April 2021
Sept 2021
Dec 2021


It's been an unusual time for radio drama since the last review.

The UK International Radio Drama Festival again had to take place online, but this time the organisers decided that there would be scheduled sessions for each item, with collective listening, and group discussions about the day's drama in the evenings. The meetings were unusual in that they involved people from remote locations chatting to each other as a group - from Georgia, America, various parts of the UK, France, Rumania, Belgium, Berlin, and the Czech Republic. It is hoped that future festivals, even when face-to-face events are restored, will involve an internet component for people who cannot attend in person.

The BBC Audio Drama Awards (along with the Imison and the Tinniswood) were originally scheduled for the end of January, but it soon became clear that the coronavirus restrictions might prevent a face-to-face meeting, so the date was pushed back. We continued to hope for a ceremony in the Radio Theatre at Broadcasting House, but it was not to be, and it all had to be done online.

Dave Bowkett appeared before the invited guests at 6.50 to explain the procedure - use headphones to avoid echoes getting into the system, applaud if you desire to do so, and ... enjoy the evening! John Wilson introduced the proceedings - the tenth set of these Awards. Each Award would be announced by a well-known radio drama practitioner, and the winner would then be interviewed at home by online link.

He then handed over to Tim Davie, BBC Director General, who spoke as follows:

"These awards began in 2011; I remember it well, when I was not only director of radio music but also a devoted listener to audio drama. It is indicative of the strength of the BBC's commitment to this wonderful and important genre that they have continued ever since.

We are in a very different audio landscape now. In that time we have seen the creative explosion of podcasts internationally and a renaissance of audio drama in the US, as well as greater wealth of choice of audio platforms and providers. British radio drama remains world famous for the range and quality of the work that we/you produced. From outstanding titles of world literature to brand-new works by first-time writers or debut performances by new actors. The importance of audio drama as a laboratory for new talent and production skills is a vital component in the broader British cultural sector,and in this year, when most live theatre and other performances have been stalled, BBC has continued to offer opportunities and open doors.

For audiences, radio and audio have never been a greater source of companionship, providing comfort, distraction and entertainment as well as vital information. Competition in this year's awards was intense: a hundred more entries than in the previous highest year, and the finalists have done amazingly well to get this far. After this extraordinary year, these awards are particularly about celebrating the teamwork which goes into creating great content despite the challenging circumstances. So I wish the very best of luck to all the contenders for tonight's process; have a great virtual celebration, whether you win or not, and let's hope next time we can meet again, face to face, for real, next time."

John Wilson explained that 15 categories would be celebrated, including the work of European broadcasting colleagues for items not necessarily in English, and for this year only (he hoped) a Year of Reinvention Award, to mark the new kind of work done during the pandemic - remote recording.

The awards ceremony then began.

Halfway through the event there was a pause, to mark the death of three notable figures of radio drama broadcasting. John Wilson spoke about them briefly.

1. John Tydeman (died in April); producer and director for 35 years; he nurtured many writers over the years including some who went on to become significant playwrights: Tom Stoppard, Carol Churchill, Joe Orton, Sue Townsend. He was Head of Radio Drama from 1986 to 1994. He was a hard act to follow and is fondly remembered by many colleagues and friends.

2. Marilyn Imrie, who died in August. Her career spanned TV and theatres as well as radio; she commissioned and also produced hundreds of hours of radio drama, much of it with her beloved Scotland at its heart. She made many soap operas, stage plays and was the producer behind Rumpole, Stanley Baxter Playhouse, and several series of The Ferryhill Philosophers; her kindness and persuasive skills with writers, actors and colleagues were unforgettable.

3. Marc Beeby, who had been producing radio dramas for 20 years when he died, too young, on 26 December. He was a prolific and talented producer who worked on both comedy and drama of all kinds: Pilgrim, Primo Levi's Periodic Table, Poetry, Dante's Divine Comedy, and many works of Shakespeare. He forged close links with certain writers and actors, and he went to great pains to assist and encourage newcomers. It is a tribute to an inspiring director and friend of new talent that a new award dedicated to his memory would be established: the Marc Beeby Award for Debut Performance. This year it was to be presented by Indira Varma.

The winners of the Imison and Tinniswood Awards (judged and administered by the Society of Authors and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain) were also announced. Fraser Ayres won the Imison Award with his creation Maynard; 'Tristram Shandy: In Development' by Christopher Douglas, a masterpiece of remote recording produced by Gary Brown, won the Tinniswood. As for Best Actor, David Threlfall was rewarded for his amazing performance as Ken Dodd in "Happiness", by Ian Billings, which revealed how Doddy found himself in court accused of tax-dodging. David had already received 'Best Actor' for his outstanding porttrayal of Spike Milligan, in 'The Elfin Oak' a couple of years ago.

There was a surprise award at the end of the evening, announced by writer Neil Gaiman. It was dedicated to ALL SOUND TECHNICIANS who, during the pandemic year, have had to innovate and learn to make radio drama with the actors, actresses and members of the production team all in their own homes. What an achievement this is! Imagine going back in time and explaining the process to a radio drama producer working twenty-five years ago. He would doubt your sanity.

The resulting dramas have been of good production quality, especially the more recent work. A lot has been learned during the last twelve months which will carry forward when the virus from China is just an unpleasant memory.

Those who are interested in the details of the UK International Radio Drama Festival and the BBC Audio Drama Award winners can consult those pages.

As for the BBC plays from January - April, the number of repeats to this point is down slightly compared to last year. (27 in 2020; 24 in 2021). There has been plenty to hear, much of it topical, including a new multi-part drama about terrorism; several plays about mental health from a spread of writers; the customary repeats of items shortlisted for the Imison and Tinniswood; a Dostoievsky Classic serial; a revamp of 'Tess', a new 5-part 'Stone' detective thriller, a dramatisation of Sweeney Todd, and plenty of other one-offs. Apologies if your play isn't mentioned; I can't listen to everything; these are the highlights of the ones I happened to catch.

