December 2001
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April 2001

REVIEW, Dec. 01

There has been such a large number of excellent programmes since the last issue that it is difficult to know what to select. Most of the afternoon plays have held the attention, and the Friday night and Saturday afternoon dramas have also been worthwhile.

The sad death of Douglas Adams prompted the rebroadcast of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (R4, 1830, 12 episodes beginning 12 Sept 01; originally broadcast 1978). This is so well-known that comment is largely superfluous. Bearing in mind the unusual effects required (a sperm whale materialising in the upper atmosphere, for example, and a robot crashing through a hundred metres of solid rock) it was not surprising that the television version (c1985) never really worked.

Nick Fisher's experimental play The Wheel of Fortune was broadcast as "interactive drama" in three separate "Configurations". I (and II (went out simultaneously on radio 4 and radio 3 (2330, 19 Sept 01). The next evening, II and III went out similarly. A gambler, a young lady, and the Professor decide to take on the casino and win. The Prof. has a computer program capable of working out which numbers to back based on the position of the roulette wheel and the little ball and a video camera in his pocket . The only thing is - will it work? The "interactive" element requires the listener to stay with the channel, or switch over, when the roulette wheel spins and he hears the words "bet now", which occur about 20 times in the half hour. Recording something like this presents a few difficulties because of synchronisation; I would have throught doing it on a single network and switching off either the left or right channel might be better....anyway, Configuration I worked well in its own right, and lacking the motivation to spend half my time switching, I found Configuration II equally good on listening to it the next day.

Three more George Lewis stories, in The Man Who Knew Everything, by Robin Brooks (R4, 1415, beginning 3 Oct 01) were very welcome. Lewis was the great 19th century criminal lawyer of Ely Place, Holborn. No man had so wide a criminal experience as Lewis; he was involved in every great murder case from 1868 up to the Whitechapel murders, and before him, his father had owned the largest criminal practice in England. It was said by some that Lewis never went outside his lair for anyone less than a royal duke. Lewis was played by Jack Klaff and Banks by Jonathan Tafler; varied casts played the rest and Clive Brill directed.

Blood for Britain, by Michael McMillan (R4, 1415, 8 Oct 01) revealed the difficulties in World War II of getting enough blood to treat bomb casualties in the UK. Charles Drew was a blood pioneer who had worked out that blood plasma has a much longer shelf life than whole blood and could therefore be imported from America. He was surrounded by bureaucrats more interested in red tape than saving lives; one official actually said that it would be an admission that the war was going badly for the Allies if plasma was obtained from the States. This was in a situation where thousands of people were literally bleeding to death after, for example, the flattening of Coventry, because of a lack of bottled blood. Nevertheless, he showed great perseverence in overcoming scientific and other obstacles and eventually received official recognition. He improved the administration, labelling, storage and use of samples, and enabled tens of thousands of lives to be saved. His skin colour didn't help; being black, he was actively discriminated against, and there were numerous people at that time who insisted they would "rather die than receive plasma from negroes".

Uncle Happy, by Michael Mears (R4, 1415, 12 Oct 01) was a one-man play, the author playing an amazing variety of voices as Bob Jones, a middle-aged Maths teacher, searches for an Italian ancestor he sees in an old wedding photograph. The story line was well worked out; Mears has made a speciality of these one-man productions, and readers may remember "A slight tilt to the left", "Tomorrow we do the sky" and "Slow Train", all broadcast in recent years. Enyd Williams produced, Mears doing everything else.

Fatal Loins, by Perry Pontac (R4, 1415, 29 Oct 01) was a reconsideration of the story of Romeo and Juliet, which Pontac sums up succinctly in the prologue:

Two households, both alike in dignity; a boy and girl by fortune cursed and blessed A look, a glance, a kiss, a balcony; a wedding, several killings and the rest....

