic ideas about the man himself. They married and moved into Sonia’s New York apartment where she attempted to make him a popular literary success. Lovecraft was played by John Machay, Sonia by Tracy Wiles and Lovecraft's friend Samuel Loveman by Carl Prekopp. The producer was Mary Ward-Lowery.

Lucy Catherine's three-part thriller BODY HORROR (R4, 1415, 11-13 Mar 20) was set thirty years into the future. There has been a startling new medical development: if you are suffering from a terminal illness and you have enough money you can now get a new body. But when Caroline, a former mortician, has a full body transplant, there are shadows left by the previous occupant. Caroline was played by Jill Halfpenny and Gloria by Shelley Conn, with Chetna Pandya and Samantha Daking; the producer was Toby Swift.

Archie Scotney has dramatised another of the James Bond novels. In THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, broadcast as the Saturday Play (R4, 1445, 14 Mar 20), James Bond’s obituary appears in the Times. This is the first in a series of unlikely events leading to his latest mission: to kill an international assassin. Martin Jarvis narrates as Ian Fleming, with Toby Stephens as Bond, John Standiing as 'M', Guillermo Diaz as the baddie Scaramanga with Janie Dee and Moira Quirk. This was an independent production produced by Rosalind Ayres and directed by Martin Jarvis.

BRAVE OLD WORLD, by Mike Harris (R4, 1415,10 Mar 20) was a light-hearted look at the takeover of our world by greenery after an ec-holocaust. Economic growth is banned, invention is a crime, and everyone lives in small, self-sufficient villages rigorously controlled by Facilitators. But all revolutions tend to go wrong and Miranda, fed up with the new ways and bored by her ideologically perfect partner, decides to see what the bad old world had to offer. Miranda was played by Eleanor Jackson, Peter by Tom and the Facilitator by Geraldine Alexander. It was produced by Clive Brill for Brill Productions.

Juliet Ace's new play, MOVING THE GOALPOSTS (R4, 1415, 19 Mar 20) will strike a chord with most older listeners, especially those who have experience of ailing parents and the indignities of old age. 80-year-old Mattie is given 18 months to live. She plans out the time which remains. There’s a will to make, a funeral to organise and possessions to give away, and she gets on with it. But then she doesn't die. Four years later she's left with limited mobility and exhaustion; a condition she shares with many cancer patients who are supposedly cured of the disease. But Mattie refuses to submit. Mattie is played by Pam ferris, and the producer was Tracey Neale.

THE KUBRICK TEST by Kerry Shale (R4, 1415,8 Apr 20) was his first radio play and was based on a script by Jeremiah Quinn. Kerry was interviewed about it about a fortnight earlier by John Wilson on Front Row. The play is about the actor's remarkable encounter with Stanley Kubrick, one of the greatest ever film makers. Kubrick produced A Clockwork Orange, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove and The Shining and a host of other famous movies. In 1987, out of the blue, a young actor gets a 'phone call from Kubrick's right-hand-man to record the trailer for his latest film. What follows give him first-hand experience of the film-maker's extraordinary methods. Kerry plays himself, with Robert Emms as Leon and Henry Goodman as Kubrick; sound design was by Alisdair McGregor, and production was by Boz Temple-Morris for Indie producer Holy Mountain.

THE WILL (R4, 1415, 7 Apr 20) was a play by Polly Thomas and Anders Lundorph about estranged sisters. Angie lives in England; she has a string of failed business behind her and is currently on bail for tax evasion. When her more prosperous sister Birgitte turns up out of the blue from Denmark, begging her to fulfil their dying father’s last wish to meet her, there is little time to waste - they have to get to Copenhagen as soon as possible. Will they get there? The play was recorded on location in Manchester. Birgitte was played by Charlotte Munck, Angie by Danielle Henry and Chris by Steph Lacey. The script editor was John Dryden and the producer Eloise Whitmore, for indie company Naked Productions.

WEIR OF HERMISTON by Robert Louis Stevenson (R4, 1415, 19 & 26 Apr 20) was a story of family conflict, set in Edinburgh and the borders in the early 1800s. Stevenson died halfway through writing the novel, but he left notes on the unfinished half, and Colin Macdonald has used them to complete it. Archie Weir has a father utterly without empathy or affection, though he is a well-known figure in the Law; he is a famous "hanging judge". Archie, his son, is training to be a lawyer, but makes the mistake of publicly denounces the capital punishment favoured by his father, who puts an immediate end to his legal studies. This sets his life moving in a completely different direction. He encounters his father again later on, and one wonders whether the enmity between them will continue or whether there will be reconciliation. The story is further complicated by a young woman and an odious ex-acquaintance from his college days. Archie is played by Jack Lowden, Kirstie by Phyllis Logan, young Archie by Billy Thomson, his father by Paul Young, and Frank Innes by Finn den Hertog. The producer was Bruce Young.

I had been waiting for a while for series 5 of THE CORRUPTED, by Gordon Newman (R4, ten episodes on weekdays, beginning 1415, 20 Apr 20) It's now the 1990s. Brian Oldman is still in jail for a crime he didn't commit: setting fire to some flats resulting in the death of a mother and her young child. The fire was started by an accomplice of Joseph Oldman to further a property deal. It must be said that the tale is full of unsavoury characters: blackmailers, thugs, perverts, dishonest MPs, bent coppers and a host of others undesirables seeking money or influence. One wonders whether Joseph Oldman, once a street trader but now a multi-millionaire and major shareholder of a worldwide pharmaceutical corporation will ever get his comeuppance. A young Tony Blair and Prime Minister John Major now enter the story. Joseph Oldman is played by Toby Jones, his new wife by Flora Montgomery, along with an cast of about 30 others including Christian Rodska, Jasmine Hyde, Isabella Urbanowitz and Damian Lynch. The producer was Clive Brill, for Brill productions.