At the time of the last review of 2020 I'd listened to the beginning of PASSENGER LIST (R4, 5 episodes beginning 1445, 5 Dec 20 and extending into January) by John Dryden, Lauren Shippen and Sam Dingman; a mystery thriller from Goldhawk. I've now heard the whole thing. To recap - there's a missing plane, probably crashed, and a room full of suspects. Suspicious of the official versions of events, a college student begins her own investigation into the disappearance of the aircraft along with 256 passengers including her twin brother. There was a large cast (25 people plus production crew), headed by Kelly Marie Tran, Patti LuPone, Colin Morgan and Rob Benedict. John said "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."

There were six episodes, each looking at events over the same time period from different vantage points. Were terrorists involved? What about the co-pilot? Andthe passenger traveling on a fake passport? What was the secret cargo in the hold? It was a riveting listen, and the series was judged as Best Podcast at the 2020 Audio Drama Awards; apparently it had already been available online for several months before its broadcast on radio 4.

YOU & ME, by Dan Rebellato (R4, 1415, 4 Jan 2021) was a two-hander about men's behaviour. The story involves marital infidelity, but there's role reversal; Robert Lonsdale plays the woman and Racheal Ofori the man. This has a curious effect in how we perceive the dialogue; men and women don't speak in the same way. The drama begins at the recording session. After going through part of the first scene, the actors suddenly stop and decide they will swap roles. It leads to some interesting moments. The producer was Polly Thomas, the recording engineer Louis Blatherwick, sound design was by Elouise Whitmore and the Executive Producer was Joby Waldman; working for Indie company Naked Productions.

OUR TRUTH, THEIR LIVES (R4, 1415, 29 Jan 2021) by Hugh Costello was about the growing influence of conspiracy theories. Organised child sex abuse is coordinated by a cabal of global elites; the coronavirus is just a form of 'flu, and vaccines are a form of disguised government control. So there you go. The story reverses into 2020 as it follows Jen’s journey, and shows how being derailed from normal life can affect your mental state. A family is thrown into crisis as Michael and Louise try to make sense of Jen’s newly-deranged view of the world. Although it's a drama, thousands of families over the UK have been affected in this way, it's not just fiction. Jen was played by Monica Dolan, Michael by Nicholas Murchie and Louise by Macy Nyman; the producer was Eoin O’Callaghan for Indie company Big Fish.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a debilitating mental health condition. It was the basis of Zalie Burrows' play THE BULLY (R4, 1415, 12 Feb 2021) and was her first solo radio play, based on a true story: a young man's experience with OCD. In Joe's case it leads to entire days being filled from beginning to end with repeated rituals, checking and more checking, intrusive thoughts and panic. The story charts Joe's slow progression towards a normal life, and the helpful (and sometimes not so helpful) medics and therapists who get him there. Young Joe was played by Charlie Brand; his first lead role in a radio drama; Mum by Juliet Aubrey, with Tracy Wiles, Hasan Dixon and Jessica Turner. The play was produced by Tracey Neale.

TOP OF THE WORLD (R4, 1415, 1 Mar 2021), by Hugh Costello, was about a relationship therapist who operates by taking troubled couples for mountain walks. One such couple has felt their ten year marriage crumble as political arguments became more important than their feelings for each other, and Covid lockdown kept them away from their one shared interest. Will the therapy work? Gloria was played by Jeany Spark, Sian by Siwan Morris, Jamie by Robert Wilfort and Tom by Matthew Aubrey. The producer was Alasdair Cross.

The next day we had THE VENTRILOQUIST'S DUMMY (R4, 1415, 2 Mar 2021) by Amanda Dalton; another 'mental health' play. We've all had an unconscious 'gut feeling' from time to time; an immediate understanding of something based on intuition, not logic; no need for a second opinion; you just know. There's a reason for it; feel-good hormones in the body such as serotonin are largely located in the gut, and therapists sometimes refer to it as the 'second brain'. This drama-documentary looks at the relationship between mind and body and the contribution of the gut to how we feel: our reviewer Harry Turnbull found it quite amusing - especially the contributions form the gurgling gut (echoes of 'Louis XIV's Intestine' by Nick Fisher, from 1990 - Ed.) . Jess was played by Christine Bottomley, Eurycles by Sanjeev Bhaskar and The Gut by Meera Syal. Clinical background was provided by doctor / therapist Nick Read and the producer was Nadia Molinari.

Series 3 of Nick Warburton's HOLDING BACK THE TIDE (R4, 1415 beginning 3 Mar 2021) continues the story of a couple, Richard and Clare, who inherit a house along with a somewhat troublesome sitting tenant. In trying to cope with him, whilst becoming involved with parish matters, they find themselves in all sorts of scrapes. Gordon House, writing of radio drama, said "....one writer who is a complete master of the medium is Nick Warburton. His plays are often deceptively simple; not a great deal seems to happen – but bubbling away beneath the surface is a maelstrom of human emotion, rarely made obvious but always there. His plays often reduce me to tears." Paul Ritter and Kate Duchene were Richard and Claire, and Philip Jackson played John Hector, the tenant. The producer was Sally Avens.

SWEENEY TODD & THE STRING OF PEARLS (R4, 1500 beginning 14 Mar 2021; Classic Serial) was based on the novel by Thomas Prest and dramatised by Archie Scotney. The play is set during the reign of George III. Killings are hardly rare in 18th century London, but where are the bodies? The police investigate. Harry Turnbull commented: "The demon barber's and the pie shop would certainly have some unusual economic challenges in the time of Covid. I assume the pie counter would remain open as an ‘essential business’ but there might be a supply issue. No such problems in the 18th century of course when Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett plied their unsavoury trades.... Marvellous performance from Jarvis as the titled anti-hero whose gruff tones perfectly capture the Fleet Street of 1785. He was able to attract Joanne Whalley, Rufus Sewall and Jonathan Cake to this dark tale of evil enterprise."

