Radio Drama Reviews:May 2022
Harry Turnbull

Pretty Vacant
Featuring Tim McInnerny and Jane Slavin
Produced by Eoin O'Callaghan for Big Fish
Written by Hugh Costello

At first the timbre was unmistakable, a haughty rumble so often associated with the upper crust. But this time the voice was raw and unsettling, for Tim McInnerny had taken on the character of a streetwise Mancunian geezer. It seemed discordant at first but soon the ambiguity dissolved as McInnerny grew into the part as a champion of the underdog in the battle for Manchester’s housing soul. And, it turns out, authentic, as the actor himself hails from Cheadle Hulme.

This story about dodgy foreign property investments was aired on both the live radio and podcast platforms so it was also an opportunity to evaluate both versions.

One was seamless and relaxing, the other became rather annoying. You can maybe guess it's the podcast that came a poor second.The introduction, credits, outros and trailers happen with each individual episode so if you tune into a few back- to- back it soon becomes a frustrating, interrupted grind. Why do they do this I wondered? And then I found the answer. Everyone seems to follow a so-called industry template designed to hook new listeners and then retain them by telling at the beginning and end of each interlude what is happening.

Sorry, doesn't work for me, it just became a pain. And unnecessary really as most of these podcasts have an easily accessible stand-alone explanatory intro.

Anyway, to the story itself, which is about a mysterious American who owns an empty apartment block in Manchester and wants to turn it over for social housing. Inevitably this hides a nefarious intent. Jane Slavin plays Nora, a charity campaigner with her sidekick Frankie played by McInernny. A secondary character, Kevin, was a rather puzzling depiction of a reporter because of all those I have known, the story always comes first. He seemed to be a shoulder to cry on rather than concentrating on exposing the foreign investment scam.

At one stage he asks Nora if she has done her ‘due diligence’ on the investor rather than actually investigating it himself. The story was based on the ‘buy to leave’ idea whereby rich types hoover up properties and often then just leave them to appreciate in capital terms. All in all a mixed bag but the podcast format clearly still needs to evolve, perhaps by introducing a TV style 'skip trailer' option.


Featuring David Tennant
A Brill production
Sound: Joe Bedell-Brill

The Weird Sisters could easily be the title of an episode of Dr Who as I’m sure former Time Lord David Tennant would agree. In the Scottish Play it is an alternative handle for the prophetic witches who ignite Macbeth’s calamitous ambitions. In the opening scene the three hags are introduced with symphonically dissonant voices that could have been manufactured by the fabled BBC radiophonic workshop.

Tennant is no stranger to Shakespeare but hadn't before been able to utilise his natural brogue in this role. One thinks of Macbeth as a visual experience but this auditory excursion resonated between the ears in a much more intimate way. This is particularly true when whispers and soliloquies take centre-stage and that feeling of claustrophobic confidentiality invades the headphones.

There is a strong Scots’ element to the casting too and a wonderfully evocative cameo from Forbes Masson as the Porter. Of course Tennant has to drive the action forward and does so in a clear and expressive manner, becoming ever more frantic as the matters reach a bloody crescendo.

The Reckoning
Dramatised by Mike Walker
Narrated by Charles Nicholl

Every true crime drama seems to start with the end these days. In this case it’s justified as the mysterious death of playwright Christopher Marlowe is depicted as an Elizabethan murder mystery.

Many will be aware the young contemporary of Shakespeare lost his life in what is usually described as a tavern brawl. Historian Charles Nicholl - who acts as narrator in this three episode drama - is on the trail of a far more sinister truth involving plots, secret agents and a complex web controlled by spiderman himself, spy chief Francis Walsingham. Although Walsingham died several years before Marlowe’s dispatch there is some suggestion that he ran the writer in intelligence operations. Of course all this is speculative and given the time that has elapsed it has involved quite a lot of detective work.

There are three episodes featuring Chris Lew Kum Hoi as Marlowe and a variety of characters who inhabit the murky world of Elizabethan espionage. Nicholl guides us through this, putting forward his theory that Marlowe became mixed up in it all and had to be eliminated for a variety of reasons.

A intriguing mix of history and drama documentary.

Make Death Love Me - Anthony and Cleopatra re-imagined
Produced by Bona Broadcasting

Dear Jupiter, where to start with this? The BBC has produced many versions of Anthony & Cleopatra over the years so quite why it has to be reimagined is a difficult question to answer. However, there is an answer, courtesy of the BBC’s media team, who conjure up a wonderfully imaginative premise: “With strong parallels with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this classic drama has chilling relevance and resonance”

I’m glad they told me as it’s not the message I got from this. Was it supposed to be a comedy version? It seems so, as the main characters speak in ludicrously extravagant tones as if they are in a West End farce. This is no slight on Tim McInnerny (Mark Anthony) or Adojah Andoh (Cleo) who were obviously instructed to ape the parts. However their lip-smacking snogs and moaning are truly cringeworthy. Also, the narrator sounds like Bela Lugosi in Dracula, although I guess the intention was to produce a Romanesque dialect.

This was produced by an outside company, Bona Broadcasting, but I am left wondering just what quality control process the BBC uses to monitor the progress of these productions or why it was even sanctioned. Baffling.

BBC 4 Extra reprise - The Raj Quartet

When contemporary creativity fills the airwaves with new thinking, new voices, the under represented, diversity and whatnot, it’s sometimes comforting to return to a production which doesn’t require any thinking about, just soak in the atmosphere. This 2005 representation of Paul Scott’s series of novels stands the test of any time; scripts, casting, production; all simply quality.

Harry Turnbull @Turnbullissimo


Thanks, Harry, for these reviews .... ND


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