There were other noteworthy productions. Trollope's "The Pallisers", dramatised by Mike Harris and Sharon Oakes, was done in a style showing that very little changes in politics from one century to the next. We had series 6 of Roy Williams' "The Interrogation"; with Kenneth Cranham and Alex Lanipekun; thought-provoking and immaculately produced. I caught an episode of "My Little Eye" by Richard Stoneman, looking at a problem which is becoming depressingly familiar: Bob Trench, undercover agent, encounters a former soldier who, many years after serving in Northern Ireland, is being threatened with prosecution. Lucy Gannon's play "Blackrock Girl" was an attractive light comedy set in Ireland on two adjacent afternoons, and Adam Usden's sc-fi comedy "Settlers" sounded interesting (q.v.) but unfortunately I missed it.

Finally the 'repeat count': of the 121 afternoon plays broadcast during the first four months of the year, 39 were repeats (which is equivalent to 117 in the year). Of those 121, I counted 38 from independent producers.

Because of events beyond my control this review appeared a few days late.

ND/5 May 2020


The period from April until September has been one of the oddest I can remember. We were hit by the virus from China, and everythiing stopped. It still hasn't got back to normal. Meeting venues were closed. No theatres, dentists or parties. Then no social visits. Funerals attended by three people. No festivals, no choir rehearsals, no concerts, no exams. Even 'The Archers' was affected; instead of the usual action there was a succession of monologues, each character reflecting on events rather than participating in them, and no broadcast on Mondays. The episodes had a dreamy, static quality, which reflected the isolation many people were feeling. The UK International Radio Drama Festival moved all of its plays online and decided not to meet in the Autumn but to have a fresh start in March next year.

Then there was an innovation - actors learned how to record plays from their own homes. Actors and production team began to meet on-screen rather than in person, and a number of plays were recorded like this (with some difficulty, it must be said, but the restrictions meant that it would have to be online or nothing). Lockdown did not allow use of a studio by a production team.

I learned a little about the difficulties of online recording during the summer. I was the interviewee in a "Desert Island Discs" type programme about some of my favourite radio dramas with Jack Klaff as interviewer. (Covid Island Dramas episode 1, which is now online) We used 'Zoom'; I also have home recording facilities (my music room, which has decent microphones and acoustics). Some careful post-production work was necessary to make the final version of the programme. The conversations took place on 'Zoom' but I also recorded my bit of the conversation separately, in high quality, and sent it through to the producer, who spliced it into the 'Zoom' recording. Jack was in Gloucestershire; Jonathan (the producer) was in Sussex, I was in Leicestershire, and the sound engineer was in London.

To my surprise the links worked quite well; everyone could hear everyone else. The main problem for me was a slight delay between speaking and getting a reply, and the lack of visual cues. It wasn't quite the same as being in the same room. However it was ok once you got used to it. To produce a natural-sounding conversation you sometimes needed post-production editing, along with a certain amount of rehearsal so you knew more or less what was coming.

Barry Farrimond, who plays Eddie Grundy in The Archers, talked about the process of online recording as he chatted to Clare Balding when they hiked across part of Dartmoor in RAMBLINGS, very early in the morning (R4, 6.15am, 26 Sep 20).

    CB: I was thinking of the experience of recording your monologues... It's not just that it's very different in terms of the script and the insights, but for you as a team, part of the joy of being a members if The Archers is - you're family with the fellow actors. You're not getting to see them.

    BF: It's a lovely cast, and it does feel like an extended family. It's a huge joy going up to Birmingham to record, sing, and to see old friends. I've been in it for 20 years now, which is pretty amazing.

    CB: You have grown up in it ...

    BF: Yes, and tempus fugit. We've really missed each other. Connecting via videoconferencing has helped. We started doing the read-throughs again, which is where we sit down as a cast and go through the script together in the green room. We started doing it using video conferencing, and when it happened, it was a wonderful moment because suddenly we were reconnecting. But it doesn't beat being in the studio. And part of the joy is having such wonderful actors to bounce off. When you're on your own, in your bedroom, continually having to tell the kids to keep quiet, it's challenging. But I'm really proud of what the programme was able to achieve, keeping it on the air. I know it's come in for criticism from some people who didn't like the new format, but I think that it was really brave of the programme to go with that and just to be so determined that we're not going off-air; we're going to stay on.

    CB: Do you feel very protective of it, as someone who has been a character in it for as long as you have done? It must be interesting to deal with that reaction, good and bad.

    BF: Yes, I do feel very protective. It's so beautifully crafted, and I can appreciate it from multiple angles as an actor but also as a sound engineer. I studied creative music technology at university; the stuff that the guys do in the booth, where the heart of the recording studio is, there on the desk...and they're piping in sounds effects. What they do is amazing. Remarkable. Some of the keen-eared listeners will notice that the birdsong is seasonal, even down to the month or sometimes the week, otherwise we get letters. But that attention to detail ... that in itself is impressive. We have such wonderful talent on the programme as well. It's a great thing; an institution. I'm proud to be part of it.