LUKE, ACTS (R4, 1500, beginning 28 Mar 2021) was Michael Symmons Roberts' dramatization of the book of Acts, adapted from the King James version of the bible. Luke's gospel tells the story of the life and ministry of Jesus from his birth through healings, miracles, betrayals, trial, execution and resurrection. The Book of Acts picks up the story after the resurrection with Jesus' disciples in hiding and devastated at the violent death of their leader.

Michael has written a piece about the production in "Magnet", Spring 2021, part of which is summarised here; he decided that the books of Luke and Acts could be dramatised as a single story across two one-hour episodes. The King James version was the best version to use for radio because of its influence on English literature and on the language itself; it is unsurpassed. The preparation for the adaptation involves working through the text, marking up key scenes, events and characters. There are constraints; broadcasting time (2 x 55 min) and cast numbers (too many radio characters and the story will be incomprehensible). Most of the incidental characters who only appear once in the biblical narrative have to be removed. But you still have to retain (or construct) enough of a structure so that listeners who don't know the story can follow it.

"To address these issues I decided to introduce a new dramatic thread that wasn't in the texts at all. I introduced Luke himself as a character. I placed him in Rome towards the end of his life, having followed Paul there."

"I invented Theophila, a young daughter of a centurion with some legal knowledhge, who works with Luke to record the events described in Luke and Acts as part of their defence of Paul. These scenes, spaced throughout both plays, act as vertebrae to hold together thestructure of the heavily cut-down versions."

It is 30 years since Jesus died. Luke has come to Rome with Paul to support him in his forthcoming trial. As part of this support Luke is writing down as accurately as he can of the events leading from the birth of Jesus to the spread of the early church. Together they hope carefully-chosen extracts from his account will equip the legal team to exonerate Paul.

Luke was played by David Schofield, Theophila by Verity Henry, Jesus by David Seddon, Peter by Shaun Mason and the Chief Priest by Jonathan Keeble. The producer was Susan Roberts and the director Sharon Sephton.

A well-paced two-part crime thrillerCAMBERWELL GREEN (R4, 1415, 21-22 Apr 2021) had an unusual setting; 2021 in a London bus control centre. On her first day as a controller, Marilyn faces disruption when a street protest turns violent. Liaising with emergency services and redirecting drivers, she attempts to rescue her old friend Frankie and her passengers trapped by the demonstration on Waterloo Bridge. Meanwhile her hard-up husband Steve has been coerced into facilitating a robbery from an empty office block and is in very hot water. Marilyn struggles to get things back under control. Marilyn was played by Chizzy Akudolu, her boss Vincent by Lloyd Hutchinson and Frankie by Michaelle Greenidge, The producer was Celia de Wolff, for Indie producer Pier.

There were other things which I enjoyed: a decidedly odd play "Scenes from a Zombie Apocalypse", another about writer Ray Connolly's 12-week induced coma with Covid; a reimagined Conrad classic "Heart of Darkness", a new David Mamet, Kipling's Jungle Book set in the concrete jungle of present-day India, Sharon Oakes' Voodoo Macbeth, and a surprising version of The Iliad in Brummie dialect, of which Harry Turnbull said: "Judge for yourself as it's still on BBC Sounds..... personally, I won’t be rushing back to have another listen to Achilles mooning over a bird ‘with his arse in his hands’ or Zeus stomping about Mount Olympus ‘with a cob on’.

ND / St. George's Day, 2021


The BBC is still commissioning a lot of radio drama, though there are signs that funding is becoming a problem. A number of the 45-minute slots in the afternoons have been replaced by 30min; the 15 minute drama has disappeared, and the frequency of repeats continues to increase. There is also more blurring of the Classic Serial and Saturday Drama slots, which are becoming interchangeable. It is interesting to look at the 'repeat count' for the 365 afternoon drama slots, including Sat-Sun; over the last few years the numbers of repeats have been:

table of radio 4 radio play statistics

There is also increased emphasis being given by the BBC to its podcasts; many of the more recent programmes and some older broadcasts can be accessed via the BBC Sounds web page. What with many series and mini-series being made (e.g. Nuremburg, Passenger List, Brief Lives, The Corrupted), and well over 100 slots per year being occupied by repeats, it is becoming increasingly difficult for newcomers to get their work accepted. Nevertheless there are imaginative projects taking place; we currently have collections of very short dramas being broadcast ('United Kingdoms'), we had Keeping The Wolf Out set in Hungary (Philip Palmer) and a series set in Poland (Miloszowski, dram. Mark Lawson) and a number of new-style Classic Serial adaptations, some of them very good.

Since the last review we have heard the final 8 (of 58) episodes of THE CORRUPTED (R4,1415, beginning 10 May 21) by Gordon Newman, based on his novels, this time set in 2001-2008. Joseph Olinska gets ever more involved in New Labour, Brian Oldman becomes a vegan and studies law in jail; the crooked copper Tony Wednesday continues to work behind the scenes for Sir Joseph as he reaches high rank in the police force. Joseph gives money to the Labour Party while continuing to invest heavily in Russia, the US and a drug company. This sixth series has been as good as the rest, and has been a must-listen for me since it began in 2015. Toby Jones plays Joseph, with Joe Armstrong as Brian, Alec Newman as Tony Wednesday, and what seems like a Who's Who of radio actors playing a host of unsavoury characters. Tthe episodes were produced by Clive Brill, working for his company Brill Productions.

DINNER WITH DYLAN (R4, 1430, 22 May 21) was an amusing piece by Jon Canter and Richard Curtis. It's set in 2017 in the week when Dylan was playing a series of shows at the London Palladium. That week, playwright Jon Canter bumped into Richard Curtis, writer and producer. Three men meet in a restaurant and talk about the meaning of life, and Bob Dylan. They are Dylan fanatics, also known as Bobaholics. Richard Curtis played himself, as did Kerry Shale, Lucas Hare and Eileen Atkins. Sam was played by Akbar Kurtha and Clive Brill was the producer, again for Brill Productions.

