December 1997
September 1997
April 1997


The Autumn Season has brought with it a good number of decent programmes; less of them in the middle of the afternoon than last time. I would like another regular drama slot in the evenings; this is my only real grumble about R4. Midweek Theatre might be a good name for it, perhaps!

A new comedy series, Control Group Six (R4 1830 Thursdays from 28 August) contained some good sketches. What about this for originality : a man is ringing a computer helpline. He's worried; he's got his parents round for Sunday lunch and his father has walked out in a huff.........."it's a bit tense.....my Dad's just left the living room and gone into the shed". Have you pressed SHIFT F4 RETURN? "Yes, I've definitely done that.......I think...........hang on, let me try it again" What's happened? "No, you're right, he's coming in. Oh, but he's walking backwards!". No problem, you just need to press BACKLASH RETURN. "He's turned round - brilliant! Now, what can I do with him?" OK - click on the 'father' icon. Pull down the character menu. Tell me what options you've got on screen. "Options - sleeping, watching the snooker, or working out a route home with maps. I'll choose sleeping................ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ". His snoring sounds a bit loud. Click on 'settings' and you'll see a slide bar.............ZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzz.... "Yeah.......OK, that's perfect".

Series 2 of On Baby Street (R4 2300 beginning 3 September) by Jenny Eclair & Julie Balloo continued the trend set in series 1 : acutely observed and witty. The scripts follow the fortunes of three babies born to very different mothers in the same street. In episode 1, in the words of Mother Nature (played by Eclair) "the babies are a month old, bald and incontinent.....let me introduce you to the dribbly little mites...." One of the mothers, deserted by her husband, wakes up with her baby to find herself sopping wet, the child has parted company with her nappy. Programmes like this should be compulsory listening for would-be parents!

Birdsong (R4 1402 beginning 27 October) was the unprepossessing title of a 3-part serial on Monday afternoons, written by Sebastian Faulkes and dramatised by Nick Stafford. Set in 1914, it begins with a failed romance; the man, depressed, leaves for the Army and ends up in the trenches. What made this serial so electrifying was the quality of the dramatisation. The nature of trench warfare, mines and countermines, shellshock and the battle at Beaumont Hamel was graphically covered. My own grandfather was a Lewis gunner at Ypres - he mentioned eating black bread taken from dead Germans but would not speak of other experiences. He was hit by shrapnel and sent back to a Military Hospital in England wrapped in straw. In the words of Captain Wraysford, the lead character : "A boy without legs where the men took tea from a cooker.............they stepped over him...........I feel guilty because I have survived. No child or future generation will ever know what this was like. When it is over, we will go quietly among the living and we will not tell them". (Ed. - Wilfred Owen's poems should also be compulsory reading)..

Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton (R4 1430 11 October) was a new production of the Victorian melodrama; it is difficult to precis without giving away the plot. A woman believes she is going insane; it is not until a perfect stranger knocks on the door that she realises there may be another explanation. Juliet Stevenson & Roger Allam take the lead roles, Annie Castledene did the adaptation. Excellent radio.

Inmates by Allan Sutherland & Stuart Morris (R4 1430 15 November) was a comedy set in a home for incurables. Gobbo can't speak and talks via a letter board; he and his mate Sparky have to decide what to do when two intrusive women are dumped on them. The helplessness of people in institutions and their strategies for coping were covered superbly. Marion Nancarrow directed.

The comedy Monarch Of The Glen by Compton MacKenzie (R4 1430 29 November) also went out in the Saturday afternoon slot. This is becoming the drama highlight of the week. The story involves an English Lord, a rich American visitor and crumbling ancestral castles, a bit like a P.G. Wodehouse plot. Crawford Logan was Ben Nevis and Mairi Gillespie Myrtle.

A Miracle In No-Man's Land by Alex Jones was another WW1 play (R4 2045 15 December). A soldier deserts his regiment in battle. He tells the Court Martial that he saw a vision of Christ on the battlefield. The officers don't believe him.........will he be shot? Fans of "The Archers" may have recognised the voice of Alex Jones (Clive Horrobin) as Private Joseph Taylor.

Bell, Book & Candle by John van Druten (R4 1430 20 December) was a comedy from the 1950s set in a modern-day witches' coven in Knightsbridge, featuring Stephen Moore and Beatie Edney. A bit like "Blithe Spirit" and good entertainment value.