    CB: Once you started having your 'Zoom' read-throughs together as a cast, have you also been recording 'The Archers' remotely together?

    BF: Yes. That's been happening increasingly recently (26 Sep - Ed) which is great. It's good to be performing with people again, but it presents quite a technical challenge, because you've got two people in two environments. You've got to perform and bounce off one another when you're not in the room together, and technically it has to work as well. Because you're in different rooms the acoustics are different, and that causes problems.

    CB: You were doing your recordings in your bedroom?

    BF: Yes......on the hottest day of the year...... You had to shut all the windows. I had to put a blanket over myself to dampen the sound ........ but it was either that or pass out. I'm looking forward to getting back into the air-conditioned studio where there's water on tap.

.....The coronavirus has dominated BBC (and other) news coverage for the last six months. Instead of Project Fear Brexit, which we had for three years, we now have Project Fear Coronavirus. It is unrelenting, endlessly negative in tone; like their climate change activism - it goes on and on; it never stops. I see this week that we have yet another picture of David Attenborough on the cover, talking about saving the planet, again. One might be forgiven for thinking that the BBC is biased, and it cannot be doing the mental health of the nation any good at all..

On a related matter, I note that the 'De-fund the BBC' campaign is gathering a head of steam. Their web page reads "Tired of paying for BBC Waste and Bias? Follow our campaign to limit the TV Licence and make it voluntary". 26,000 people on Facebook have joined the campaign. Andrew Neil has cited irreparable damage as his reason for leaving the BBC to chair a competitor news outlet, Spectator TV, linked to the magazine of the same name; an interesting read. Laurence Fox has pointed out that the BBC promotes its 'diversity' agenda vigorously when it comes to skin colour but not when considering what people actually think. The one thing the BBC cannot tolerate is diversity of opinion. If you disagree, the criticism, the hostile interviewing and the name-calling begin. It was not always so.

The BBC's anti-Brexit bias was criticised strongly by MPs from both sides of the debate in May 2017. Seventy MPs described the BBC's Brexit coverage as skewed and pessimistic. Their view was expressed in a letter to the BBC's director-general, Lord Hall of Birkenhead. The letter said that the BBC was portraying the UK as xenophobic and as a nation which regretted voting to leave the EU. They said further that the BBC failed to get rid of its pre-referendum pessimism and had not accepted the economic good news which the UK had had since the referendum. The MPs gave the BBC notice that its future would be in doubt if the public no longer saw it as impartial.

The BBC is also pursuing climate activism vigorously. There is, clearly, environmental damage and habitat loss and a host of other problems but there is no evidence for carbon dioxide causing the temperature of the planet to rise, in spite of what the BBC may say. Temperature rises precede carbon dioxide changes, and the IPCC says that there has been no increase in extreme weather events. David Bellamy acknowledged this, which is why he suddenly disappeared from our TV screens. The same with Johnny Ball. Disagree with the party line and they wave you goodbye. The problem with bias on this topic is that it is distorting perceptions of energy generation and private transportation and sending policy in the wrong direction. Excessive use of renewables and ignoring nuclear whilst attempting mass-production of electric cars (and the proposed banning of petrol / diesel vehicles) is not the way to go.

Undoubtedly the BBC has made plenty of powerful enemies by pursuing its own agenda. Some of those people are now saying that a biased BBC is not worthy of the licence fee. It is breaking its charter. I see no problem with a news network being biased if it is not publicly funded, but the BBC's charter says that it should be impartial, and it manifestly is not.

How might the loss of the licence fee affect radio drama? There is no commercial radio network in the world producing large numbers of high-quality radio plays. CBC no longer does it; ABC has stopped; there's nothing on the American networks. Without taxpayer funding, radio drama would probably disappear. Personally I would like to see a separate licence fee for radio to ensure this does not happen. I do not see why the expert production teams of our daily radio dramas (studio managers, actors, producers, writers) should lose their livelihoods because of the sins of BBC television. Not when the audience for radio plays in one week exceeds the entire audience of all the theatres in the country in a typical year. I sometimes wonder why a retired footballer (whose principal skills are in his feet) is paid a salary of over a million pounds per year for his verbal contributions to a quiz show.

The BBC's new director-general, Tim Davie, is planning to reduce left-wing bias. He sees the output as one-sided and in need of change. He has decided that comedy shows will be told to book guests with a wider range of view on issues such as Brexit, and the London-centric left-wing view of the world will be given less emphasis. Many of you will say "about time, too".

In 2018, Andrew Neil described 'The Mash Report' as being self-satisfied, self-adulatory unchallenged left-wing propaganda. Nish Kumar, the show host, was giving after-dinner entertainment at the Lord's Taverners recently; he was booed off stage when he started his anti-Brexit jokes. Let us hope for a more balanced menu on the BBC after the changes are introduced. Our national broadcaster needs to heed the views of the 50% of the country who have not been to university. It also needs to hear the voices of rural Britain, who provide most of the nation's food, and voices from outside the middle class and outside the M25.

