Radio Drama Reviews: Aug 2022
Harry Turnbull

BBC Head of Drama on why she commissions repeat recordings
In recent months the BBC has broadcast new versions of works by Forster and Jane Austen. The Machine Stops by E.M Forster and Mansfield Park by Jane Austen were both on the airwaves around 20 years ago but have been re-made in recent months.

Alison Hindell, head of commissioning, explained on BBC Radio 4’s Feedback programme (12/8/22): ‘When we made ‘The Machine Stops’ twenty years ago it was simply a sci-fi story. When the idea came to us again in the first wave of the pandemic it had taken on an extraordinary new resonance.

‘We all knew what it was like to communicate only on screen and couldn’t have human contact. We might as well be living underground like characters in the play. I thought it was a very good rationale for coming at it afresh with new eyes and talent.

‘Every generation of artists brings different insights to interpreting the classics. Ironically it costs nearly as much to repeat something from 20 years ago as it does to make a new version, so we might as well give new people the job.’

The Machine Stops

A Perfectly Normal production for BBC Radio 4

Social distancing, remote working and Zoom are taken to the extreme in this dystopian disrupter. It explores our sensory engagement with the world by people inhabiting their own little subterranean pods.

It’s not as far-fetched as it may look the way the world is looking. Conflagrations across the globe could easily lead to the masses heading underground.

Now the peculiarity of this story is that it was written more than 100 years ago and by a writer usually associated with the mores of Edwardian culture; E. M. Foster.

The author of Howard’s End and A Passage to India decided to outsmart Wells who focused on the benefits of an increasingly technological society. Forster attempted to show that this shift towards reliance on artificial intelligence may have other consequences.

This is the second time in little more than 20 years that the BBC has decided to produce this short story, presumably thinking it is becoming ever more relevant.

I was interested to experience the sound palette and was rather hoping a track from Hawkwind’s album based on 'The Machine Stops' might make the cut, but was sadly disappointed. Instead there was a haunting sequence of notes repeated at intervals which seemed to reflect how senses experience life in the bunker and, if I am not mistaken, made an appearance in a radio version of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous in Rama.

Tamsin Grieg took the lead as Vashit with a son who lives in the opposite part of the globe. It feels artificial, this Skype-style communication via underground bunkers, and indeed it is, a precursor to all sorts of mental health issues. Indeed, as I type this, a news item is airing about the huge increase of anti-depressants being handed out, even to children. Why do GP’s do this? What is the point of their very expensive pound training programme?

This sense of unease and claustrophobia inhabits Forster’s story like an unwelcome cloak. He also put forward the idea that in a dystopian future a machine rules the people but behind it lie the shadowy elites. And of course the rebellious individual discovers he/she is not alone. Forster witnessed the coming of the motor car, air flight, movies and……the vacuum cleaner. In fact the technological advances around the turn of the 20th century dwarf anything happening now.

In this post-Pandemic angst-filled world, many might welcome the comfort of life in a pod.

End of Transmission

A Sweet Talk production

Having the Aids virus as the main character is a somewhat unusual ploy. But Anita Sullivan has pulled it off before when she gave voice to a gurgling gut.

This time the vocalised virus tells the story of how it spread over more than 100 years. Jude, played by Louise Brealey, brought the deadly infection to life by stopping her drugs so she could ask it a few questions; notably how she caught it. The virus, voiced by David Haig, took her on a journey stretching back more than a century.

Who knew it emerged that long ago when the leap was made from monkey to man? The rest of the story is, as often, one of human frailty and failure.

As the virus remarks, it was so easy to spread death and destruction before the anti virals came along. Science has ultimately triumphed but it has been a long journey.

Anita Sullivan has been living well with HIV since 2000.

The Waste Land - Drama on 3

This was a fitting tribute to T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece in its centenary year, though it's hard to top Jeremy Iron’s version.

Camille - Drama on 3

It's a story as old as the hills - wealthy punter takes a shine to a tart, sorry, sex operative. I gather this was originally a Dumas story and is the basis for La Traviata but the BBC has chosen to set yet another drama on the Indian sub-continent.

Unfortunately I found it as gripping as the prospect of a stale chappati for tea. Overly long reflections between the client and the courtesan that didn't seem to be going anywhere.

Severus - Radio 4 afternoon drama

Featuring Paterson Joseph and David Mitchell.
A BBC Studios production

Who knew an African was yet another ruler of England who led an unsuccessful foray north of the border? Septimius Severus was a Roman emperor from North Africa who led a campaign on British soil but ultimately came to a sticky end after an unsuccessful raid in Scotland, then known as Caledonia.

I studied the Romans at school but was unaware of this fascinating story. It could have made for riveting and exciting drama but was yet another dose of meandering introspection. It seems Severus fell ill while trying to wipe out the Scots and made his way back down to Eboracum (York) where he died amid some squabbling amongst his sons.

This had all the elements needed to tell an exciting largely unknown story as the might of the Roman Empire was rebuffed by another guerrilla campaign. Instead, and I only know this from the press release, it is presented as a comedy drama with Severus sharing his thoughts with his physician.

When I asked Paterson Joseph - who co wrote it - the motivation behind the story he gave a two word reply: A commission!

Book of the Week - Roald Dahl
Read by Owen Teale

Was the real life of the much loved childrens’ author as exciting as some of his plots? In some ways yes, and also as tragic. The former RAF war hero got his start as a writer via a chance meeting with C.S Forrester in America.

Dahl was invited to write about his experiences for a short story publication and dashed off something brilliant in five hours, or so we were told in this unauthorized biography by Matthew Dennison.That’s funny, I thought, because only 24 hours earlier Dahl had told me a story that contradicted such a likelihood. Not from beyond the grave you understand but when watching an old episode of Tales of the Unexpected.

These British TV dramas were originally based on his short stories but morphed into a wider framework and then other Americanised versions came into play. The one I had just watched was called Mrs Bixby and the Fur Coat about a married lady whose lover decided to ends things with a parting gift of the aforementioned item of clothing. When the story ended I thought, well that was Ok, but then just before the credits came the real twist and it was pure genius.

At the start of the episode Dahl was framed in front of a fire talking about how he developed the story and what he recounted took my breath away. For Mrs Bixby, a single short story, had taken 600 hours of writing time. Yes SIX HUNDRED. Enough time for a few pot boilers there.

It must give hope to us all and somewhat overshadows the idea of him dashing off a first story so brilliant and so quickly it needed no editing before publication. Who knows where the truth lies?

BBC Podcast Gangster - Curtis Warren
Crime podcasts are as abundant as leaves in autumn these days but I was particularly drawn to this story about kingpin Curtis Warren as I was around Liverpool in its heyday as a drugs capital. It was an awesome time to be a reporter but not without its dangers - I was followed, threatened, burgled and had a sit down with a hitman called Brian the Arse Slicer. A colleague ended up having a nervous breakdown.

Curtis Warren rose to become the big man but has spent 14 year behind bars, during which time he killed someone. But now he is on the verge of freedom so is under extra scrutiny. It seems likely the authorities will continue to pursue him relentlessly as they believe he still has millions stashed away somewhere. The exciting trail is followed by Livvy Haydock who speaks to many characters including reporters, customs men and coppers.

Harry Turnbull @Turnbullissimo


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


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