No-one knows whether J.S. Bach met Georg Frederick Handel. They were almost exact contemporaries. Paul Barz's play Handel's Ghost (R3 2200 21 December) assumes that he did. Handel is a man of the world, well-travelled and wealthy, Bach is only a Leipzig choirmaster. But in their verbal sparring, Handel does not have it all his own way. Robert Hardy and Richard Briers played Handel and Bach respectively, John Wells played Handel's servant, J.C. Smith (a good composer in his own right).

Nick Fisher's play Finding Fellows (R4 1402 11 December) was an interesting speculation on the possibility of connecting a computer directly to the human brain. With the current pace of technological advance, we may live to see it.

As for factual material, we've had the excellent Romans In Britain (R4 1600 6x30 min. finishing 6 December) and a superb edition of Science Now on the discovery of the transistor (R4 2000 18 December) and On Giants' Shoulders, a radio biography of Faraday (R4 2030 10 December). An interesting series, Mother Tongue, has begun (R4 Sundays 2030 from 14 December), on the history of the English language and its development in different parts of the world.

The only regular comedy highlight has been ISIHAC (R4 Mondays 1830 ending 15 December) - not surprising, as good comedy is rare. But Jeremy Hardy has brightened a few mornings with his Power & How To Get It (R4 1002, Wednesdays, 4 x 30 min. ending 3 December) and series 3 of Ballylenon (R4 1225 Wednesdays beginning 3 December) isn't bad. Overall, an excellent 3 months' listening.

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The summer seemed at the time to be a trifle thin on drama, but there have been some excellent plays amongst the dross. There have also been some good features. As ever, most of the quality material has been in the afternoons, so the timer has been in regular use. I am grateful to those VRPCC members who have supplied some items which I missed.

Lobby Lud by Douglas Livingstone (R4 1430 28 June) was the true story of how a National newspaper improved its flagging circulation. "You are Lobby Lud and I claim the Gazette prize of 50" - in 1927, this phrase was on everybody's lips. Lobby Lud was the pseudonym of a Gazette reporter who was paid to be pursued and identified by the public and he had a number of entertaining scrapes which made the headlines. The cast included Jestyn Jones, Malcolm Storry (from the TV series "The Knock") & Stephen Thorne.

P.S. I Love You by Graeme Curry (R4 1430 5 July) was set in the world of secondhand record shops. Gwen's husband has just died; she discovers that he had a secret life....not a secret lover, however, as her husband had been on the track of what could have been the rarest record in the world..........Gwen & Eddie take up the search. Philip Jackson & Celia Imrie take the lead parts.

Twenty Players, a series of features on fictional sporting heroes, ran for another series. I am not usually a fan, but was keen to hear about Wellesley Fagg, the legendary cricketer who refused net practice on the grounds that it would be unfair to his opponents. (R4 2300, 2 July). It was fronted by TMS joker Jonathan Agnew, who is an excellent broadcaster whether or not working from a script.

Cold Call by Collin Johnson (R4 1402 22 July). Set in an advertising agency. Philip Swift is a would-be novelist short of cash, so he takes a job selling advertising space over the telephone. Will he ever make a sale? Alistair McGowan plays Philip, Deborah Finley, Karen. A real treat. Fans of Collin Johnson may remember the play "Capital Gains" which spawned a 4-part serial some time ago about Julius Hutch, an unassuming man who suddenly finds that a Japanese bank has accidentally transferred billions of pounds into his account. A second series of Capital Gains began 2 days after Cold Call, chronicling Hutch's further adventures (R4 starting 24 July, 1002). Peter Jones plays the billionaire - superbly, as one might expect and the plot takes some interesting turns.

Test Match Special has been in good form throughout the summer. I have friends with no interest in cricket who listen to Agnew, Blowfield and Martin-Jenkins for hours at a time. The commentators' friendly, good-mannered chat and their occasional inability to resist acting like schoolboys planning a raid on the tuckshop makes TMS a "must" during every Test Match. A recent addition to the team is Graham Fowler, an expert in the game and, like Agnew, a natural raconteur. The Australian guest commentator Neville Oliver read an article published in the "Evening Standard" on 26 July, quoting an anonymous source which had claimed that TMS was under threat from the new Radio 4 Controller. Oliver was most eloquent, and chose 1800 hrs., peak listening time, to speak about it. A few minutes later, a BBC spokesman rang the programme to deny the allegation. Hardly surprising. Watch this space.