BASELINES (R4, 1415, 22 May 21; rpt. from Jun 2019) by Mark Lawson explored the way that gender activism is disrupting women's professional sports and eroding women's rights. This is a difficult job for the governing bodies; sportswomen feel they are being discriminated against when people with male musclature but now regarded as female are allowed to compete against the 99.99% who were born female. How are regulators in sport going to legislate to ensure fairness? And what, precisely, is fairness, when trans women with male muscles are competing in women's events? The play starred Rosie Sheehy, Haydn Gwynne, Dermot Crowley, Kerry Fox and Tom Glenister and was produced by Eoin O'Callaghan for Indie company Big Fish.

An interesting 6 x 30m thriller by Ben Lewis, THE SYSTEM (R4, 1415, beginning 28 May 21) had as its central character a young man who signs up for a personal training programme. He is meek, unassuming and reasonably content, but would like to improve his life chances so 'The System' - an unorthodox course of personal improvement - seems to be just what he needs. There's no questioning the course's effectiveness; it tends to produce alpha males, but the change in him affects almost everything else in his life. Eventually, two years later hardly anyone seems to know where he is or what he's doing. Alex was played by Iain de Caestecker, Jerome by Don Gilet and Maya by Siena Kelly; the series was produced by Kirsty Williams for BBC Scotland.

THE MACEFIELD PLOT (R4, 1415.10 Jun 21) by Daniel Thurman, repeated from 2019, was based on true events. Edith Macefield was a householder who received worldwide attention in 2006 when she turned down an offer of about $1 million to sell her home to make way for a development in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. Instead, the five-story project was built around her 108-year-old farmhouse, where she died at the age 86 in 2008. In the process, she became something of a folk hero. Macefield willed her house to the new building's construction superintendent, Barry Martin, in gratitude for his caretaker role and friendship. Edith was played by Sian Phillips, Barry by Stanley Townsend, Joe by Joseph Balderrama, and the producer was David Hunter.

THE CITADEL (R4, 1415, 16-17 Jun 21) is the well-known novel by A.J.Cronin; widely regarded as being instrumental in helping to win the 1945 general election by advocacy for a free countrywide health service. This part of the narrative, dramatised by Chris Reason and Tom Needham, gradually reveals that a village is threatened by a dangerous epidemic, and the local doctors have to consider whether to take the drastic step of quarantining the entire local population. Dr. Manson was played by Richard Fleeshman and Dr. Denny by Matthew Gravelle. The producers were Pauline Harris and Gary Brown.

TAKEOVER (R4, 1415, 4 eps beginning 28 Jun 21) was another high-quality drama from Goldhawk by Ayeesha Menon and Matthew Solon; it's about a self-made billionaire and his family; high-stake deals and sibling rivalry set in the world of the super wealthy. Ravi Majumdar takes his four privileged children back to India so that they may see first-hand where he came from; he will decide which one of them will be his successor. The children - Amit, Zara, Shaan and Maya - fight for their father's affections and empire. Meanwhile a complication arises; there's an outsider to be considered who may make a better successor than anyone in the family. This was another excellent listen. Ravi was played by Rajit Kaput, Anya by Dolya Gavanski and Ash by Abhin Galeya. It was produced by Emma Hearn and Nadir Khan, directed by John Dryden and was recorded in the UK and India.

I've never played a computer game or video game but was intrigued by READY PLAYER MARX (R4, 1500, 3 Jul 21) by Sean Grundy and Cara Jennings, broadcast as the Saturday Play; a story about the battles, firings and dirty management tactics a group of video-game workers face when they try to unionise the 50-billion-dollar gaming industry. The play was inspired by real events. Video game workers Laura in the UK and Rachel in the US are both close to nervous breakdown with their 100-hour weeks, designing violent game content and dealing with the industry's racism and sexism. They want to start a union. Their bosses don't see why unions are necessary, and they're determined to put a stop to it. Laura was played by Nell Barlow, Rachel by Hollie Edwin, Eva by Jennifer English and Steve by Matt Addis. The producer was Liz Anstee, for Indie company CPL Productions.

THE HOUSE THAT VANISHED (R4, 1415, beginning 5 Jul 21) was another mini-series of five 30-minute episodes based on true events occurring on a remote Irish island. Neville Presho first came to island in the 1970s and made a documentary about the islanders' way of life, culture and language. Neville felt warmly welcomed. When he returned to Tory Island after many years overseas, he received the shock of his life; his house had vanished. All that remained wss a bathtub, lying upside down on the shore. The islanders were no longer friendly; no-one would tell him what had happened. The drama-doc includes interviews along with with some dramatised scenes and was presented by Siobhan McSweeney.

Series 2 of PASSENGER LIST (R4, 1415, beginning 26 Jul 21) continued the story of an air disaster: Flight 702 and what happened to it. Series 1 looked at the events surrounding the flight from the vantage points of different observers. This series follows the attempts of two key individuals, Kaitlin (a student) and Rory (an aviation lawyer) to disentangle the evidence and to establish what actually happened. In the first episode, it seems that wreckage of the plane has been found in the North Atlantic. In subsequent episodes, a convoluted trail leads gradually to the possibility that the plane and passengers may not have perished in the crash. But if there are survivors, where are they? This was an excellent follow-up to the first series and was compelling listening. There was an enormous cast list over the six episodes; about 30 people playing well over 30 parts, headed by Kelly Marie Tran as Kaitlin and Ben Daniels as Rory. The script was by John Dryden and five other writers; the story editor was Mike Walker and the casting was sorted out by Janet Foster and Emma Hearn. Emma produced the play, assisted by Lillian Holman, for Goldhawk.

