December 1998
September 1998
April 1998


(This review covers the period May-Dec 1998)

A long time since the last review, so there's quite a lot to report.

Bring Me The Head of Oliver Cromwell (R4 1430 hrs. 9 May), presented by Tony Robinson, was one of those gems in which R4 specialises. It told of the travels of Cromwell's head, its passage through the hands of many owners, including a fairground owner and a country clergyman and its eventual burial within the precincts of a Cambridge college.

The West Pier by Patrick Hamilton (R4 2 episodes beginning 1500 hrs. 14 June), dramatised by Allan Prior, was set in the 1920s. A tale of a man without scruples deceiving a younger girl and appropriating her money. Michael Sheen plays the treacherous Gorse and Alison Pettitt, Esther.

The Old Man & The Angel by Alex Ferguson (R4, 1500 hrs. 11 July) was an excellent play about an old man who loses his wife.........then an angel appears to him. The dialogue between the old man, played by James Bolam, the angel and various people who try to help him, including a particularly unctuous counsellor, is wonderful. Sensitive listeners should have handkerchiefs ready.

Radio 2 broadcast two 1-hour long programmes about the Danish comedian and musician Victor Borge on 30 May and 6 June at 2200 hrs. Most of his routines will be familiar, but they are worth another listen. "Phonetic Alphabet" was always one of my favourites. Does anyone know if he still performs?

The Strange Petitioner by Joe Dunlop (R4 22 June) was the true story of Robert K. Andrews, who was by choice a down-and-out in London and a daily visitor to the Commons for 40 years, on first name terms with many Ministers and MPs. Tony Benn contributed to the programme, as did Peter Bottomley, Emma Nicholson and Bernard Wetherill.

The Barnes Originals (R4 1130 hrs. 21 July) by Claire Dowie was a hilarious 30 minute drama starring Nicky Henson and Stephen Moore. I have never heard a better portrayal of grown men behaving like juveniles, to the despair of their wives and girl-friends. Perhaps Ms. Dowie should consider whether there is enough material for a series.

Fair Game by Dave Simpson (R4 1415 hrs. 19 June) was a psychological thriller starring Christian Rodska and Maggie O' Neill. A new female employee joins the firm; her boss takes a friendly interest........but then the emotional blackmail begins. The play culminates in blackmail and murder and my wife found it somewhat disturbing - so be warned!

Like They've Never Been Gone (R4 1130 hrs. 6 episodes beginning 17 July) by Mike Coleman was a sitcom starring June Whitfield and Roy Hudd as Sheila Parr and Tommy Franklin, winners of the 1962 Eurovision Song Contest. Now, over 30 years later, they find themselves back in demand. Unfortunately, they can't stand the sight of one another. Roy Hudd delivers his one-liners with gusto ("if God hadn't meant us to drink, he wouldn't have given us livers") and Pat Coombs makes a welcome appearance. Mike Coleman wrote another excellent comedy serial "Country Matters" a year or two back, which no-one seems to remember.

The Very World of Milton Jones (R4 Mondays, 1830 hrs. from 18 August) was difficult to find. "Radio Times" gave incorrect information and consequently I missed the first 2 episodes. It's a comedy series with a difference - wonderful plays on words, magnificently awful puns, and Milton Jones delivers the script (which he's had a hand in writing) with great style. "At the time, I wasn't getting on with my yoga teacher......she frequently put me in a very difficult position........my mother always used to say 'sleep tight - mind the bugs don't bite'.........then she'd take the lids off the jamjars" This is in the same class as "People Like Us" and should have a good future. (Ed. - can anyone help Nigel with parts 1 and 2?).

90-minute plays have been rare. We had Five Children and It by E. Nesbit, on a Bank Holiday Monday (R4 1500 hrs. 31 August), with Simon Carter ably playing the Pssamead, a creature which makes childrens' wishes come true. This was an enjoyable yarn and well worth a listen, though the musical jingle linking the scenes was over-used and made it resemble TV, rather than radio, drama. For Simon Carter followers, his next appearance was on 21 October in Mrs. Gaskell's "The Squire's Story", also on R4).