The story unfolds with the lovers twenty years older and fatter than they were in Shakespeare's version and ends with a convoluted twist involving the death of Friar Lawrence and Juliet's words " his holy heart, I fear, hath wholly stopped". Pontac is an adept user of language, and those who enjoy wordplay will admire this excellent pastiche.

Part of the life of Siegfried Sassoon was examined in Between the Lines, by Neil Brand (R4, 1415, 8 Nov 01). In 1924, Sassoon was suffering from depression and mourning for friends lost in World War I, and unable to write poetry. A wealthy friend bought him a car, and he immediately went on an 800 mile trip to see writer friends including Thomas Hardy and T.E.Lawrence. As his spirits lifted he realised that could write things other than poetry, and his fortunes improved. Sassoon was played by James Fleet and George Baker took the part of Hardy.

Barbara Windsor and Timothy West starred in a new play by Arnold Wesker, Groupie (R4, 2102, 23 Nov 01). Matty reads the memoirs of a well-known artist from the East End, and she writes to him. He is down on his luck, living as a recluse, and has no work. Eventually they meet, a few illusions are shattered and things develop in a way they had not foreseen. Ned Chaillet directed this entertaining production.

Nick Warburton is gaining a reputation as a master of the 30-minute play; his latest is Paradise (R4, 2302, 29 Nov 01). Antonia (Amanda Root) is moving to the country after resigning from her city job. She finds an ideal cottage selling for about half its proper price, and snaps it up. She reckons without the crabby housekeeper (Liz Smith) or the equally awkward Fison (George Baker). His last two plays on R4 were Doreen's Chair (30m) and Purvis (45m), both with the excellent Peter Sallis.

Philip Morgenstein never realised when he applied for his first job that he would be fitting Dr. Goebbels with surgical boots at his private mansion a few months later. In Dear Dr. Goebbels, by Neville Smith (R4, 1415, 30 Nov 01), something of Goebbels' private life is revealed. Most people have never heard of Morgenstein, but he was offered an honour by Churchill (which he refused because his boss was not offered one) on the strength of the little ditty he wrote making fun of the Nazi leadership and their unfortunate medical conditions, sung by squaddies to the tune of "Colonel Bogey":

Hitler, has only got one ball
Goering, has two but very small
Himmler has somthing similar
But poor old Goebbels has no balls at all.

Human Rights, by Jonathan Lichtenstein (1415, 4 Dec 01) focused on a man kept in solitary confinement, in the dark, for 4000 days. He had been a guard at the prison; his crime was refusing to beat a prisoner with a club. For two years he was kept in a 6ft x 8ft cell with another prisoner; he survived by swapping identities when the other man died, and was eventually released. Not an inspiring plot, and not entertaining, but it was compulsive listening, and one did not get the feeling of being preached at.

If you have misgivings each time you hear of large numbers of refuguees heading towards our overcrowded island you need to hear Stowaway (R4, 10 Dec 01), by Tanika Gupta. Vikram's family has been swindled out of its land; Vikram, after half a life in servitude, pays his meagre life savings to a man who promises to stow him away on an airliner. Disaster follows disaster as he fights for survival in the wheel bay. After plays like this one realises that living in the UK is a privelege which one should not take for granted.

An interesting biographical play went out shortly afterwards: Before Beeton - The Eliza Acton Story (R4, 1415, 11 Dec 01). Eliza Acton was England's finest cook; Isabella Beeton included over a hundred of Acton's recipes in her book on household management. Beeton herself had virtually no experience of cooking; employing someone else to do it. Nevertheless she tried out every recipe in her own household before deciding whether to print it. The recipes appeared in periodicals published by her husband over a period of several years. She was the Delia Smith of her day; after her early death, her recipes were collected together and published in the single volume which is now so well-known, being marketed with tremendous Victorian hype. Millions of copies were sold, in contrast to the few thousand sold by Eliza Acton of her own book. A biography of Beeton herself was broadcast in January this year.

