You only listen to comedy? Try these radio plays...
by Nigel Deacon

The Brilliant Darkness of Radio Drama
by Steve Walker



I am often contacted by people who tell me they like comedy shows but would like to give radio plays a go, and they ask me to recommend something to start them off. You need a strong story line which will appeal to almost anyone, good casting, and excellent writing. Here are ten plays which are gripping, thrilling, funny or intriguing and which might - just might - cause a person to send back the television licence, put away the comedy tapes and listen to some master storytelling instead...as a young listener once confided to Trevor Hill*, the pictures are better on the radio......

1. DEADFALL, by Rodney Wingfield. 60m. Harry, an explosives expert, is in the demolition business, blowing up old factory chimneys. But he used to work for an undercover part of the Ministry of Defence, and was involved in an assassination attempt on a rising black politician, Kabinda. Some odd events take place - an old colleague turns up; there is an car accident; someone disappears.... is Harry's past catching up with him, or is it all coincidence? This is a superbly-paced thriller, broadcast first by the BBC and subsequently in Canada and Australia. It stars Bob Peck as Harry Davis, Judy Berry as Jenny Brown, with Stephen Thorne, Jim Reynolds, Alan Dudley, Aubrey Woods and Peter Howe; produced by Ian Cotterell.

It's a pretty surprising notion at first appearance, but the Kamikaze Groundstaff do have a reunion dinner; they're not failed Kamikaze pilots, but the men who serviced the planes. John le Mesurier (as a wealthy Japanese dentist and ex-groundstaff) finds at the Reunion Dinner that the Kamikaze spirit is not dead, even forty years on....

3. THE POINT OF THE STORY, by Perry Pontac, 45m
A small comic masterpiece: a story within a story within a story within a story and back again. All Perry's plays are fun, and this one is superb.

4. EVENTS AT THE SALAMANDER HOTEL, by Don Haworth 90m A wonderful, hilarious play about a hard-up travelling saleman and his cronies who evolve a novel strategy for cutting their accommodation costs when times are difficult....Stephen Thorne is the narrator ("Uncle Mort" in the Carter Brandon stories), and there is a strong supporting cast. Not to be missed.

5. SKYHOOKS, by Alan Plater , 90m
Comedy set in an architect's office...a middle aged architect has his world disturbed when there is an attempted takeover by a thrusting young newcomer...but as compensation, there's the young dolly-bird on Work Experience ... will he be the one to win the sweepstake if he's the first to chat her up?

6. GLIDING WITH Mr. GLEESON, by Bernard Farrell , 75m
Mr. Gleeson works in advertising; works hard, gets home exhausted, but is he appreciated? His son is training to be a hang - glider, but will that pay the bills? Then there's mother-in- law, criticising and carping about his job but happy to scrounge; and his daughter, hard at work going to discotheques...he comes to a decision: things are going to change. Comic play with a serious side; stars Alan Barry and Doreen Hepburn.

A supernatural thriller, narrated by the steeplejack who is hired to restore part of the cathedral. He feels uneasy each time he works on one of the towers, and his son starts to behave strangely. Following this there's a serious accident. He decides to look into the tower's history. A frightening, gripping story. With Peter Meakin as Joe Clarke, Terry Molloy as Sergeant Allardyce and John Webb as the Revd. Morris; directed at Pebble Mill by Rosemary Watts.

8. PRINCE OF THIEVES, by Rod Beacham , 90m
Another memorable comedy play...Mr. Prince has just come out of jail and is planning another Big Crime .... with the aid of his two ex- cronies and a nutty academic, a genius who can open electronic locks including the ones in security vaults - unfortunately he sees himself as an avenging angel where his wife is concerned...Stephen Moore is Prof. Pargetter, Peter Vaughan is Jack Prince, and his long-suffering henchmen are played by Alan Thompson (Worm) and Trevor Nichols (Cruncher).

9. TIME AFTER TIME, by Gerry Jones , 45m
One of the best plays ever written for radio -a traveller, suffering from amnesia, checks into a hotel. But it is like no other.... the staff are evasive; and no-one will tell him where he is.He decides to leave, but each attempt leads him back to where he started; he cannot get out. And people keep repeating themselves- what is going on? This play has been broadcast in two versions; one by the BBC and one by ABC (Australia).

10.HAUNTED BY MORE CAKE by Steve Walker , 45m
We are in the territory of the very very odd... I am going to a concert, and if I use a stethoscope I can hear my recently-deceased uncle somewhere in my guts...why is the attractive young lady (also down there) playing tennis with lecherous old Mario? And why are there thousands of old balls in no-man's land behind the tennis court? With Graham Crowden as Uncle Ginger, Joan Mattheson as Aunt Maud, and Stephen Tompkinson as their nephew Lionel. Also stars Victoria Carling, John Bull, Richard Pearce, Philip Sully, John Warner, Joan Walker, Nicholas Courtney, Jo Kendall. SMs Peter Novis, Jane Napier, Keith Graham; directed by Ned Chaillet.