FIRE IN THE BOOKSHOP (R4, 1415, 22 Jul 21) by Timothy Atack, repeated from 2019, was a play is about an imaginary Britain; a dystopia where books are shunned and school bullies have business arrangements with school management. A documentary maker confronts his own childhood demons by embarking on an investigation of how bullying has changed over 30 years. His first encounter is with 15-year-old Kevin Hartcliffe, a young thug who is employed by Straight Edge Academy as the School Bully, to keep fellow pupils in line. But this is not the only unusual feature of the school's management. It is crooked from top to bottom. As for the production details, the broadcaster was played by Tom Meeten, Hartcliffe by Tom Edward-Kane and Juliet by Pippa Haywood. The producer was Alison Crawford.

Jeremy Front's latest radio play, THE BOOK OF DANIELLE (R4, 1500, 7 Aug 21) might be summarised as a supernatural comedy. Danni, a young potter, is having a hard time, forever getting hold of the dirty end of the stick; she faces bullying, local criminal youths, grave desecration and other annoyances. There's nothing but bad news and disappointment in her life. She wishes she could rid the world and her family of some of the baddies. After she talks to a nearby glazer in the course of her work, odd things start to happen around her. It seems that she has unwittingly invoked a golem: a helper created out of clay. But the golem develops a mind of its own and creates mayhem. There was an excellent cast: Henry Goodman was the narrator and the glazer; Dannie was played by Alexis Zegerman, and we heard Margaret Cabourn-Smith, Shaun Mason and Joseph Ayre amongst others. The producer was Sally Avens.

LENI GOES TO HOLLYWOOD (R4, 1415, 23 Aug 21) by Colin Shindler was a new play about the German film-maker Leni Riefenstahl. In the 1930s, she directed the Nazi propaganda films Triumph des Willens ("Triumph of the Will") and Olympia (about the Berlin Olympics), resulting in worldwide attention and praise. The films are probably two of the most effective and technically innovative propaganda films ever made, but her involvement in the first of them damaged her career and reputation after World War II. Hitler was in close collaboration with her during the production of at least three important Nazi films, and they were on friendly terms. After the war she was arrested, but was classified as a Nazi sympathizer, not a Nazi, and she denied having known about the Holocaust. In Colin Shindler's play, Leni's star is riding high in Europe following the success of Olympia, and she turns her attention to conquering Hollywood. The play is a psychological portrait blending fact and fiction, not a drama-doc. Leni was played by Elinor Coleman, Marlene Dietrich by Gwendoline Christie, Ernst Jaeger by Shaun Mason and Goebbels and Walt Disney by Simon Ludders. Olympic Commentary was by Joseph Ayre and the producer was Gemma Jenkins. Leni Riefenstahl also appeared as a character in a play about the Berlin Olympics "Conflict of Doves" by David Buck, in 1986.

Then we had Jonathan Myerson's new series about the trial of the century: NUREMBURG (R4, 1415, beginning 27 Aug 21, in eight 30m episodes). It's May 1945 and Germany has just surrendered. The country is in chaos; five million former soldiers, foreign nationals and those liberated from the concentration camps, all trying to get home. And hiding somewhere are the Nazi leaders. We see events unfold in episode through the eyes of a US Army Sergeant; they track down and arrest von Ribbentrop (Hitler's Foreign Minister), Kaltenbrunner (Himmler's Deputy), Frank (Governor of Occupied Poland) and others. The Prison Commandant has to stop the prisoners committing suicide; not an easy task. Then they're transferred to Nuremberg. With the Nazis under arrest, the Allies must now decide what to do with them. Washington wants a trial. Winston Churchill is happy with a summary court martial. But if you put them on trial, what is the charge? Seen through the eyes of Diana, a Whitehall secretary, the tortured negotiations unfold, edging towards the creation of a totally new sort of trial. Churchill wants the top 50 put against a wall and shot; Stalin wants them to have a show trial and then be shot. But following the sudden death of Roosevelt, the new US President Truman insists on formal justice.

Jonathan writes on the BBC website about the task of condensing the immense amount of paperwork about Nuremburg into a coherent narrative fitting the eight 30-minute timeslots. I'm paraphrasing some of his remarks for brevity.

He says that a responsible historian doesn't spell out every detail but instead moulds a story wholly supported by the sources. The result is not absolute truth but historical truth. It's the same with a dramatist; he has to reduce the story so it's coherent and fits the schedule; at no point must a listener be able to say 'that's not true'. But a drama audience can only absorb and follow a limited number of characters in an audio episode. This means some historical individuals need to be merged into "composite characters" – one name, either real or imagined, to carrying the standpoints of several like-minded participants; a minor simplification without any historical truth being invalidated.

Jonathan had to invent some characters. Just as Emily Watson's leading character in the film "Chernobyl" represents a merger of a whole team of Soviet scientists, Jonathan created Sergeant Monelli of the 391st Anti-Aircraft Battalion to represent the hundreds of soldiers involved in tracking down the defendants across war-ravaged Europe. He voices the feelings and responses of them all. He also invented the Honourable Diana Ravenscourt to represent the army of women essential to the bureaucratic undertaking; she takes the minutes for Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, who, as Attorney General, steered the London negotiations to create the court. The gain of this flexibility is that almost every significant statement or attitude in the drama is verbatim or sourced.

There was a large 'rotating' cast of about 25 actors with about a dozen being used in each episode. Mentioning just a few, the Honourable Diana was played by Kate Phillipps, Sergeant Monelli by Elliot Cowan, Goering by Nigel Lindsay, von Ribbentrop by Jasper Britton and Churchill by Andrew Woodall. The producer was Nicholas Newton; Jonathan Myerson was the director, for Indie company Promenade Productions.

Those interested in this project should also try to hear Peter Goodchild's brilliant dramatisation for radio 3 from 1996, repeated in 2005, produced by Martin Jenkins. Martin talks about this production to Mike Lloyd on the 'suttonelms' website at http://www.suttonelms.org.uk/martin-jenkins.html.