Regular readers and listeners will be aware that until recently the main radio 4 Arts programme had not regarded radio drama as worthy of comment. But on 6 April, Gillian Reynolds, talking to John Wilson about radio during lockdown, made the point that Front Row really ought to value radio drama more. Things have improved on this front during lockdown, possibly because there is little else to talk about with all the cinemas and theatres being closed. However we had a Front Row interview with the actor Kerry Shale who talked about his experience of working with Stanley Kubrick many years ago and whose radio play 'The Kubrick Test' was broadcast on 8 April. We had a discussion of "The Painted People" on 7 May; the Pitlochry Theatre's play about the Romans and the Picts, adapted for radio 3. Then on 26 Aug 'The Lie', by Agatha Christie was highlighted on the programme. As Radio Times put it: "A very personal 1920s domestic drama which lay unread until discovered by drama director Julius Green and which he has turned into a radio play for radio 4 this weekend." The play appears later in this review. I think the position with Front Row now is that if a radio drama has some novelty or wide appeal, it may be covered. That's an improvement, though there is still some way to go.

Moving on to the radio plays which I was able to catch:

Series 5 of THE CORRUPTED, by Gordon Newman (R4, 1415, beginning 20 Apr 2020) lasted for a fortnight. In the drama, it's now the 1990s. Brian Oldman is still in jail for a crime he didn't commit. He found a fellow prisoner able to prove his innocence, but that man was soon found dead in his cell. He suspects that Joseph Oldman, now Sir Joseph Olinska MP, organised the killing. The series, based on the characters from Newman's novels, weaves fiction with real characters from history, following the fortunes of the Oldman/Olinska family, from small-time business and petty crime, through gang rivalries, to their entanglement in the highest echelons of society. John Major is now the Prime Minister and a young Tony Blair also seems keen on making Joseph’s acquaintance. Meanwhile, Joseph is trying to divorce his first wife, Catherine. Toby Jones plays Joseph, with Joe Armstrong as Brian and Isabella Urbanowicz as Catherine. Jasmine Hyde plays his daighter Leah and Flora Montgomery was Margaret Courtney. The producer was Clive Brill, for Indie Company Brill Productions.

On 3rd May in the Classic Serial slot (R4, 1500, 3 May 2020) we had the first of a 2-episode adaption of Wodehouse's UNCLE FRED IN THE SPRINGTIME by Archie Scotney, repeated from about a year ago. Lord Emsworth, head of Blandings Castle, is afraid that there is a plot to steal his prize pig, the Marquess of Blandings. Uncle Fred was played by Alfred Molina, Lady Constance by Patricia Hodge, the Duke of Dunstable: by Christopher Neame and Rupert Baxter by Jared Harris. The producer was Rosalind Ayres and the director, who also played Lord Emsworth, was Martin Jarvis, for Indie company Jarvis & Ayres.

There was another Wodehouse treat later in the month; LEAVE IT TO PSMITH (R4, 1500, 2 episodes beginning 17 May 2020), again a Classic Serial. Psmith (the P is silent) advertises himself to ‘go anywhere, do anything. Crime not objected to!’ Down at Blandings Castle, Lord Emsworth prepares to travel to London to collect a famous poet invited to Blandings by Emsworth’s fearsome sister Constance. Emsworth’s son Freddie sees Psmith’s advert and needs someone to steal his aunt’s necklace. He hires Psmith to do the stealing. Psmith was played by Edward Bennett, Lord Emsworth by Martin Jarvis, and Constance by Patricia Hodge. This was another production by the Jarvis & Ayres team. The P.G.Wodehouse stories are timeless. For years the Penguin editions of Wodehouse's tales contained the following quotation by Evelyn Waugh: 'Mr. Wodehouse's idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own'.

ERIC THE SKULL (R4, 1415, 22 May 2020) was an entertaining play by Simon Brett. In 1930, at the height of the Golden Age of crime fiction, a group of detective writers formed their own social organisation, the Detection Club. It still exists and, three times a year, it meets for dinner. How the group actually formed is not known, but the play suggests how it could have happened. Founder members included Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie and Gilbert Chesterton, who became its first President. Here, the members devise an initiation ritual for new members, and search for a suitable object on which to make their vows of loyalty to the Club. Dorothy L Sayers was played byFenella Woolgar, Agatha Christie by Janie Dee, Chesterton by Mark Williams and E.C.Bentley by Steve Furst. The producer was Liz Anstee, for Indie company CPL Productions.

On 25 May began the last-ever series of TUMANBAY, an 8-episode historical fantasy by John Dryden and Mike Walker. Once the greatest city on earth, Tumanbay has fallen into the hands of two opposing warlords: the Grand Master Amalric (Anton Lesser), leader of a fearsome religious order of knights; and Fatima (Kirsty Bushell), ambitious wife of a provincial governor who exerts total control over the weakened young Sultana Manel. It's available as a podcast, and a Tumanbay novel 'The City of a Thousand Faces' has been on sale since May. The Goldhawk website contains inforamtion about it, ans there's also a Facebook page. It's described as an engrossing, epic fantasy with Rufus Wright, Aiysha Hart, Olivia Popica, Anton Lesser, Alexander Siddig & Tara Fitzgerald, produced for the BBC and presented by iHeartRadio. The producers were Emma Hearn & Nadir Khan; music was by Sacha Puttnam and the amazing soundscape was by Steve Bond & Eloise Whitmore; the producer was John Dryden.

Hugh Costello's play, PERSONAL SHOPPER (R4, 1415, 29 May 2020) was a topical coronavirus drama about how living in enforced isolation can lead to the forging of new relationships, and to the revitalisation of old ones. It starts with a slip of paper posted through Nina’s letter box: Dear Neighbour. My name is Max. I am almost 15 years old and I live at number 76 of this road. My school has been shut and I am free to do shopping for anyone who needs it. Just ring me on the number below. The play is told through phone calls and Nina's audio diary. Nina was played by Monica Dolan and Max by Tom Glenister, with Phil David and Jane Slavin. The producer was Eoin O'Callaghan, for Indie company Big Fish .

