Radio Drama in 2021
Harry Turnbull

2021 crackers and turkeys

A year full of new drama, reworked classics, repeats and a surge in podcast output.

I suppose most years will have highs and lows but what was certainly noticeable in this past 12 months was the number of repeats. At one stage the midweek afternoon drama slot was three-fifths featuring work making a second outing. And re-running very recent broadcasts at the weekend ,such as The Pallisers, was also conspicuous. I suppose this direction of travel will only speed up given the additional resources allocated to podcasts.

Aside from those issues there were a number of highlights. For me, Sweeney Todd by husband and wife team Martin Jarvis and Rosalind Ayres was something to savour. Jarvis despatching his customers with relish. The pair also teamed up with playwright David Mamet for The Christopher Boy’s Reunion, a searing tale of murder, and the ethics of love at all costs.

I’m not a great fan of remakes for their own sake but Anita Sullivan’s updating of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was well worth the effort. In this stylish version Marlow is replaced by a female called Maya who is an environmental scientist sent up the Congo. Of the afternoon 45 minute dramas, Murmuration with Christopher Eccleston caught my ear. Rather odd at first until you realise it is about someone hearing voices. A poignant drama by Christine Entwhistle which became all the more so when I read his biography about his various life experiences.

Talking of poignant, Another Place struck a chord as it was about a new mum finding out her son has hearing loss. I well remember that 14 years ago with my daughter. The message was one of hope but it's still a rocky road.

Lud in the Mist was a magical foray into a weird wonderland inhabited by strange folk like Widow Gibberty. It got the stamp of approval from fantasy superstar Neil Gaiman who made a cameo appearance as Duke Aubrey.

Takeover was a Goldhawk production so a fast-paced thriller came as no surprise. In this tale an Indian billionaire wrestles with legacy and his often inconsiderate children.

The highlight of Drama on 3 for me was Terminal 3 directed by Toby Swift. Lars Noren’s dramatic exploration of love and tragedy involving two couples who turn out to be the same; only time is the differentiator. At the time I likened this to a Spaghetti western, a sentiment not thrilling some purists:
‘Now, in Noren’s own bleak look at personal turbulence we have She, He, Man and Woman. It’s not only the impersonal ambiguity but the taciturn dialogue,the pauses, the unfinished sentences - all remind one of Pinter but also Clint Eastwood as the vengeful drifter. And the often surreal nature of the surroundings and characters, the playful way time is distorted are all qualities of an absurdist nature.’

Yule Need To Do Better

The second series of the dystopian tale about a drowned world - No Place But Water - meandered along like a leaf floating down a brook. By which I mean, there wasn’t a great deal happening until the very end when some interlopers descended on the hotel where our stranded family have been left bobbing about. Waiting until the very end to inject some drama and then ending abruptly seemed questionable.It can only mean a further series is on its way. It’s a pity really as the idea in the first series caught the imagination but now seems another one of those going a series too far. Paedophilia is a difficult subject to tackle but Safe From Harm didn’t cut it for me. Writer Rhiannon Boyle decided to make the main character a female teacher whose male colleague was imprisoned for distributing images of child abuse. She feels she needs to know what motivated him but instead of seeking advice from one of the charitable organisations who deal with such matters she tracks down a self-confessed pedo on the internet. What is most distasteful is that she discusses her own fantasies with him. Then she decides to chat to the jailed teacher but the prison tells her he was released early. In what world would this information be offered? How would she know which prison? I had dinner with a guy who a week later was arrested for a crime, which,at the time attracted Britain's longest prison sentence. That was 1986 and I now understand he has been released. In trying to track him down I have spent six months wrestling with government replies to Freedom of Information requests. What would have been more manageable and dramatic would have been exploring the impact on the offender’s wife and children when the news became public ,which would have triggered a detonation they would be unlikely to recover from.

And now………may I introduce…… The Turkey

I’ve never taken psychotropic drugs but I imagine the world might appear very much like this when under the influence. Starship Titanic seemed to be a rambling, incoherent babble presented as some sort of would-be comic space opera. I was genuinely bemused so I read up on its history.

The idea of the Starship Titanic emerged in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and later morphed into a computer game. Former Monty Python Terry Jones was asked to write a novel to tie it all together. Then things become a little clearer. Terry had just three weeks to pen an 80,000 word novel full of side-splitting cosmic comedy. Mission impossible to say the least. What’s presented is a surreal, stream-of-consciousness journey through the space time continuum. The real question then becomes, who on earth,or elsewhere, thought this was worth an hour of prime time radio drama? And why did those dragged into it, go along with it?

Podcast Pick

The Uncanny

Danny Robbins of Battersea Poltergeist fame hosted a podcast series looking at events of a paranormal and out-of-this-world nature.

People are interviewed about their experiences, Danny throws in a few oohs and ahs and then conjures up a ‘skeptical’ parapsychologist to give an opinion. Hang on, I thought parapsychology was a pseudoscience aimed at proving unexplained phenomena?

I digress. In one episode a former mortuary attendant turned childrens’ services saviour called Tom recounted how he was on hand when a troubled Muslim boy attempted to gain entry to paradise by necking a bottle of bleach. Danny prefaces this by saying real names are not being used but that the ensuing details are all ‘entirely accurate and true’. And of course the storyteller always expresses a disbelief in the supernatural at the outset. The boy Yousuf - yeh, not real name - was in the bath lying back and glugging like a wino who’s found a full bottle of gin. This was spied through the keyhole. Try as he might, Tom couldn’t boot open the door which was bolted from the inside. Miraculously the bolt slid open just before life left Yousuf behind.. In rushes our hero and the day is saved. Hurrah! Could it possibly have been a guardian angel or telekinesis was the gist of the discussion that followed.

The listener is left to make his or her conclusion.

It is easy to be incredulous about such matters but I must confess to having my own experience recounted on the podcast We Need To Talk About Ghosts when I spent the night alone in an astronomical observatory atop a wooded hillside in an area known for witchcraft and sacrifices.

It was something I would never repeat - well, not without a bottle of Gordon’s - but was what happened that night all in my own terrified mind? I'm still not sure.

Ambridge Extra

A year dominated not by the plague but Alice's descent into alcoholism reminiscent of Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. A hellish torment for the fragrant daughter of a gentleman farmer with all the privileges life can throw at her. But of course the demon drink is a classless fiend. It will be interesting to see if she emerges in the New Year like a regenerated Dr Who with barely a trace of the former drunkard.

Another long-running storyline concerned Blake, the slave victim of builder Philip Moss. His story looks like ending on a bright note but I wonder how many were convinced by it all. Certainly Kirsty dropped him like a roasting potato. Come Kirst, even rapists and killers get prison visits from loved ones.

Towards the end of the year Hazel Woolley turned up like Christmas Past. The old bag even attempted some humanity - had her brush with ill health made her reappraise her approach to life? No, she soon showed her curmudgeonly self was alive and well. Surprising really as I thought this was heading for a Scroogle-like conversion story for the end of another Covid nightmare year.

HT / 24 Dec 21

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


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