There have been other noteworthy items; we had some re-dramatised David Lawrence (from Women in Love and The Rainbow'), a repeat of the series 'Supertower', a play with musical connections by Winsome Pinnock, some worthwhile repeats of Mike Walker's "Castle of the Hawk", the Theseus story "The King Must Die".and a romping dramatisation of Joseph Andrews by Shaun McKenna. It is also worth reminding listeners that many of the above plays were recorded remotely, and yet the standard of production remained consistently high. The technology enabling this was unimaginable only a few years ago. I wonder whether remote recording will remain as a permanent fixture, when Covid has been forgotten. It is clearly technically feasible, but there's nothing quite the same as the studio experience, and I know which method is preferred by the actors and the production team.

ND 28 Sep 21


In the September review I wrote about the reduction in drama commissioning on radio 4, and included some statistics. As a follow-up to that, I was informed that the number of new Saturday Plays was being reduced from 40 per year to 12. I see that the last 15 Saturdays have produced only three original plays so it seems that 28 of the slots are now being filled with repeats. Nevertheless there have been many high spots, some of which I managed to hear and which are described later.

A number of people have asked what is happening with radio 3 drama, which prompted me to do some research. According to 'Russ' on a radio 3 forum I looked at recently, Radio 3 issued the following statement in their commissioning blurb for the financial year 2014-15:

"Drama on 3 is home to radio’s most ambitious drama. Plays of this length and complexity make exceptional demands on listeners and we can’t take such engagement for granted. We’ll be asking ourselves how many listeners will devote the bulk of a Sunday evening to it and just what they’ll get out of it. We’ll be looking for a story to tell around our choice of commissions and ways to build anticipation for a play and to persuade the audience to make a date with it."

"Each week Drama on 3 should have the feeling of a real event. We want to take listeners on absorbing, moving journeys; to commission plays that will make them stop what they’re doing to listen more intently; offer them drama they’ll want to talk about. Think about the radio drama that has thrilled you."

'It's perhaps inevitable given the squeeze on budgets that drama, the most expensive radio arts genre, will be disproportionately affected. R4 drama costs approx £25k per hour, so a typical R3 90-minute play with slightly less fancy production values and usually fewer actors to pay should be about the same'.

R3's drama budget had already been reduced with the loss of 'The Wire' in August 2014. In 2010 and 2011 Service Licence requirements were for 35 new drama productions. For the last few years it has been running at about 25. The figures from Drama on 3 are shown below, compiled from RT:

Finding 25 really good scripts per year for R3 must be quite a challenge. At least we can see there is a recognition that a healthy level of production has to be maintained for an endangered species. I remember Gillian Reynolds saying, when commenting on the loss of the R4 Friday Play in 2010, "What is universally agreed is that excellence is occasional and only comes from a critical mass of constant production."

As for the plays I've heard since the last review:

THE FIRST MAN ON THE MOON AND HOW THEY DONE IT (R4, 1415, 27 Oct 21) by The National Theatre of Brent, repeated from 13 Jul 19, was another in a long line of radio performances by this well-known comedy double act. They are a mock two-man theatre troupe; Patrick Barlow plays Desmond Olivier Dingle, the founder and artistic director; his assistant Raymond Box (or, as Desmond likes to call him, 'my entire company') is currently performed by John Ramm. "This was a unique dramatised radio re-enactment of the fifty-two year centenary of the Historic First Walking on the Moon, as done by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Phil Collins. The first-ever reconstruction of a historic astronomic event ever done on radio as it almost - certainly probably happened.... We will delve controversially into the often stormy on-board relationships of the space men themselves and also - even more controversially perhaps - glimpse into their often stormy domestic lives too, in particular what it meant and how it felt to be Mrs. Armstrong and Mrs. Aldrin." The producer was Liz Anstee, for Indie company CPL.

A few days later we had LOLLY WILLOWES (R4, 1500, 31 Oct 21) by Sylvia Warner, dramatised by Sarah Daniels and broadcast as a one-off play on the Classic Serial slot. The story: Laura Willowes moves from Somerset to London to live with her brother and his family. After twenty years of being a live-in aunt Laura feels increasingly stifled both by her obligations to the family and by living in London. When shopping for flowers on the Moscow Road, she decides to move to the Chilterns and, buying a guide book and map, picks the village of Great Mop as her new home. Against the wishes of her extended family, she moves there and finds herself entranced and overwhelmed by her new surroundings. She takes up the practice of witchcraft, which is when the fun begins. Harry Turnbull thought it an absorbing listen, and writes:

"Another fantasy tale penned by a woman in 1926 as part of the Halloween offering. Sylvia Townsend Warner depicts a woman oppressed by patriarchal slavery who escapes to the countryside only to wed herself to a mystic presence. A semi-supernatural tale encompassing gender constraint and escapism and a seemingly underestimated book although it did appear in Robert McCrum’s Top 100 novels. Warner wanted to demonstrate that many women are ‘sticks of dynamite’ waiting to explode on the world."

Laura was played by Louise Brealy, Titus by Hugh Skinner, Henry by Robert Bathurst and Sam Dale was Old Nick. The producer was Sally Avens.

Officially-authorised urban vandalism was covered comprehensively in OUR TREES (R4, 1415, 1 Nov 21) by Frances Byrnes, a repeat from a couple of years ago about the destruction of trees in Sheffield by people in positions of authority at Sheffield City Council. It was based on recent events, as reported in the press. The Council decided to cut down hundreds of urban trees; presumably so they didn't have the expense of maintaining them, and ordinary people objected and took direct action to stop the chainsaws. Some were arrested for refusing to move away from healthy, threatened trees. Frances has turned the voices of Sheffield's urban tree campaigners into a melancholy fairy tale. It was narrated by Robert Glenister; sound design was by David Thomas and the producer was Kate McAll.

IN THE SHADOW OF MAN (R4, 1500, 7 Nov 21) by Sarah Woods was a dramatisation of Jane Goodall’s account of her work with the chimpanzees of Gombe, interwoven with a new interview. It went out as a one-off in the 'Classic Serial' slot. Jane is famous for her work with primates; she knows more than anyone about chimpanzees and how they behave, after spending sixty years studying them. Now she devotes most of her time to advocacy on behalf of chimpanzees and the environment. The play gave a good overview of her work; it used sounds recorded on location in Gombe National Park. Young Jane was played by Jeany Spark, Vanne by Marilyn Le Conte, Rashidi by John Kamau and Hugo by Geoffrey Breton. Sound design was by Nigel Lewis, the director was Emma Harding and the producer James Robinson.