But regular 90-minute plays do not appear to be part of the current management's thinking. There have been some longer items chopped into 1-hour episodes in the "Classic Serial" slot. The Water Babies is a book I never really liked, but the production, in 3 parts was very atmospheric and listenable. Boccaccio's Decameron was similarly treated, but might have been better if allowed more time. Nevertheless, it made me want to read the original.

John Shuttleworth was given his own series (R4 1830 hrs. beginning 3 November), where he aired his dreadful songs and passed the time with celebrity guests. The show is full of original ideas, though it must be said that this is a programme which doesn't appeal to everyone. And it's almost impossible to portray the programme by writing about it; the wit doesn't come through in print. But try this : imagine John, a slightly bemused northerner with no qualifications in music, ringing up a college personnel officer in response to a job vacancy for music lecturer. During the interview, it transpires that his only relevant experience is playing the wood block at primary school and banging it to the words "and his name was Aiken Drum". The programme is acquiring something of cult status, and I recommend that you hear it - a real treat.

At the time of writing this (20 December), 3 longer plays are due to be broadcast. The Gemini Apes by Dirk Maggs (Christmas Day) promises to be entertaining - anything by him is of high quality. He was involved with the Superman, Batman and Judge Dredd broadcasts some time ago, and is obviously a comic paper fanatic.

Moonfleet goes out on Boxing Day - the well-known tale of smuggling and Blackbeard's diamond. And Tonight at 8.30 by NoŽl Coward should be good (New Year's Eve). This consists of 2 plays : Still Life and The Red Peppers. The latter is the story of a second-rate music-hall act struggling to survive; I remember enjoying this whilst at college many years ago. Coward's companion, Graham Payn, talks about his life with NoŽl after the play.

However, the last 6 months has not been particularly good for Radio 4. There have been quite a few interesting features and a small amount of quality drama and serials, but the schedules are crying out for full length plays broadcast on a regular basis. The absence of a focus for Saturday evenings is particularly poor. I looked through my recordings for April-December - virtually no drama retained, except for those items mentioned above. Perhaps the letter-writers amongst us should get busy. A season of "golden oldies" maybe? There is plenty of good stuff in the BBC Archives which we never hear. What about the WW1 classic "In Parenthesis" to start with, broadcast without cuts?

Nigel Deacon / Dec 98

Ed. - thanks again, Nigel. Not sure whether "In Parenthesis is suitable for Radio 4, though! I don't agree with everything Nigel says in this section, but there must be concern at an increasing perceived risk of less drama, due to more and more outside productions as a result of cost-cutting, and perhaps fewer people who really can write for RADIO. Pat and I sat down to listen to "Moonfleet" on Boxing Day - it was absorbing, well-acted and an old-fashioned morality story. Splendid radio entertainment, and congratulations to all concerned. I've already commented on "Troy" and whilst the R3 'Sunday Play' isn't always everyone's cup of tea, by gum, there have been some cracking plays, and Solzhenitsyn's "Cancer Ward" is a case in point. Grab these moments while you can, friends!

Roger Bickerton.

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There was no N.D. review in September '98, but Donald Campbell contributed the following :

A number of eminent critics have been voicing concern about what has been happening to the play "on air" since the April Revolution engineered by James Boyle. Although the drama output is minor when compared to the rest of R4, it is, nevertheless, significant to a wide range of our members. It may also have some significance for the shape of other areas of broadcasting.