Wormholes, a 3-part serial by Martin Jameson and Peter Kerry (R4 Sundays, from 6 July) was a good Science Fiction story ("Children's Radio 4"). A Science teacher has invented a machine which can travel through wormholes to parallel universes...........he disappears............then his son starts playing around with it. A pity that Radio 5 doesn't broadcast programmes like this any more - with rare exceptions, Five Live's schedule is dire. (Ed. Sorry, Nigel, don't agree with you there!)

People Like Us (R4 Sats. from 19 July, 1000). Third series. One of the best original comedies for some years. Roy Mallard, never quite on the same wavelength as his interviewee, stumbles through more investigations of other people's jobs. Chris Langham plays Mallard and a varying cast supports. (Brilliant script reading of a splendid script - Ed.). This programme could run and run unless nobbled by TV.

Ladies' Day (R4 2 August, 1430), by Lynne Truss, was a golfing comedy. Joanna is horrified by the sexism at the Golf Club; the male members are horrified by the presence of women in the bar. As one of the older members put it - "it's like some lacy underwear party now.......the women barge into the bar and order drinks for themselves...." But to qualify for an EC Grant to upgrade the "Gentlemens' Facilities", women have to be admitted. Nicholas Farrell plays Robert and James Grout, Jack, in this entertaining romp.

Other worthwhile programmes have included Northeast of Eden, a 6-part light comedy by Peter Kerry, set on a remote island, starring Joan Sims and Time and Motion Man (R4 2 August, 1600), a feature based on the trial transcripts of Frederick Winslow Taylor, who appeared before a special Congressional Committee in 1911 and whose time and motion studies caused revolution in factories worldwide. And a real gem was transmitted on R4, Sunday 3 August, 0745, when Quentin Seddon interviewed Sylvie Jones over breakfast in the On Your Farm series near Whale Chine on the Isle of Wight. Sylvie has seen many changes in her 70-odd years, including the discovery of a dinosaur skeleton on her land with the consequent influx of tourists. I was lucky enough to meet her there in the summer of 1996, driving her old Ford van, and we exchanged a few words. She is an interviewer's dream and her half-hour on the radio seemed over in a few minutes.

(Ed. - I have heard parts of "Close Enough To Touch", the dramatised story of the loss of the submarine HMS Thetis in Liverpool Bay on 1 June, 1939, which cost 99 lives. Written by Fred Lawless. Broadcast R4 Saturday 27 September, 1430 hrs. From what I heard, I can say that this represents the very best of radio, engaging the imagination and emotions. A truly horrifying story, splendidly acted by a first-rate cast. Recommended most enthusiastically to anyone with the remotest interest in good radio. Can I also comment on a 5-part series, "Libel", R4, Fridays from 22 August at 1000 hrs. Dramatisation of famous cases of the 20th. century, very well-produced and worth revisiting).

Most of the above programmes are held by VRPCC members, and I have all except Time & Motion Man.

NIGEL DEACON, August, 1997.

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Many thanks to Nigel for this - I hope that this will be a regular feature and that other members will consider providing brief comment on other categories of output (if they have time!!). -Roger Bickerton

Nigel writes - another interesting 4 months of drama, a lot of it tucked away in the weekday slots at 1402. A timer is becoming a necessity these days! I can't get used to the reorganised Saturday evening drama output, but The Shroud by Robert Forrest (2215, R4 22 March, 1997) was a thrilling multi-murder mystery linked to the story of the Turin Shroud, set in a murky world of crime and religious extremism.. Detective-Inspector Quinlan, played by Keith Falconer, sorts out the corpses.

The Citadel by A.J. Cronin (1430 R4, Sundays, beginning 2 February, 1997) was the story of a young GP and his rise up the medical and social ladders. James Macpherson plys the Doctor and Kelly Hunter his long-suffering wife.

Aglooka - John Rae & The Lost Navigators by Tom Pow (R4 1420 30 January, 1997) was about John Rae's expedition to the Canadian Arctic to discover the fate of Franklin and his men who had journeyed northwards in 1847 but become locked in the ice. Interesting listening for all Arctic and Antarctic enthusiasts. Perhaps we might get a repeat of "The Worst Journey In The World" (Apsley Cherry-Garrard's account of part of Scott's journey to the South Pole) before too long, or even a dramatisation of Shackleton's South Pole attempt............we can but hope.

Gift From The North by David Pownall (R4 1402 13 February, 1997) concerns the plight of a Lancashire fisherman who catches a sturgeon. His friend says it belongs to the monarch - how can he get the fish to Queen Victoria? I wonder if the play was inspired by the Marriott Edgar/Stanley Holloway monologue...........followers of David Pownall may remember "A Matter of Style" (1988) about those who lived, probably uncomfortably, at the top of stone pillars and "Plato not NATO" (1990), where a Yugoslav and an Englishman exchange holidays.