THIS THING OF DARKNESS (R4, 1415, 11 Nov 21) by Anita Vettesse, with monologues by Eileen Horne, marked the beginning of a new series based on the real-life experiences of a forensic psychologist and her work in secure prisons. Dr Alex Bridges is a forensic psychiatrist and psychotherapist, assessing and treating perpetrators of violent crime. In episode 1 she assesses a young woman on her release; she has served ten years for arson. Does she still present a risk to society? Alex was played by Lolita Chakrabarti, Sarah by Melody Grove and Paul by Robert Jack. These plays have attracted much positive comment on R4 forums. This play and the others in the series were produced by Gaynor Macfarlane and Kirsty Williams for BBC Scotland.

A play by Martin McNamara, MOSLEY MUST FALL (R4, 1415, 15 Nov 21) looked at the prospect of fascism threatening the East End in 1936. Political unrest was sweeping over Europe. An Irish family living in Whitechapel finds itself divided as Oswald Mosley and followers prepare to march through East London. About 2000-3000 fascists began to gather at Tower Hill from around 2pm, and there were clashes around Tower Hill, Minories, Mansell Street and the vicinity. A much larger number of anti-fascist demonstrators gathered. They were met by several thousand police who attempted to clear the road to permit the march to proceed. When the march reached Cable Street, an area with a high population of Jewish and Irish working class, there was a fight. Following the battle, the Public Order Act 1936 outlawed the wearing of political uniforms and forced organisers of large meetings and demonstrations to obtain police permission. In the play, the McEnroes were played by Stephen Hogan, Maggie Cronin, Joseph Ayre and Shaun Mason. The producer was Anne Isger.

THE CERTIFICATE, by Isaac Singer, trans. Leonard Wolf, dram. Jonathan Myerson (R4, 1500, 21 Nov 21) was broadcast as a one-off play in the Classic Serial slot. BBC blurb described it as a comic romance. A young Yiddish writer, David Bendiger, turns up penniless in 1922 Warsaw. He wants to emigrate to Palestine from Poland, and because married couples are given preference, he tries to arrange for a marriage certificate to be purchased for him by a wealthy woman whose fiancee lives in Palestine. It's part of the British plan to fulfil the Balfour Declaration, which was a statement supporting the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. At last David has a chance to make a life for himself. Unfortunately, as well as being young and poor, he is completely clueless about life. The story gives us a glimpse of the political and cultural turmoil of early 20th Century Jewish life in Poland. David was played by Sid Sagar, Father by Henry Goodman and Sonya by Debbie Chazen; sound design was by Jon Nicholls and Jonquil Panting Jonquil Panting was the producer, for Indie company Jonx.

LEAVE IT TO PSMITH (R4, two parts, beginning 1500, 28 Nov 21) by P.G.Wodehouse, was guaranteed to lift the spirits; I missed it when it went out in May 2020. The preposterous plot goes something like this: Psmith (the P is silent) advertises himself to ‘go anywhere, do anything; crime not objected to.’ At Blandings Castle, Lord Emsworth prepares to travel to London to collect a famous poet invited to speak by Emsworth’s fearsome sister Constance. (Sisters and aunts are usually fearsome in P.G.'s stories). Emsworth’s son Freddie sees Psmith’s advert and needs someone to steal his aunt’s necklace so he can sell it and use the proceeds to set himself up as a bookie. He hires Psmith to do the stealing, but Psmith becomes smitten by the librarian, who thinks he's the poet. Add to this the excellent cast (Nigel Anthony, Martin Jarvis, Patricia Hodge to name just three) and you have Wodehouse's masterpiece brought to life. Evelyn Waugh said many years ago '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. He has made a world for us to live in an delight in'. That's an accurate summary. The adaptation was by Archie Scottney, for Indie company Jarvis & Ayres.

Mid-December saw a new production of DON JUAN (R3, 1931, 12 Dec 21) by Lord Byron, adapted for radio by Robin Brooks. The story is about young Juan’s adventures as an innocent abroad, moving from the bedroom of a lady of Seville to a love island in the Cyclades, to the harem of the Sultan. But he's not a heartless rake; he's a hapless young innocent, more seduced than seducer. The story opens with young Juan’s seduction, at the hands of a usually-chaste married lady. After their exposure, Juan undergoes exile and shipwreck, until he is washed up on a Grecian Isle, where he is nursed by the lovely young nymph Haidee. The story develops from there.

Robin Brooks introduced the play as follows:

"Byron was approaching middle age, world-weary, struggling with his weight, living in self-imposed exile in Venice, when he started publishing Don Juan in 1818. It caused a sensation; it was comic, satirical, conversational, and that was a sharp contrast to what might be described as much more romantic, ironic outpourings which have made him famous. But there is something worth bearing in mind about Byron; he was on the Board of Drury Lane theatre, and he never missed a first night if he could help it. He loved the theatre; was always quoting Restoration comedies in his letters, and this must have something to do with the fact than Don Juan is full of drama. It's got vivid characters and very witty dialogue, which I knew would make very good [radio] drama. What I hadn't grasped, I now realize, is how powerful the actual poetry is. When I read poetry I tend to read it in my head, which is what most people do. It took hearing the actors reading it out loud to bring home to me how beautiful and moving Byron's verse is. I hope you agree.'

Byron was played by Edward Bennett, Mephistopheles by Julian Bleach, Don Juan by Matthew Tennyson, Donna Julia by Pippa Nixon and Haidee by Dolores Carbonari. Sound Design was by Alasdair McGregor (the music was superb - I recognized excerpts from Handel's harpsichord suites, played on that instrument) and the producer was Fiona McAlpine, for Indie company Allegra Productions.