Three stories by William Golding under the collective title of The Pyramid were broadcast from 12 - 14 Dec (R4, 1415): we had "The Love of Edie", on adolescent desire; "A Real Princess", on embarrassmant, and "A Sprat to Catch a Mackeral", on growing up. The third of these featured a frail but formidable music teacher, Miss Dawlish, who is so abrasive and bitter towards her young pupils that today she would be a candidate for counselling. The young Oliver is sent to her at the age of four to begin his violin lessons, and she spends the whole of the first lesson shouting at him and contorting his body to the correct posture. He eventually becomes a musician, and over the next thirty years he visits her periodically. Each time he sees her she appears a little more out-of-touch and absurd. Robert Glenister was the adult Oliver, Simon Scardifield young Oliver, and the frightening Miss Dawlish was played by Frances Jeater; the director was Celia de Wolff.

Having nearly run out of space I cannot say much more, but I should mention "I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue", still the best radio comedy by a wide margin and back for another series; an interesting biography of Bela Lugosi broadcast as the Friday play, (R4, 2102, 9 Nov 01); a repeat of "In the Treacle Well" (R4, 1415, 13 Nov 01) by Patricia Hannah, where an unfaithful husband gets his come-uppance when his wife enlists the help of Bette Davis and Celia Johnson; "The Dimming of the Day" (R4, 1415, 6 Nov 01) where a retired judge leaves his tiresome wife of fifty years and marries his soul mate; Past Forgetting (R4, 1415, 20 Nov 01) in which a psychiatrist is called in to recover the memory of a woman who is accused of a murder and who can't remember whether she did it or not...

Well done, Radio 4.

ND. 21.12.01

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Another good selection of plays and features since the last issue. Nothing lasting 90 minutes apart from Bank Holidays, but plenty of shorter drama, and some longer items broadcast as one-hour episodes as the Classic Serial on Sundays .

Cops and Robbers was another excellent play by Katie Hims (R4, 1415, 30 Apr 01). A dry cleaner's assistant falls for a customer but as he crosses the road outside the shop he is knocked down by a car. As she gets to know him it transpires that perhaps this was not an accident. Amanda Root and Philip Jackson were Marion and the Inspector, and the shady Jonny was played by Nicholas Boulton; Peter Kavanagh directed.

Tom Brown's Schooldays ,by Thomas Hughes, was dramatised by Joe Dunlop(R4, Classic Serial, two episodes, beginning 1502, 10 Jun 01) . Tom Brown arrives at Rugby school full of innocence and eagerness to learn. He is not disappointed, but some of the lessons are harsher than he expects. Robert Hardy was Tom, Tom Huntingford was young Tom, and Jordan Copeland was an excellent Flashman.

Promises to Keep (R4, 1415, 14 Jun 01), by Vivienne Allen, was a psychological mystery; a serial killer haunts the parklands of Norwich, and an attractive young lady exhibits bizarre behaviour; are the two connected? Lucy Scott was Angela and Christopher James the teacher; John Taylor directed.

Surnames, Genes and Genealogy (R4, 1102, 26 Jun 01) explored the link between DNA makeup and surnames. The programme pointed out that the Y chromosome is only carried by males, as are surnames , so in genetic terms a surname represents a particular sequence of DNA on the Y chromosome. Mark Jobling, a researcher at Leicester University, writes that the Y chromosome passes down from father to son largely unchanged apart from the gradual accumulation of mutations. Professor Bryan Sykes, who presents the programme, wrote to 60 Sykes men at random, asking for DNA samples to compare with his own. On analysis he found that half were genetically identical. Sykes goes through a logical sequence of deductions to show that there must have been one original Mr. Sykes and that he came from around Flockton, near Huddersfield, in the 13th century.

Alpha, by Mike Walker (R4, 2102, 6 Jul 02) made a superb Friday Play: a scientist has built a computer so all-knowing that it appears to have an independent life of its own. In comes the representative of organised religion (David Calder as Father Marquez) to put an end to it. A predictable church response, perhaps. A few centuries ago the established church ordered the bones of John Wycliffe to be dug up and burned because he made the bible intelligible to ordinary people. One wonders what church leaders of today might do if computers became intricate enough to offer advice on moral dilemnas. With computer memory doubling every eighteen months we might not have long to wait. This was another first class play directed by Gordon House.