Waterland by Graham Swift (R4 1402 3 episodes 10, 17 & 24 March, 1997) , adapted by Steve Chambers from the novel, offered a glimpse into another world - that of the Fens in the late 1800s, through the memories and experiences of a schoolmaster on the brink of retirement. It begins as a series of of anecdotes interspersed with with scenes involving the schoolmaster and his class, but after a while links between the flashbacks become apparent. I was sorry when the series ended, and intend to read the novel if a copy becomes available; it was published about a decade ago. (Nigel - did you know that "The Classroom" is an anagram of "schoolmaster"? - Ed.).

The Cookbook of Apicius by Jim Miller ( 6 x 15 mins., beginning R4 2315 29 January according to my records, 22 January according to RT), featured the well-known TV cook Keith Floyd as Roman culinary expert Apicius, ably assisted by his scribe Felix (Alan Francis). Political Correctness, animal rights and other 90s fads are forgotten as Apicius tells us how to prepare 'dormouse on a stick'. 'Get your baby dormouse, stick it alive in a nice little earthenware pot, with a lid obviously, but also a breathing hole.............feed on milk, white flour and honeyed wine.........I waited until the pot didn't rattle when shaken, meaning the mice are maximum size..........smashed the pots, skinned the mice and got cooking". Wonderful stuff and many will be hoping for a 2nd. series.

A new production of Oedipus The King was broadcast on R4 (1945 24 March, 1997), directed for radio by Peter Hall. An interesting translation by Ranjit Bolt infused it with new life, and it was stunning radio even for those who find difficulty in listening to drama in rhyme.

At the other end of the spectrum, and no less enjoyable for that, came Pet Sematary (sic) by Stephen King (R4 6 x 30 minutes, 2300 beginning 20 February, 1997). The odd spelling is explained if you listen to the story. It must be said that King is no Sophocles, but, like Jeffrey Archer, he can tell a good tale. This one was truly hair-raising. Dramatised by Godfrey Evans and with original music by David Chilton & Nicholas Russell-Pavier, it is about a University Doctor who learns of the strange power of the Micmac Indian burial ground behind the pet cemetery. Salem's Lot, broadcast a couple of years ago in the same Thursday slot, also by King, was similarly excellent.

The Hydro by Ronald Frame was a 4-part series of plays based in a luxury hotel in the Scottish Highlands, starring Eliza Langland & David Rintoul (R4, 1402 beginning 30 April, 1997). The plots were interesting, the characters well-drawn and the plays held the attention throughout.

Next Time We Might Play Better (R4 1402 15 May, 1997) by Peter Tinniswood was an excellent comedy. An excruciatingly inept quartet of musicians - this play charts their progress in village halls, tea rooms and providing the background music at funerals.........Graham Crowden & Hugh Dickson take the lead parts and the ubiquitous Stephen Thorne occurs a little way down the cast list. Tinniswood's plays are always worth a listen : "Pen Pals" also went out fairly recently. Enthusiasts may remember the Uncle Mort play "Call It A Canary", which was put on a few years ago, with Thorne playing Uncle Mort. A 90-minute sequel to this would be tremendous, but the powers-that-be seem to confine Mort and Carter Brandon to 10-minute mini-series like "Celtic Fringe" - a little disappointing for those who like a properly worked out plot with a beginning, a middle and an end.

A Call From The Dead (R4, 1402 20 May, 1997) by Carey Harrison was a chilling tale of a psychiatrist telephoned by a patient. The man is hysterical; he claims to have been buried alive..........he's making the call from his mobile 'phone buried with him...........very much in the style of "Macabre", broadcast in the early 1960s. John Shrapnel plays the Doctor.

As for comedy, we've had 6 more superb lectures from Jeremy Hardy on Thursday evenings on R4 at 1830, some remakes of To The Manor Born with Penelope Keith on R2 and yet another series of Just A Minute with an interesting selection of guests (Julian Clary, Tony Hawks, Graham Norton, Neil Mullarkey & Fred McAuley). Maurice Denham (now well into his 80s, I should think) has been excelling in a 2nd. series of P.G. Wodehouse's The Oldest Member at 1225 on Wednesdays - the choice of Frank Crumit's golfing song as signature tune is inspired.

A good few months' listening. If the next few are as good, we should be well satisfied.

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