It was good to see a long piece about radio drama from Charlotte Runcie in the Daily Telegraph on 15 Dec. She writes less frequently about radio plays than her predecessor Gillian Reynolds, but she was clearly impressed by HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE by Robert Valentine (R4, 1500,12 Dec 21; Classic Serial slot), a fantasy published in 1986 and dramatised by Diana Wynne Jones from the novel. Apparently it has also been made into a film. Summarising Charlotte's review: 'We meet a young woman, Sophie, working in ahat shop, where she can charm life into the hats she sells. But a mysterious castle appears near the town, and shorly afterwards, the Wicked Witch transforms her into a 90-year-old woman, cursed never to be able to tell anyone of the spell cast upon her. Sophie wanders the countryside in despair, and reaches the castle, where she seeks refuge and a chance to break the spell. She works for three magical inhabitants: a fire demon, a young boy, and a vain, womanising wizard, Howl. The castle has magical doors leading to different locations'. That's all I can say without giving spoilers. It was an excellent listen. The narrator was Robert Bathurst, Young Sophie was Dakota Blue-Richards, Old Sophie was Julia McKenzie and Howl was Iwan Rheon; the production was by Indie company Bafflegab, directed by Simon Barnard.

Ian Billings has written tribute plays to Ken Dodd and Spike Milligan, which resulted in a 'Best Actor' award for David Threlfall on both occasions. He has followed this by dramatising a story by Terry Jones, one of the Monty Python team, entitled STARSHIP TITANIC (R4, 1500, 19 Dec 21; Classic Serial slot). The plot is as mad as a box of frogs; it's actually from Terry's comic novel so needed considerable shortening to fit into the 60m slot. Far off in a distant part of the universe, a vast civilisation is preparing to launch the most technologically advanced starship ever - Starship Titanic. While the galaxy's media looks on, it unfortunately undergoes SMEF (Spontaneous Massive Existence Failure) and disappears. Leovinus, the designer of the ship, uncovers shoddy workmanship, poor cybernetics and a series of increasingly eccentric robots. The owners, Scraliontis and Brobostigan, were intent on destroying the ship and claiming the insurance. Meanwhile in Oxfordshire, four humans are inspecting a property they intend buying, only to see it crushed under the re-materialising Starship. Dirk Maggs was the producer, attempting to control Michael Palin, Tom Alexander, Ian Billings, Nicholas Boulton, Rupert Degas, Philip Pope, Alana Ramsey and Rebecca Yeo. Music was by Philip Pope, and there was a guest appearance by Simon Jones, who played Arthur Dent in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. This was an Indie production from Perfectly Normal.

At the time of writing I am halfway through LOLA VS POWERMAN by Ray Davies and Paul Sirett (R4, 1500, 11 Dec 21) which is proving to be an unexpectedly absorbing listen; unexpected because I'm not normally interested in modern popular music. The title is from an album by the Kinks, released in 1970 when the band's songwriter, Ray Davies, was in the middle of a legal struggle for the rights to his songs. The album (and the play) reveas a lot about how the music industry works and what it's like to be a composer; something of which I have personal experience. The album's blunt appraisal of the music industry had a big impact and was a commercial success. Ray and Paul have now adapted the album into a 90-minute radio drama, with songs. The producer was Karen Rose and the sound engineer and designer was David Thomas for (I think) Indie company Sweet Talk.

We have also had a number of gritty plays on important social issues. Viv Groskop's "Christmas Every Day" was informative and highlighted a problem which many families are having to face: selling a family home to pay for a parent's care fees. But it seems that in a significant number of plays there are echoes of 1997, when certain parts of dramatic output appeared to be designed to make you feel worse after hearing them than you did at the start. We even got some politically-correct preaching in the introduction to 'The Tempest'! Harry Turnbull sums it up:

On 'Road To Heaven': "The BBC proudly wears its inclusion and diversity policy like a decorated old soldier groaning under a chest of medals on Armistice Day. There is a unit at the corporation pushing various agendas including trans rights and this is evident in dramatic output. But as this is an issue largely for younger people one wonders why the airwaves of Radios 3 and 4 have to be filled with the sound of individuals declaring themselves to be non-binary or transitioning. Can’t they get this and happening right-on stuff on Radio 1 Extra or BBC 3? At first I thought it was the old argument about attracting a younger audience to what are traditionally platforms for old fogies. But then the penny dropped. The BBC is attempting to educate people like me. Well, I’m not too old to learn but I’m not sure this is the way to do it."

On 'Leave Taking', radio 3: "An insight into the immigrant experience; this time from the Caribbean angle. Despite that, joy and sunshine conspicuously absent in the BBC drive for more misery. Mind you, I actually empathise and not because my wife is from an African country colonised from Britain. No, I spent my youth in sunnier climes where my dad was an RAF quartermaster. The way he used to talk about Britain made it sound like a magical wonderland. Arriving here in the 70s was a rude awakening - cold, strikes, a tin bath and an outside loo. I thought we’d landed in a strange alien land after the delights of the Britannia Club and Raffles Hotel for Sunday lunch. These same feelings of alienation are described in Leave Taking, when Caribbean-born Enid and her daughters negotiate life after Windrush."

On 'The Tempest', Drama on 3: "The powers-that-beeb had a long think about what to feature on Drama on 3 during Copout 26 and came up with this Shakespearean romp on a storm-tossed island. An introduction to this version waxes lyrical on how Shakey speaks to us about ecological matters and Western imperialism but I’m afraid all that washed over me. I think what is a far more interesting aspect is the prescient way in which Shakespeare imagines man taming the weather - surely now the ultimate desire of mankind. Wherefore is our Prospero now? Surely one of the tech mega-billionaires must be working on a fiendish way of bringing wild weather to its knees. Ian Mcdermid excels as the magic man with mellifluous tones".

ND / 20 Dec 21, with acknowledgements to reviewer Harry Turnbull and 'Russ' from the radio 3 forum www.for3.org.

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