A Face in the Crowd (R4, 1415, 19 Jul 01) was an interesting production; a mixture of drama and documentary. In real life, Willie Daly is one of the last matchmakers in Ireland. The fictional Morag contacts him; she wants to meet an ordinary, hardworking Irishman with a sense of humour. Craigie, a bachelor and a rascal, also contacts Willie. Using his friend's poems, he sets about wooing Morag. The play was recorded during the actual Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival of County Clare, and was both moving and humorous.

Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian War is not an obvious candidate for radio dramatisation, but Tom Holland's Our Man in Athens (R4 1415 30 Jul 01) made it accessible to the ordinary listener. A veteran war reporter finds himself under siege in the studios of Radio Free Athens, under attack by Sparta. John Simpson, the BBC correspondent, played Thucydides, and the cast included Tim Piggott-Smith, Sean Barratt and Bill Wallis.

Three plays by Alan Plater were broadcast on successive Wednesdays: The Devil's Music (R4, 1415, beginning 8 Aug 01), inspired by the Women's Jazz Archive. A choir of ex-slaves sings the song "Roll, Jordan, Roll" in a Welsh village in the 1880s; a generation later the tune is used in a comic song; in the third play it appears in another setting. Plater's work is very well crafted and holds the attention throughout. Alison Hindell directed the trilogy .

The Flanders Panel (R4 1415 3 Sep 01) was Jonathan Holloway's dramatisation of Arturo Perez-Reverte's thriller concerning a hidden inscription in a medieval painting. The panel contains a representation of a chess game, and the position of the pieces is linked to the lives of the figures portrayed; the play was a tale of detective work, picture restoration and murder. Lizzie McInnerney played Julia and James Greene Cesar; David Hunter was the director.

There have been plenty of other good offerings: My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell (Classic Serial, R4, 1 and 8 Jul 01), Jonathan Davidson's A Dance in a Suburban Ballroom (R4, 1415, 15 May 01), Census, with Donald Sinden (R4, 1415, 27 Apr 01), and another series of Dead Ringers (Fridays, 1831, beginning 24 Aug 01). Helen Boaden continues to deliver good value. If she reinstated Saturday Night Theatre there would be very little to complain about.

Nigel Deacon. Sep 01.

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Either the drama output is continuing to improve or I am losing the ability to discriminate between good and bad. Most radio plays put out since January have been worth hearing; some have been excellent. Comedy is still rather weak, but Andy Hamilton's Old Harry's Game, back for a third series on Thursday (R4, 2302, beginning 29 Mar 01) has raised the standard. There have been appearances too from Garrison Keillor; his stand-up show of music and comedy from the Edinburgh Fringe, repeated from last year (R4, 1915, Apr. 1 & Apr 8), and the Jewish comedian Jackie Mason (R4, 1830, 7 Feb & 14 Feb).

Don Haworth produced four entertaining half-hour plays on successive Wednesdays: (R4, 1130, beginning 3 Jan 01): Emma Harper-Tussles in a Village is typical of Haworth's style; an ex-headmistress writes a column in a local newspaper. She is poached by the nearby radio station, and her gossip programme causes nothing but trouble. We also had Bill Bosun : a bus driver too kind hearted for his own good, and Stan Rooker , a particularly devious night receptionist. Haworth was interviewed by Radio Times in 1987, and said that he considers simplicity the key to success in radio drama. He is essentially modest and reluctant to appear as any sort of oracle, but he has three specific recommendations: avoid using too many sound effects, keep the number of actors to a minimum, and keep the story simple. "Look at the film "Zulu"-that was basically about people charging up and down a hill....the film became a classic". Haworth finds it difficult to detect any common theme in his plays, but is interested by people's motivations and their reactions to crises. He is particularly interested in those who respond to challenges in a positive, combative way rather than a neurotic one. This is perhaps why his plays are so appealing.