* recounted by Trevor at the VRPCC conference 2001

Nigel Deacon, Diversity Website.

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The Brilliant Darkness Of Radio Drama
by Steve Walker

For me writing a radioplay is like drawing directly into a listener's head. So as I am also an artist and draw every day, radio drama was a natural extension of my other work. In my radioplays I draw into the mind's eye pictures in spaces that are described by words, character, sounds and action, the ambition being to blow those heads apart with a combination of images, ideas and emotions that will change each listener forever.

There is an oft-repeated statement about radio drama: unlike television or cinema it does not dictate to the imagination of the audience, but allows each listener to imagine the pictures for themself according to their personal mental drift. This is not true of my plays. In my plays I do the imagining, then share it; radio drama is a mind-altering tool, so must be precise and exact. The audience must be led where the play wants them to go or they will be left wandering in the dark all alone. In my plays I am with them.

Words and sounds and evoked spaces are how a radio drama is drawn into the head, but there are times - whole plays even - when the drawing is withdrawn. The power of a drawing is centred in what it selects to show and what it omits. So what is left in a radio drama if the pictures are withdrawn? A spirit is left behind, a ghost of a drawing remains, the play's unique consciousness endures invigorated. In other words, you don't have to see anything with the mind's eye. You just have to hear. The play is then like a silhouette, but one that is only darkness, figures moving in a brilliant darkness, leaving the listener with something felt, not complicated by seeing, as with a dream whose emotions are still active upon waking but whose pictures are not. Radio drama, therefore, is a medium perhaps better placed for the communication of raw and subtle emotions than any other. It can educate the feelings, rather than merely exciting them.

So Bernard Shaw's famous put-down about radio drama that it is theatre for the blind misses the whole point. That you can't SEE what is happening IS the power. It is a joke that you can't see, waiting to be exploited.

The above goes some way to explaining why radio drama has suffered so badly from the dumbing-down which has slashed and burned across the whole of British culture since the mid-90s. On TV there are no longer any imaginative plays to watch. Someone wanted it that way. But there are still pictures to look at, so there is an illusion of action. There is also shouting, an illusion of emotion. Plus, TV is a communal medium - people watch it together, keeping up running commentaries, part of a shared life. Radio listeners do their listening alone. There is no distraction except the play itself, something absorbing, into which the consciousness wishes to be absorbed, even while doing other things. So when radio drama is dumbed-down, when its potential for imagination is curtailed, nothing that I have claimed for it here is activated, so nothing is happening.

This, sadly, is where radio drama is right now, and personally speaking, it is no longer possible to get produced the kind of plays I wish to write, not in the UK anyhow. Radio drama is a fragile and misunderstood medium and may already have left us. And if it has, we have lost a place in which to create, to share, to feel, which had qualities and specialities that do not exist elsewhere. The BBC had the opportunity, when things were generally dumbing-down, when culture was narrowing in other areas, to intensify its commitment to radio drama by freeing it up, making it a true arena for free imaginative expression, a national theatre bursting with diverse life. But instead it went with the age. With the drear narrowness that has resulted, the BBC may already have killed the medium it had protected for so long.

The management style of control-freakery has also played a part in the suppression of a grander radio drama. Perhaps because, as I said above, radio drama is a mind-altering tool, its influence is to be feared, like all influences great, small and minuscule. So this is how it must be in a land now devoted to a hatred of imagination, a British vice now more prevalent than ever before. The majority of Britishers now are well aware that they have none of it. Radio drama cannot thrive with its ideas narrowed and its imagination suppressed. So instead of awakening the unimaginative and entertaining the dumbed-down-upon radio drama is doing nothing.

The position of the writer has also changed. When I started writing plays at the BBC everyone there was fond of saying that radio drama was a writer's medium, and they almost meant it because it was almost true. If anyone said so today it would be an outright lie, because there is no truth left in it. Writers have become a servant class at the BBC, and this lack of spirit, of independance of mind shows in the plays still produced. The values of the producers, of the secret committees, are dictated to tame writers who must comply in order to be employed. I remember John Osborne railing on the exact subject at his last public appearance ten years ago. 'Poor thing must be drunk', they said. He was. But that is why he was. He was also prophetic, except that it is now worse than he predicted it would be, radio-wise, writing-wise, everything-wise.

I wish I could write a radioplay about a wombat balancing on a stick. For a whole hour-long radioplay it would be up there. But this idea would have to be approved by a half dozen individuals and committees, worried by the allegorical influence upon the increasingly ageing listenership of a wombat up a stick. And each person and committee would want something changed - the wombat, the stick - until nothing of pure value was left. This is why my radio drama days are over. You'll have to imagine the wombat and the stick all by yourself, in brilliant darkness.

ęSteve Walker .

Extracts from a conversation between Emon Hassan and Steve Walker are reproduced on SW page 2. His radio plays are discussed on SW page 1.

(Texts of many of Steve Walker's radioplays, and also a selection of his silhouettes, are available on his website

http://www.swalks.com )

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