Radio Drama Reviews
20 Jul 2023

Harry Turnbull

Carl Prekopp on directing Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean

Drama on 3

Although Ibsen claimed ‘Emperor and Galilean’ as his masterwork, that view has rarely been endorsed by directors. In fact the first English stage version was only produced at the National Theatre in 2011, courtesy of writer Ben Power, who provides the introduction for this Radio 3 adaptation.The two play drama focuses on the emperor Julian who strived to return Roman rule to the time of Pagan gods, before Christianity had taken a grip. Power describes it as one of the most important ‘unknown’ plays ever written.

The Radio 3 version had been suggested by station controller Alan Davy who recently stepped down from the post.

Versatile actor and director Carl Prekopp was drafted in at the last minute to handle its production and turn a script designed for theatre into one for the aural medium. He explained:

‘I didn't come on board until the month before studio recording dates so in the month leading up to studio I had to adapt Ben Power's script down to suit a non-visual medium by re-setting some of the scenes and reducing it to a cast of 12.

‘Once I had cast it, we had six days in the studio, followed by eight days editing/sound design and broadcast a week later.’

Many listening will have been struck by the smoothly menacing tones of Sian Phillips, 90 now, who thrilled us as Livia in the BBC TV production of I, Claudius in the 1970s. Here she plays Maxima (Maximus in the Ibsen version) who is soothsayer to Julian and encourages him to grasp his destiny as Master of the World, ahead of the usurper Jesus Christ.

Carl again:

‘Casting a piece like this is important as the lead has to carry almost every single scene and Julian's journey takes him from lost young boy to bloodthirsty tyrant. Freddie Fox is a beautiful actor, with a wonderful energy, vulnerability and power that enabled him to do just that.

‘In a play with so many male voices, especially in a patriarchy like the Roman Empire, I thought why can't Maximus be a woman? I've worked with Sian Phillips a number of times on the other side of the microphone and I thought she would be perfect.

‘I'm always keen to introduce new voices to radio and Agathon was played by Nye Occomore who is graduating from Oxford School of Drama this year. I taught him once and was so impressed I offered him the part as I think the world of radio will benefit from new young actors like him who understand and love the medium.

‘Overall the main theme I wanted to convey was not so much the epic socio-political or religious events but more focussing on the psychological frustrations and uncertainty of a young man lost and confused about his identity.’

The two episodes highlight the conflict between paganism and Christianity, between the flesh and spirit and demonstrates Ibsen’s own discord when addressing these themes. The production captures this discourse with stark realism.

Ibsen wrote it in 1874 before the great plays he is well-known for but always held this in highest regard.

Although Carl Prekopp is well-known as an actor his directing credits span ten years and awards including best director at the New York festival for a production of Macbeth.

Emperor and Galilean is on BBC Sounds. Broadcast dates: 2 July and 9 July at 1930.

A Ghastly Mistake

Produced by International Arts Partnership for Drama on 3

Trans rights continue to be subject to culture conflict but who knew the upper classes were involved in a battle for recognition back in the sixties? Dr Ewan Forbes stood to inherit the Scottish baronetcy of Craigiever after denouncing his assigned gender as a girl at birth but the line only allowed for male heirs. His cousin John Forbes Sempill challenged the succession on the grounds Ewan, born Elizabeth, was ineligible.

If the issue causes division now, imagine what it would have been like in the mid-sixties. As it happens the legal case was held ‘in camera’ and although it became widely known after Forbes' death in 1991 the full documentation was only released in 2021.

The story has been revived by writer Nicholas McInerny and will surely resonate given the times we are in. Although set at the time of the court hearing, he uses the device of introducing Forbes deceased mother Gwendolyn as a voice from beyond the grave.

It still seems extraordinary in such times that she embraced her offspring’s transition from female to male, a situation he insisted on from the age of six and made legal on his birth certificate years later in 1952. The title of the tale, ‘A Ghastly Mistake’, refers to Forbes anger that he was registered a girl at birth.

The dialogue does detail the technicalities of male and female physical attributes and it may be that the actual issue here is not a trans one but that of DSD (Disorders of Sex Development). It's possible that Ewan was a hermaphrodite and frustrated that he wasn't born with the full male attributes more than someone wishing to transition but also angry he had to prove who he was.

Much of the story is told from the point of view of Judge Hunter with observations from Gwendolyn and with further comments from people identifying as trans this swerves slightly into docu drama territory.

And of course underlying the drama of the legal case is the issue of women being denied the right to succession. An intriguing story.

Listen on BBC Sounds to find out what happens.