A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN, by Virginia Woolf (R4, 1500, Classic Serial slot 31 May 2020) was about female creativity. It was adapted for radio by Linda Marshall Griffiths as part of radio 4's "Electric Decade" - classics from the 1920s. It is 1928; a woman is asked to talk of women and writing. She takes a walk in the university town of 'Oxbridge' where she is refused entry to the gardens and to the library and discovers the poverty of the one female college there. She decides to hunt through the British Museum for proof that women even existed in history. She imagines what would have happened if Shakespeare had had a sister and imagines conversations with the great British female novelists. She begins to understand the difficulties facing the female writer and women who want to have a creative life. The woman was played by Indira Varma, and the other four actors (Jenny Platt, Anjli Mohindra, Sacha Dhawan and Colin Tierney) took multiple roles. The producer was Nadio Molinari and the drama was recorded and edited during coronavirus lockdown with actors, producer, writer and studio managers all in their own homes.

TRISTRAM SHANDY: IN DEVELOPMENT (R4, 1500, Saturday Play 4 Jul 2020) was also produced under lockdown with actors in many locations. It was written by Christopher Douglas, who also takes part, and is a play within a play, where a workshop and podcast are being recorded on the novel Tristram Shandy. It's an opportunity, says producer Philippa Lauriston, to discover a new way of making a radio play. The creative team also includes the actors who will play the novel's main characters. There is also a rumour that a famous actor will be joining them. What could possibly go wrong? The cast included Tim McInnerny, Monica Dolan, Mina Anwar and Emily Pithon, and the producer, dipping his toe into 'lockdown' plays for the first time, was Gary Brown.

A play about slavery, THE TRIAL OF JOSEPH KNIGHT (R4, 1415, 8 Jul 2020), by May Sumbwanyambe, was based on historical events. In the late 1700s much of Scotland's mercantile wealth was built on slavery. Plantation owner, Sir John Wedderburn, returned to Perthshire from the West Indies, bringing with him an African slave, Joseph Knight. Wedderburn educated Knight and made him a domestic servant. But when Knight ran away his escape and recapture helped pave the way for the abolition of slavery in Britain. This was a repeat from 2018. Joseph was played by Nana Amoo-Gottfried and Sir John by Ron Donachie; the producer was Bruce Young, for BBC Scotland.

A drama about the health care system in the USA, CARE, INC (R4, 1415, 30 Jul 2020) made interesting listening. American healthcare is quite unlike the system we have in the UK. In the play, Shirley is single and self-employed. She works hard; she owns an Afro-centric bookstore in Seattle. It's struggling. It's been flooded several times but she can't afford flood insurance because she has to pay so much health insurance. It's not easy to go through the small print of her Care Inc health policy and Shirley is desperate because she has been denied the treatment that she needs. Her policy is too basic. In the call centre at the health insurance company, employees face a daily barrage of callers who don't understand why they can't get the drugs their doctors order or why their claim is denied. Now the staff at Care, Inc face a merger with a large pharmaceutical company. Shirley speaks to Nina, a call operator. Nina can see how desperate she is, and decides to help her by breaking the rules. The medical advisor for the play was Dr. Stephen Adler; recording was by Louis Mitchell in Brooklyn, New York. It was mixed by Jon Calver in London and produced by Judith Kampfner by Indie company 'Corporation for Independent Media'.

It was good to hear another Marcy Kahan drama; a 2-episode adaptation of a novel by Mary Stewart.(R4, 1500, Classic Serial beginning 23 Aug 2020) entitled MADAM, WILL YOU TALK? It was set in the South of France in the early 1950s. The heat is intense, roads are dusty and parched, and you can hear the cicadas. The coffee is strong and 'une omelette aux fines herbes' at the local café is almost exotic. This is Charity’s dream holiday after the greyness of England and losing her husband in the war. At her hotel, she meets David, a lonely English schoolboy there with his stepmother. She discovers that his father has been accused of murder, and she meets other characters who all end up being part of a murderous plot. Charity was played by Scarlett Courtney, David by Frankie Milward, and his father by Tim Dutton. Sound design was by David Thomas, the production co-ordinators were Sarah Tombling & Phoebe Izzard-Davey and the producer was Caroline Raphael, working for Pier Productions. Harry Turnbull, our new reviewer, writes about this and other plays on our 2020 Notes page.

BREAK OF DAY, a story by Colette (R4, 1400, 24 Aug 2020) was recently dramatised for radio by Nicholas McInerny. This largely biographical story, written in 1928, charts French author Colette’s retreat from her Parisian life for her first summer alone, in her Provencal home. She needs to lick her wounds after a messy second divorce and to be back in the garden. She needs to reconnect with the natural world, with her animals; to be at peace, and she means to renounce love forever. She's 55 and, for the first time since she was 16, decides to live without her life depending on love. Can she manage it; does she really want to? An unexpected encounter with her long-deceased mother, through finding her letters, leads Colette to a bruising reality check. The cast includes Frances Barber as Colette, Siân Phillips as Sidonie and Timothy George as Vial. The producer was Marina Caldarone, assisted by sound engineer David Thomas and production co-ordinator Sarah Tombling; for Pier Productions.