The major and most serious change (bemoaned by some of us as well as Sue Gaisford, Gillian Reynolds and David Sexton - all respected critics) is the axing of the 90-minute play. At a stroke, this kills off the possibility of running classic plays (with a small "c"). The import of all this is that such past series as those offered in the "Christmas at Home" (William Douglas Home), "Murder at Christmas" and "Crime at Christmas" slots will be denied us. It also suppresses single 3-act classics such as "An Inspector Calls", "Blithe Spirit" (or any of Coward's plays), "The Winslow Boy" and countless others. It demotes drama to a series of "quickies" of 60 and 45 minutes (and less).

Now whilst time slots such as these can be handled well by a master of the genre like R.D. Wingfield, I would suggest that, on much more recent evidence, the ability to use satisfactorily such a time frame sits uneasily with some current dramatisers and playwrights. The recent plays about (1) suicidal lesbians watching seagulls and (2) The Death of Paganini are cases in point. The latter was partly transmitted in Italian, which, even with the insertion of a "translator" into the plot, seemed to me to be both perverse and a misuse of the 45 minutes allocated.

Letters of despair have been despatched to various "interested" and "not-so-interested" parties at the BBC but, as I write (29th. June), no responses have been received. Whilst I am not the only concerned party to worry at this niggling and fateful change, I feel that the transformed situation should be identified to all members. Drama today - documentaries tomorrow? The most worrying aspect of all this was, and is, the recent suggestion by Gillian Reynolds that we should listen to radio drama now and in the near future "whilst it is still available". Her knowledge and understanding of radio changes and the machinations of those involved in decision-making should be a concern for all of us".

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This covers the period of the April reorganisation of R4. We now have more light drama in the afternoons from 1415-1500 each weekday, a 1-hour Saturday afternoon play and another, very welcome, on Friday evenings. We have lost the 90-minute drama slot on Monday evening - no great loss, since it was usually filled by the non-entertainment described so ably by Barry Pike in the last newsletter. Also gone is the 90-minute Saturday drama, where a number of excellent plays have been broadcast recently. A letter or two to the BBC might be worthwhile, but it's most unlikely that they will respone to listeners' comments with further changes so soon after a major reorganisation of schedules.

The Ghost Train by Arnold Ridley (R4 1430 24 January), an old favourite, is a thriller from the 1920s. A group of passengers is stranded on a deserted railway station and has to spend the night there. But the station is feared by the locals because of something which happened years ago. The adaptation was by Shaun McKenna and the Director was Marion Nancarrow.

The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat was adapted by Joe Dunlop and went out on 6 Wednesday evenings on R2 at 2130 hrs. from 7 January. Sir Donald Sinden narrated and the cast included Philip Madoc, Paul Rhys and Helen Baxendale. The production was 50% longer than that broadcast in September, 1980, but held the attention well. A memorable scene was HMS 'Compass', engines stopped, motionless, a sitting target for a U-boat, whilst the engineers struggled to do the repair. "Radio Times" reported the efforts of Jonathan Ruffle, the Producer, to get the sound effects right. He decided that it was no good using any old wind and wave recordings - they had to be from the North Atlantic. He went from Le Havre to Montreal on a cargo ship, taking tape recorders and microphones with him. "It's no good trying to fool the listeners", he said. "They'd be able to tell if we were recording on board the Isle of Wight ferry".

The Magic Cottage by James Herbert (R4 2230 17 January) was a tale of the occult. Not quite as terrifying as "The Book of Shadows" which went out a couple of years ago, but in similar vein. A couple buy a house in the country and everything seems fine. Then Midge becomes friendly with some odd neighbours. The book was dramatised by Gregory Evans and starred Kim Wall and Katherine Schlesinger as Mike and Midge.

Chocky by John Wyndham (R4, 1430 14 March) is the story of a young boy who acquires an imaginary friend. But as time passes, it becomes clear that not everything about the friend is imaginary. John Wyndham was an exceptional storyteller and this tale is in the same league as "Day of the Triffids" and "The Midwich Cuckoos"; perhaps this broadcast will make it better known. The dramatisation was by John Constable and the Gores were played by Owen Teale, Cathy Tyson and Sacha Dhawan.