The Ballad of Syd and Morgan

Drama on 4

Featuring Tyger Drew-Honey and Simon Russell Beale

When I arrived on my first day as a junior reporter I was informed by the news editor I was being pitched in at the deep end - that very evening I was to attend Hesketh Bank Parish Council and make myself known to formidable chairlady Nellie Iddon.

I told him I had tickets to see Pink Floyd that evening but luckily I could work any other night; his smouldering pipe almost exploded. I was told I’d better reassess my response and then he added, more jovially ‘ I think you’d better Set The Controls for the Heart of Lancashire, son, not the Manchester Free Trade Hall’. And then, even more wittily, ‘Get yourself up there and winkle out a Saucerful of Secrets’. His reference to tracks by the band amused him no end.

But it was a first day lesson that never left me.

The Floyd’s ‘Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun’ off the album ‘Saucerful Of Secrets’ is one of the last tracks to feature a contribution from mercurial artist Syd Barrett.

This story seemed an intriguing one, an encounter in 1968 between the 22 year old lost soul of rock, Barett, and 89 year old giant of literature E.M.(Morgan) Forster. It provided an absorbing exchange between a pair who would seem to have little in common but found they were haunted by some of the same demons that sometimes curse the creative impulse.

Music had to feature of course and when Barrett arrives at Forster’s Cambridge apartment he is looking for a picture of a bike he had painted years before. He then tinkles the Floyd track of the same name on the aged novelist’s piano.

Forster concludes that the surprise visit was somehow concocted by the Greek god Pan and had some mysteriously ethereal meaning.However, it came as something of a shock at the end to find a BBC continuity announcer intoning that the story was entirely fictitious, an adaptation from a 2018 book by Haydn Middleton. I felt somewhat disappointed.

Bed For The Night

Drama on 4, by David Pownall

The legacy of Colonialism is examined in this story about an illegal entrant. Amos travels from Africa to contact a British family who decamped from Zimbabwe years ago. Old Colonial Daniel (Nigel Anthony) asked one of his servants to reach out should help be needed when he decided to leave to return to Blighty. Grandson Amos just does that when he turns up on the doorstep in Brighton claiming his private asylum.

I was brought up in the shadow of Britain’s fading Empire and remember Father waxing lyrical about Home and I imagined a rose covered cottage and freshly baked scones for tea. Instead we came back to strikes, foul weather and sharing a tin bath in a rickety two-up, two-down. Britain’s glorious reputation melted faster than a snowflake in a puddle.

For some, the waves of humanity, displaced or otherwise, heading our way represent something of a reckoning. After exploiting lands and resources for so long, is it any surprise some feel it is payback time? Amos, played by Stefan Adegbola, is one such, especially when he learns Daniel coined it Royally on the African continent.

A harsh reminder that large-scale immigration is here to stay. .


Drama on 4

By Cathy Staincliffe

I imagine the greatest assets for an undercover cop are to be a scheming, manipulative liar. Though perhaps not the best attributes when it comes to being human.

Many might think of Al Pacino as covert operator Donnie Brasco, exposing the unpleasant underbelly of the mafia. Sadly, the UK experience seems to be a bit more mundane; wheedling your way into families or exploiting vulnerable single women who are activists.

Of course I'm sure there are lots of dedicated officers doing sterling work. I'm not sure this is one of them. Grace Monroe worms her way into the Curtis family as a live-in nanny after mum Lydia mysteriously disappeared. As is usual, when all else is ruled out, the finger of suspicion points to the husband.

It is Ntombizodwa Ndlovu’s task as Grace to get the lowdown on husband Ben, played by Matthew McNulty.

The three part drama explores the way in which a covert cop gains the confidence of family members in the hope of unearthing evidence. In this case there are two young people to care for as well.

Given the circumstances I suppose it is only possible for a female officer to take up this role and that comes with considerations a male cop probably wouldn’t have - concern for others for one. Probably it's why there are not that many women who undertake this dubious job. In the end, I guess the result would over-ride ethics, but it does seem that many involved in this secret work go on to have serious personal problems.

A fast-paced three parter that never seems to be filling in time.


By Tessa Gibbs

There seems to be quite a preoccupation with death these days. The contemporary take seems rather Boy Scoutish, be prepared. if you can.In this comic take on the subject writer Tessa Gibbs explores how one lady decides to come to terms with her fate and beat the ticking clock.This story unfolds gradually over two parts as initially we form the idea that this might be a murder whodunnit. Events prove otherwise in this thought-provoking comic drama.



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