A recent find by Julius Green in the Christie's family archives, THE LIE, was dramatized by him and went out as the Saturday Play (R4, 1500, 29 Aug 2020). This previously unperformed play was something of a period piece and was discussed on 'Front Row a few days before the broadcast. Nan, in an unhappy marriage and provoked by her husband's obsession with her younger sister, disappears from the family home for a night. This has serious consequences.The play predates Agatha's famous stage thrillers and remained unread in her family's archives until it was discovered recently. It seems to have been written in the 1920s, during the breakdown of the writer's first marriage. Nan was played by Sarah Mowat, her sister Nell by Chloe Newsome, the husband by Ben Nealon and Hannah by Alison Skilbeck. It was adapted by Martin Lewton and Julius Green; Martin and Julius were the directors and the producers were Iain Mackness and Ashley Byrne. Music was by Rebecca Applin and this was an independent production by Made in Manchester.

I missed I AM THE WIND (R3, 1930, 21 Jun 2020) but Harry Turnbull's review makes it sound interesting. It's by Jon Fosse, English adaptation by Simon Stephens; Lee Ingleby as The One, Shaun Dooley as The Other. Directed by Toby Swift. At first this tale about two men in a boat just seems odd; and on re-listening it becomes oddly unnerving. The conversation between the pair - simply named The One and The Other - has a poetic rhythm that mirrors the gently lapping of the water provided by the production’s soundscape. The boat bobs its way from the safety of the shoreline to the more energetic waves of the open ocean, much as the two men’s exchanges become increasingly agitated.

Fosse doesn’t provide a plot, just a vehicle for dialogue between an experienced sailor who appears tired of life and a novice companion who acts as his sounding-board. Lee Ingelby plays The One and Shaun Dooley The Other, and if their faces don’t spring to mind their voices have a comforting familiarity. Indeed Dooley is one of the foremost voiceover artists in the country, having narrated many a TV documentary.

I Am The Wind was initially a theatre production but lends itself to the airwaves with a background of gently breaking waves and seagulls. These existential works are difficult to describe and must be aurally experienced. Well worth a listen.

Finally, a repeat-check The number of repeats has been creeping up over the last few years. For 2020: up to the end of August, 96 plays out of 282 were repeats, which represents 34% of the output. This would be equivalent, in a year, to 124 repeated broadcasts. For comparison, there were 38 repeats in 2000, 54 in 2010, and 109 in 2019. Radio listening has increased during lockdown and has remained high as virus-control measures have eased. Let us hope that funding for radio drama remains more or less as it is. From the point of radio play fans, losing the licence fee, if it happened, would be a disaster.

ND / 30 Sep 2020

There are still some anxieties about the licence fee and the effect its removal would have on radio drama. The number of repeats also seems to be rather high. However the coronavirus lockdowns have reinforced demand for good home-based listening, and there have been some worthwhile and memorable radio plays since September. If the BBC gets its house in order, radio drama may yet survive. And I must again give a plug for the UK Radio Drama Festival 2020, for which all plays (and some specially-commissioned ones written later and published during the summer) are still online; many of them in English.

I've had a look at the BBC Sounds website, which is being advertized regularly by the Radio 4 announcers, and yes, there is a lot of stuff on there, some of it fascinating. I clicked onto what appeared to be the main page, and it listed a lot of drama. As it happened, that was what I was after, but I yearned for a proper index, with categories and subcategories and titles. Are indices old-fashioned? Looking at the screen, I could see four titles. On scrolling down, there were another fifteen. To see more I had to click onto the next page, and scroll down again. At the top of each page it said "Episodes - 148 available". The plays were arranged in reverse chronological order. But where were Desert Island Discs, and Farming Today? And where were the nature programmmes I can't remember the title of, which go out very early on a Sunday morning (which the announcers keep telling me are on there in large numbers)?

No doubt this problem will be tackled eventually, but until the indexing improves, I will be making do with listen-again to catch items I miss. As ever, my listening has hardly been comprehensive, so apologies if your favourites are not mentioned.

LAST CHANCE by Roy Williams (R4, 1415, 14 Oct 20) was a tasteful look at the idea that old people never think about sex. An elderly lady diagnosed with a terminal condition meets a sympathetic gentleman in a garden centre. It leads to a very unexpected turn of events. This was a two-hander for Glenda Jackson and Rudolf Walker. It was superbly acted and was produced by Pauline Harris.

QUARTET FOR THE END OF TIME (R4, 1415, 6 Oct 20) by Emma Hooper caught my eye in Radio Times. It was about a string quartet which meets regularly to rehearse, but on a particular day, something very odd happens. They discover that when they play a particular piece, time suddenly stops. As RT put it: "Shocked, excited, amazed; each player takes it in turn to use the power to alter something in their lives". The quartet members were played by Mandeep Dhillon, Simon-Anthony Rhoden, Anna Doolan and Ed Browning. The producer was Toby Field, the SM was Nick Ford, casting was by Alison Crawford and music was supplied by Red Carousel.

For October, Sebastian Baczkiewicz wrote another tale about his famous creation 'Pilgrim', the man who cannot die, broadcast in two episdoes. THE TIMBERMOOR IMP (R4, 1415, 23 and 30 Oct 20) began with William Palmer donating a very valuable artwork to Timbermoor museum, to keep it open. How did he obtain a hundred-year old painting by a famous artist? That's a mystery. But there is magic, and the Timbermoor imp, an ancient spirit, starts to cause disruption to those living in the present day. William Palmer was played by Paul Hilton, and other parts were taken by Stefan Adegbola, Louis Jay Jordan, Charlotte East, Katie Redford, and Luke Nunn. The producers were Marc Beeby and Jessica Dromgoole.