Peter Tinniswood's series "Visiting Julia" (R4, 6 x 30 min. beginning 1225 4 February) was up to his usual standard. It was a light comedy about Roger, a writer of children's books. (Ed. - before you read on - no, Tinniswood has never met me, and any resemblance is purely coincidental!). As might be expected of a Tinniswood character, Roger is a chauvinist and can scarcely boil an egg, let alone cook a meal. He has no idea of how to cope with his mother-in-law and has been waited on hand and foot by his wife for 20 years. With her laid up, his only companion is Mr. Wheely-Bin, the hero of his books. Together, they find solutions to life's problems. Keith Barrow and Liz Goulding starred as Roger and Julia. Tinniswood also had some monologues broadcast - "The Wireless Lady" featuring Bille Whitelaw, "On The Whole, It's Been Jolly Good" featuring Maurice Denham, to celebrate his 60 years in radio, "The Last Obit", with Billie Whitelaw as obituarist and "Verona - A Conspiracy of Parrots", starring Stephanie Cole. Radio 4 seems to have commissioned a job lot of monologues - quite a few having been broadcast recently. I have mixed feelings about this; it's not really drama, and unless both voice and script are outstanding, there is a temptation to switch off.

Perry Pontac's play "Casual Slaughters" (R4, 1500 18 April) was an interesting and very funny pastiche of a 1930s Detective Story. Lord Bavidge has been receiving death threats written in his own blood and amateur sleuth Sir Nicholas Ovalmere rushes into action to clear up the mystery. Pontac has about a dozen radio plays to his credit and has evolved a distinctive style of comedy. His plays are always well-cast; this one starred Peter Jeffrey, Maureen Lipman and John Rowe.

Don Taylor has also been busy. Readers may remember him as the author of the Christmas thriller "The Exorcism", a chilling tale of 4 adults unable to escape from a house which turns out to be haunted. He has had several plays transmitted so far this year. "The Seafarer" (R4, 1415 5 April) was based on an early Anglo-Saxon poem : a Saxon lord seeks the mysterious Seafarer, who may be his long-lost brother. "The Servant's Room" (R4, 1415 14 April) was a ghostly tale of a couple who find a cupboard plastered over in the attic room of their new house. "When Three Roads Meet" (R4, 2100 24 April) concerned a Church of England vicar who finds that he no longer believes in God. Taylor also did an adaptation of "Flight" by Bulganov earlier in the year.

"The Shadow of Mir" (R4 2100 8 May) was the first of 3 plays by Nick Fisher scheduled for broadcast in May. A middle-aged Russian bureaucrat is sent into space to check the viability of the space station. But this is not her real motive........Fisher's plays are always interesting though sometimes rather macabre. Readers may have heard his thriller "The Turning of the Tide" - the ultimate revenge story, or his Julie Enfield police serials.

"I'm Sorry, I haven't A Clue" (R4 Mondays, 1830) continues to be the best comedy on radio by a fair margin. The cast love performing in front of an audience and their enjoyment of the show is highly infectious. And Andy Hamilton's "Old Harry's Game" has its moments, especially with James Grout in the cast. (Ed. - can I just say that I think this is one of the best of recent offerings. Anyone who has seen Robert Duncan on TV as the rebarbative Gus in "Drop The Dead Donkey" will realise that he is aptly cast as Scumspawn.) The radio version of Mastermind is also very listenable.

As regards the changes - we should continue to write to R4 administrators and Producers to praise and criticise particular programmes or aspects of policy. It is early days; the changes do not seem to be disastrous but there is a shift in emphasis. We must ensure that our views, sensibly and temperately expressed, continue to reach those who will listen. We should also remember that rabid criticism of the first month's output will not help hard-working producers and studio managers who have had to implement the changes.

Nigel Deacon / Apr 98

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