The Polish Soldier , by Gregory Evans (R4, 1415, 24 Jan 01) was based on a man's childhood memory of a man in uniform; he starts looking for the truth about his childhood, and finds more than he bargained for. James was played by Jeremy Northam; Ned Chaillet directed.

Victorian Marriage Beds (R4, 1415, beginning 22 Jan 01) was a series of three drama-documentaries about sexuality and how the Victorians coped with it. One hopes that the marriages described (of Edward Benson, August Strindberg and George Eliot) were not typical. Some of the scenes were upsetting but horribly fascinating. Nicholas McInnerney wrote the plays, and Rosie Boulton and Peter Leslie Wild did the production.

Peacemakers was the story of the last days of Alfred Nobel (R4, 1415, 3 Jan 01). Written by Melissa Murray, it dramatised a meeting between the dying Nobel and the Baroness Bertha von Suttner in a Vienna hotel. She tries to persude him to leave some of his vast fortune to establish a Peace Prize. Most of Nobel's money came from the invention of dynamite, a safe form of the earlier explosive nitroglycerine. Jeffery Dench played Nobel and Carolyn Pickles the Baroness.

Bread from the Air, Gold from the Sea as another chemical story (R4, 1415, 16 Feb 01). Fritz Haber found a way of making nitrogen compounds from the air. They have two main uses: fertilisers and explosives. His process enabled Germany to produce vast quantities of armaments. (The second part of the title refers to a process for obtaining gold from sea water. It worked, but didn't pay) There can be few figures with a more interesting life than Haber, from a biographer's point of view. He made German agriculture independent of Chilean saltpetre during the Great War. He received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, yet there were moves to strip him of the award because of his work on gas warfare. He pointed out, rightly, that most of Nobel's money had come from armaments and the pursuit of war. After Hitler's rise to power, a "grateful" government forced Haber to resign from his professorship and research jobs because he was non-Aryan...

McLevy , by David Ashton (R4, 1415, Thursdays, ending 11 Jan 01) chronicled some cases of a Victorian police inspector from Edinburgh, and is based on a policeman's diary from that time. There is a nice sub-plot running through the plays: his affection for a lady who runs the local brothel. This is a highly entertaining series.

Karl Marx meets Sherlock Holmes (R4, 2102, 16 Feb 01) was a rather unusual comic play. Marx has written "Das Kapital", but in spite of its size, has lost the manuscript - can Holmes find it? Robert Bathurst played Holmes, Thomas Arnold Watson, and David de Keyser was Marx. Peter Kavanagh directed.

Four Petrella stories (R4, 1415, beginning 14 Feb 01) were broadcast on successive Wednesday afternoons: adventures of Michael Gilbert's south London detective. I have not read the original stories but these adaptations by Michael Butt were well-paced and good listening. Phillip Jackson was Petrella and Nicky Henson the long-suffering Burly.

Examination Day , by C.S.Jones (R4, 1415, 12 Mar 01), was about Simon, an eleven year old trying for an entrance exam to one of the few remaining grammar schools. His parents have just moved house to be in the right catchment area, but he is a borderline candidate; they know it, and so does he...Paul Slade directed this, and Simon was very well played by Hugh Viney. Lucy Fitchett and Bill Nighy also starred.

A most extraordinary trial was reconstructed by Peter Goodchild: Lockerbie on Trial (R4 1415, 90min, 20 Feb 01). As described by the RT: "the story is a gripping, twisted narrative in which the evidence is so attenuated that only a very clear mind can pursue it through the opaque hall of mirrors which is international terrorism". The prosecution were confident of getting two convictions, but amongst the witnesses were double agents, terrorists, and arms dealers, and they knew every legal trick in the book. The play follows the twists and turns of the legal arguments. Sombre but fascinating.