Marcy Kahan's new play FUSION CONFIDENTIAL (R4, 1500, 24 Oct 20) mixed the subjects of opera and energy. A young female physicist, Jane, makes a discovery that she believes will enable nuclear fusion to give the world a limitless supply of clean electricity. Her friend Elvira, an opera singer, a person more in touch with commercial reality and keeping her financial feet on the ground, decides to make sure she's not exploited. It's a comedy, with good casting and sparkling dialogue. Elvira was played byCharlotte Ritchie, Jane by Cecilia Appiah and Alex by Adam Fitzgerald; the producers were Emma Harding and Keith Graham.

The final series of conspiracy thriller TRACKS, by Michael Broughton (R4, 1400, Mondays beginning 26 Oct 20) has attracted enthusiastic comment on social media and elsewhere. Dr Helen Ash is coming to terms with the fact she has terminal cancer and not very long to live. Presumably though she will make it to the end of episode 9. She receives an emailed video of a ship mysteriously sinking in stormy seas coming from her dead father's account. The mystery deepens as she goes from episode to episode - I recall an excellent scene when a mini-sub goes too deep looking for the ship, and another set in a cryogenic seed store inside a mountain. There have been four other series; one of them won Best Sound at the BBC Audio Drama Awards in 2017 and another was runner-up in 2019 for Best Online Drama; later broadcast on R4. Harry Turnbull reviewed 'Tracks' for us in November; here's part of what he had to say:

    "The running stories have fused old-style characterisation a la Ambler and Buchan - ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances - with the horrors of modern genetics. Who could forget what happened when our trusty sleuths discovered what the mysterious Mayflower organisation were up to? - Incubating human embryos in pigs, that’s what! Since then the pair have embarked on adventures up and down the land - the latest a Highland fling north of the border and then on to the Arctic Circle. Quite when Freddy has time to do his day job (is he a pathologist or mortuary attendant?) is also one of the mysteries."

In the present series, Helen was played by Olivia Poulet; Freddy was played throughout by Jonathan Forbes. Matthew Broughton wrote six episodes and the others were contributed by Caroline Horton, Lucy Catherine and Katherine Chandler. The series was produced by James Robinson for BBC Wales.

POLYGAMY FOR GIRLS by Julie Mayhew (R4, 1415m 27 Oct 20) involved a feminist vlogger Chloe who tries out an experiment; she's a bit disillusioned with her boyfriend so recruits some extra wives. It's not clear whether she genuinely believes that a child benefits from being raised by several people rather than just two; as the story progresses it seems that there might be another motive. Whatever the reason, it soon becomes obvious that although social systems may change, human nature does not. Lauren Cornelius played Chloe, Luke Bailey the boyfriend, and Aneta Piotrowska the first of the new wives. The producer was Emma Harding.

Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. Shortly afterwards, a teacher from California, Harriet Glickman, wrote to Charles Schultz about his 'Peanuts' cartoon strip about the possilility of incorporating a black character in the stories. Schultz liked the idea but he had mixed feelings about it, and so did his publisher. The play, FRANKLIN, by Simon Bovey (R4, 1415, 3 Nov 20), based on a true story, reports on the letters which passed between the teacher and the cartoonist, and how Schultz's problem was resolved. Schultz was played by Trevor White, Harriet Glickman by Charlotte East and Mrs. Schultz by Clare Corbett, with Danny Sapani and Roger Ringrose. The producer was Marc Beeby.

AYN RAND (R4, 1415, 4 Nov 20) by Sara Davies and Abigail Youngman gave a glimpse of the well-known Russian-American writer and philosopher. A number of people had recommmended her novel "Atlas Shrugged" to me and I looked forward to the play, which might give me a reason to avoid reading it; apparently it runs to hundreds of pages, and she sounded a bit of a cold fish; though perhaps that was just my perception, or my choosing the wrong source material when reading about her on the internet. She apparently advocated reason as the only means of acquiring knowledge and rejected faith and religion. She also rejected altruism, though whether she behaved like that in her private life remains unclear. In politics, she condemned the initiation of violence and was against centralised control. She supported capitalism if it recognized individual rights, including the owning of property.

The play was set in 1974, when she was 69 years old. After nearly forty years without contact, her sister Nora is coming to visit from the Soviet Union. We meet members of Rand's household: husband Frank, her sister Nora, housekeeper Eloise and Rand herself, to see if her ideas hold water. The drama includes an interview with writer and entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan, who has written several books on business and effective leadership. Ayn Rand was played by Diana Quick and Nora Drobysheva by Tracy-Ann Oberman; Rupert Wickham played Frank. Music was by Tom Constantine and the producer was Mary Ward-Lowery. And now, thankfully, I don't have to read the book.

