Radio Drama Reviews
Harry Turnbull

Radio Drama Reviews, Jan 2023

Hashtag: Public Enemy

A Reduced Listening production for Drama on 3 directed by Jeremy Mortimer

This reworking of Ibsen’s ‘Enemy of the People’ shines a spotlight on whistleblowing and small town corruption. Aptly-named writer Steve Waters’ drama faithfully follows the original story with a few social media shapes thrown in. It tells of a decrepit coastal town that reinvents itself as a spa destination but is thrown into chaos by a whistleblower who reveals the waters are polluted.

But have they missed a trick? In the North East at the moment there are extraordinary parallels taking place. Coastal marine life is being wiped out to the consternation of locals and fishermen. A very muted Defra examination concluded that natural means such as ‘algae bloom’ is responsible.

The reason for the reluctance to fully investigate is that the likely cause, from independent experts, is dredging mud polluted from nearby heavy former industries to make way for a Freeport - one of the great so-called levelling up projects.

This story of cover up and self-interest would surely be excoriatingly relevant.

Anyway, in this story scientist Thomas Stockman discovers pollutants in the water supply have killed two migrant workers on the eve of the opening of the spa resort. He sets out to spread the word in the face of opposition from the town mayor, his own sister Penny, played acerbically by Alexandra Gilbreath.

Stockman receives analytical data from a laboratory confirming his fears and immediately contacts the local community radio station he sometimes contributes to.

This unleashes a vortex of power struggles and self-interest with the health of visitors seemingly unremarked upon - as in Ibsen’s script.

I have seen this dance between power, whistleblowers and journalists before. Indeed I once exposed a foster carer as a child abuser and found myself before the judge as the local authority desperately sought to cover up its failures. Even in the original play I wasn’t convinced that a man of science would immediately rush to the media rather than through proper channels, it remains the biggest flaw. Indeed Stockman becomes as consumed by self-interest as his mayoral sibling.

Waters has done an effective job of structuring the new media into the story and also providing a plausible reason for Stockman to act in such a rash manner.

The Willows

A Rhiannon Media production for Radio 4. Directed by Kate McAll and adapted from an original story by Algernon Blackwood.

Sounds intrude, the wind whispers and a desolate waterscape forms the backdrop to this haunting evocation of primal fear.

Two friends kayak down the more uninhabited stretches of the Danube, at first peaceful and inspiring but growing ever more ethereal unsettling with each stroke of the oars.

The soundtrack eases us into the terrain, a disquieting rhythm reflecting the passage downstream and ethereally presented by John Biddle and Iain Hunter.

The two chums, played by Bill Pullman and Julian Sands, plan the watery vacation after the First World War and a flu epidemic.

At a brief stopover downriver they learn from an innkeeper's wife about something mysterious that haunts the river, its islands and swaying willow plants. It brings to mind Jonathan Harker's uneasy setting off for his excursion into the Carpathians.

The journey, both physical and metaphorical, explores nature from within and without. Anyone who has found themselves alone in the wilderness, or even on a lonely road late at night, will know the power of the mind to conjure all sorts of unwelcome thoughts.

Listen and be beguiled.

Bedroom Farce

A Jarvis & Ayres production for BBC Radio 4

'I say darling how do you fancy a night in with the king of farce, the master of mirth, Alan Ayckbourn.
The old boy has a wonderful play on the wireless tonight. Perhaps a Pimm's and a smooch?
Oh lover lips, sounds heaven, but Roger and Margie have invited us over for cocktails.
Gadzooks, Roger? He'll be nonstopping whirring on about his stopcock.
His what cock?
Exactly. You know, the malfunctioning latrine in his new motorhome.’

You get the drift. This is a seventies tour de farce from Ayckbourn that has apparently won a clutch of awards. Sadly, this version is unlikely to produce a gong for the mantelpiece.

The insurmountable problem with transferring this kind of stage comedy to the airwaves is simple; it is a glaringly visual medium. Nuance of expression and comic acting are the backbone of farce and this simply cannot be reproduced in an aural setting.

And so it proved. Much of this was cringeworthy, not funny despite the best efforts of redoubtable husband and wife duo Martin Jarvis and Rosalind Ayres. The pair have produced some radio corkers in recent years including Sweeney Todd but I'm afraid this was a step too far. Both were excellent actors too in this but others, notably Stephen Mangan, were hamming it up even more than the script required.

I saw one or two farces in my days on the theatre beat and they really need a live audience. This would have been much improved by being recorded in front of a vociferous crowd.

Broken Colours

I’ve sometimes wondered, what is the colour of the wind? Is this a serious metaphysical question or something that simply permeates my deluded mind?

In Broken Colours, this kind of dreamlike idea is encapsulated by the synaesthesia of artist Jessica, a woman who experiences colours in sound.

There is a disquieting, subversive fear in this cultural anxiety which brings to mind the character - also called Jessica - in the Christopher Nolan movie Memento, who wrestled with an incessant sound within the confines of her consciousness.

Apart from the mystical, almost spiritual interrogation of the senses, the story is rather tepid - artistic girl meets bad-boy and gets involved with his gangsta acquaintances. It doesn’t really move on from this and it is to Matthew ‘Tracks’ Broughton’s credit that he conjures up endless ways to fill the airwaves with philosophising and abstract commentating. And over two series, in fact.

It is more immersive than plot-driven.

Rare Earth

An Afonica production

I must admit I didn't know a lot about Greenland, the land of snow and ice, until I listened to this. I thought I knew the capital city but it is one of those that has changed its name without many realising it, and is now called Nuuk.

It seems the Arctic landmass has seams of minerals known as rare earths that are coveted by the superpowers.

In addition it has a Colonial-style relationship with Denmark and a dark history involving orphans who were whisked away to become little Vikings.

This story attempts to amalgamate these two narratives but doesn't quite pull it off in my view.

It begins with telling us all about mysterious elements with arcane names and tells of an air crash before morphing into a family drama.

I didn’t ever feel the storylines quite gelled but a good listen nonetheless.

4Extra Replay

War of the Worlds

Of all the various radio, TV and bigscreen adaptations of the HG Wells classic I think this 1967 effort is my favourite, although I haven't checked out the recent Disney + version.

It certainly blasts out of orbit that dreadfully dreary BBC TV version from a couple of years ago. What that lacked - pace, tension, fear, a taut script - this serves up aplenty.

Plus a suitably discordant soundtrack from the old Radiophonic workshop.

Available on BBC Sounds.



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


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