Hitler's Buddha, by R.J.Gallagher (R4 1415, 13 Feb 01) , told of an episode during the brutal Japanese invasion of Nanking, China, in 1937. John Rabe showed extraordinary bravery in saving hundreds of Chinese lives by refusing to bow to authority, yet he was a Nazi. Rabe was played by John Rowe and Major Oka by Paul Courtenay Hyu.

The Mark Steele Lectures have made a welcome return (R4 1830, beginning 13 Mar 01). So far we have had Byron, Aristotle, Che Gue Vara and Billie Holiday. They are well-researched, touched up with humour, forcefully and clearly expressed, and hilarious. If British education continues on its present path we may find that Steele's lectures become required reading for undergraduates, since original source material requires a concentration span of more than thirty minutes.

The Trials and Tribulations of Armitage Shanks (R4,1415, 31 Jan 01) written by Mike Harris, concerns Armitage, an obnoxious advertising executive who thinks he can convince anyone to believe anything. He gets the chance to prove it; he's told to report for jury service, and his first case involves an obviously guilty young thug who has hit a pensioner over the head and run off with her money. He's even caught on video. Now..can he convince the jury that the thug is innocent? This was highly entertaining, and there was a nice twist at the end.

Dying Inside, by Robert Silverberg (R4 1415,12 Feb 01), was a science fiction play about a man with a most unusual gift- he can read minds. But as he gets older, the ability fades; how can he cope? This starred Jonathan Tafler as the unfortunate mind-reader, and was adapted by Robin Brooks.

The Baldi stories (R4,1415, Fridays beginning 16 Mar 01) have been enjoyable detective yarns with a difference. Paolo Baldi is a monk with a year off as an academic in a University, but he has a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, so hears about lots of crimes, some of which he manages to solve with his policewoman friend Tina. A far-fetched scenario, but it produces good tales. Each play has a different author using the same basic characters. This could easily run for several more series.

A beautiful little play, Ninety Percent Penetration in Finland, by C.Seal and D. Black (R4 1415, 2 Mar 01) was a love story with a difference; two people seek refuge in the same telephone box during a storm. They are six inches apart; can they communicate with each other? This story was similar to a more unpleasant but equally well-written play by Emma Clarke and directed by Richard Wortley, Shaft (R4 1415, 26 Feb 01), where a man and a woman are stuck in a lift for a night.

Island of the Day before Yesterday, by J.Stevenson and dramatised by Mike Walker (R4 1415,9 Mar 01) told of Professor Simone Strachey, an academic with a big opinion of himself. He is having to sort out his dead father's papers, and he employs a secretary to assist. She is dowdy, unimaginative and dull, but he persuades her to pretend he is part of his colourful past, and sends for a newspaper reporter...the elaborate joke amuses him, but things develop in a way he had not foreseen.

There have been other excellent things too; a biography of Mrs. Beeton, the cook and gardening expert (R4 1430, 27 Jan 01); Feng Shui and Me, by Barry Keefe (R4 1430, 10 Feb 01) where Mick gets his come-uppance from his Asian girlfriend; Games, by Mike Walker (R4 1430, 17 Feb 01) where a young woman learns about malice and manipulation; Sky High, by Helen Brandom (R4 1415,23 Feb 01), where an old couple find a novel way of beating the developers; interviews with Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (R4 1830, 29 Mar 01) and Sheila Hancock (R4 1130, 20 Mar 01); a new production of Betjeman's Summoned by Bells (R4 1502 18 Feb 01), The Crashed Plane, a thriller by Michael Hastings (R4 2102 2 Feb 01), and an unusual reworking of the Snow White story (2102 23 Feb 01) by Howard Barker. There are numerous features too which are well researched and interesting; Derek Cooper's Food Programme asks awkward questions of those who control the big supermarkets and the know-alls who tell us what to eat; the drugs industry comes in for frequent scrutiny, and Gardeners' Question Time continues to deliver good value. Helen Boaden's regime is a definite improvement on what has gone before.

ND / 12 Apr 01

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