SUNRISE, by Anil Gupta (R4, 1415, 5 Nov 20) looked at India's proposed nuclear energy programme a couple of generations ago. Early one morning in 1968, Prakash is showing his research to Professor Akram, a senior research scientist in India’s atomic energy programme. It’s brilliant, possibly ground-breaking research, but the Professor is worried about a meeting taking place with a Government Minister about the direction of the atomic programme which is causing him to doubt the work he has been pursuing. Prakash will eventually be his successor. Fifty years later, Prakash recalls what happened on that momentous day. The background: India's nuclear power programme was first formulated in the 50s; the first commercial station in India began operation in 1969, and others followed in 1973, 1981 and later; there are now 22 reactors on 7 sites, all fuelled by Uranium, mainly imported. However India has large reserves of Thorium which is likely to become important long-term. Professor Akram (I think he's fictional) was played by Vincent Ebrahim, Prakash by Nikesh Patel and the government minister by Neil d'Souza. The producer was Nicholas Newton and the director Nicolas Kent. The production was by Indie company 'Promenade'.

A real treat last month was WHERE THIS SERVICE WILL .... (Terminate, Continue, Connect, Separate, Depart, in that order), by Katherine Jakeways (R4, 1415, beginning 25 Nov 20). They were all repeats, but are programmes of the highest quality. Rosie Cavaliero and Justin Edwards star. A relationship develops between two strangers on a train, and over the next few years they meet on four other occasions. The serial into which it slowly develops is beautifully written and acted; it reminded me of Marcy Kahan's delightful comedy series 'Lunch'. In episode 3 Susie arrives at the office to see David; she is the worse for wear after a party the night before. It's months since they sat next to each other on a train journey; now she needs his help. In episode 4, David turns up uninvited at a family funeral and in ep. 5 he tells Susie he's leaving for America. The order of broadcast through the year has been a bit haphazard; but 1,2 and 3 went out at weekly intervals beginning 25 Nov; ep.5 went out in February, and the whole series is available now on listen-again. The producer was James Robinson.

Nick Perry's new drama serial, LONDON PARTICULAR (R4, 1415, 3 x 45m beginning 4 Dec 20) is described as a sci-fi drama on the Penguin Books website . https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/112/1120523/london-particular/9781529134070.html. For the unaware, a London Particular is the name given to a 'pea-souper'; a thick fog/smog which enveloped London for many years on dark winter days as the black smoke from coal-fired chimneys rolled down the roofs into the streets and reduced visibility to a few feet. The drama itself is difficult to summarise, but the Penguin site has a good try without introducing spoilers; I've edited it a little: "While travelling on the London Underground one afternoon, Alice meets the gaze of a man standing on the platform of a mysterious "ghost station". As her train hurtles into a tunnel, he's gone. She's sure that the man was her brother Alan; missing presumed dead for the past five years. The encounter is the beginning of Alice's increasingly bizarre search for her missing brother, a journey leading her back through time into London's past. As she soon discovers, London is not one but many cities, a city of curious anomalies and dark secrets, of hidden portals to other dimensions, a city so vast and varied that the weird and the uncanny blend seamlessly with the ordinary ...." I was reminded of Neil Gaiman's "London Underground" and Nick's own timeslip play from 2009, "The Loop". Scarlett Brookes played Alice and Ian Dunnett Jnr was Alan, with Jane Whittenshaw, Emma Handy, Roger Ringrose and Joseph Ayre. The producer was Sasha Yevtushenko.

At the time of writing I was listening to the beginning of "Passenger List" (R4, 5 episodes beginning 1445, 5 Dec 20) by John Dryden, Lauren Shippen and Sam Dingman; a mystery thriller. There's a missing plane and a cabin full of suspects. Suspicious of the official versions of events, Kaitlin Le, a college student, begins her own investigation into the disappearance of Atlantic Flight 702 along with 256 passengers including her twin brother. It had a rather large cast (25 people plus production crew), which is normal for Goldhawk, headed by Kelly Marie Tran, Patti LuPone, Colin Morgan and Rob Benedict. Producers were Emma Hearn (England), Julie Thompson (US); directors were John Dryden and Lauren Shippen. Original music was supplied by Mark Henry Phillips.

John Dryden was interviewed about the production on PRX’s 'Radiotopia' webpage. "From the age of six I went to boarding school in England, while my parents lived and worked in the Middle East. I’d travel back and forth frequently by plane. Ever since, I’ve been somewhat fascinated with the concept of air travel, how you’re thrown together in a long metal tube at random with people you know nothing of, and the potential for things to go wrong."

"Passenger List was also inspired by the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in 2014. Every day there was another theory about what might have happened. Was it the co-pilot? Was it the passenger traveling on a fake passport? What was the secret cargo in the hold? It was incredibly emotional for the families, the passengers on board. There was increasing frustration and mistrust of the official investigation, but hope that the plane had been diverted and that loved ones might be alive."

Finally I must report on an interesting short feature: HELIUM (R4, 1445, 19 Dec 20), part 4 of a series of 5 programmes about the chemical elements. Helium is notable for being a very inert low-density gas with tiny atoms; it doesn't usually form molecules. The story of helium started with a solar eclipse in 1868. Two astronomers noticed light of an unusual colour (a unique spectral line) coming from the sun. This was the first evidence for helium's existence. The gas was subsequently discovered on earth. It's now used in many branches of science. Doctors need it to run MRI machines to diagnose tumours; engineers test rockets for leaks with it. Deep sea divers use it to avoid the bends. However helium is a finite resource; perhaps it's too valuable to waste on party balloons when serious science needs so much of it. As a chemist who has worked with helium and talked about it for years, I learned a lot from this programme. The producer was radio drama expert Sasha Yevtushenko, who received a mention earlier in the review.

ND / 23 Dec 2020

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