TEN FAVOURITE TAPES ~ as chosen by Barry Pike
TEN FAVOURITE TAPES ~ as chosen by Donald Campbell
TEN FAVOURITE TAPES by Barry Pike
Stage plays have been giving me enormous pleasure since the late 1940s, when the West of England Theatre Company used to visit my home town every 3rd. week. Radio plays, however, take me back even further. When did Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne star in "Double Bedlam"? This I remember quite clearly (and the problem of keeping my grandfather quiet over Sunday dinner so that my brother and I could hear it.) I fear that the great days of radio drama are gone for good and that the form itself, even, might be threatened. It's distressing to witness what's happening and to have no power to do anything about it. I continually badger a range of boss-persons at the BBC, hoping to persuade them to improve the range and quality of current dramatic offerings, and also to re-broadcast plays from the Archive (of which they must have a substantial number, to judge by the snippets that surface from time to time in feature programmes). Lost causes both, I'm afraid - the current offerings (with notable exceptions) get scrappier and feebler and plays from the Archive are almost never repeated. Radio 3 continues (post-Kenyon) to have one play per week and that one is often a repeat of a recent offering, as in the weeks before and after Christmas, 1998.
These preliminaries offer some explanation of why my "10 Favourite Tapes" are all plays. Though I record and hoard features also, I value radio chiefly for the plays and can never understand why they are generally seen as less important than music, 'The Archers' and the shipping forecast in the scheme of things. When all the fuss erupted over Radio 4 recently, the loss of the 90-minute play did not feature in the debate. Yet, for the drama-lover, this has been disastrous : nothing has substance any more and there's no time to tell a story properly. Prunella Scales objected at a BBC conference and Gillian Reynolds was allowed a brief protest on the R4 Arts programme. Otherwise, as far as I know, not even established critics of James Boyle have pressed the question seriously.
1. "Miss Hargreaves" Originally a novel by Frank Baker, who adapted it himself as a stage play for Margaret Rutherford. The radio version was the work of Brian Sibley, who made an elegant job of it. Constance Hargreaves is an imaginary woman, invented and documented by two young men during a holiday in Ireland. They conjure her up on the spur of the moment, only to have her come inconveniently to life, with enormous potential for their embarrassment. Her descent on their segment of English provincial society gives her ample scope for sophisticated mischief; and her eventual return to the shades is beautifully managed. Jean Anderson plays this eerie old girl with great relish and aristocratic authority - she creates with her voice a world of privilege and cultured eccentricity.
2. "Tu-Whit Tu-Whoo" Has a great deal going for it, not least the three elders in the cast : Irene Handl, irritable and acerbic, Arnold Ridley, mild and defensive and Gladys Spencer, flamboyant and temperamental. Together they form a musical trio, performing with the same grim zest that used to distinguish the renderings of the Lilian Forsdyke Tro (of blessed memory). The action involves them with a bossy niece, who claims their home as her own and starts rooting around in the attic. Irene Handl masterminds a plan to dislodge her, pressing into service the other members of the trio and an unpredictable small boy. The dénouement is not entirely happy - except for the listener, who is played out with "The White Cliffs of Dover" as a duet for piano and 'cello. The author of this delightful play is Peter Rankin, who deserves every credit. So, too, does Denise Bryer, who plays the indomitable niece with great zest and an engaging Scots accent.
3. "Secret Lives" One of the best of E.F. Benson's comic novels, not a Mapp nor a Lucia story, but akin to them in focus and tone. It was deftly adapted for radio by Aubrey Woods, whose silken voice proved ideal for a waspish narration. The action is set in Durham Square, an exclusive Bloomsbury enclave ruled over by Mrs. Mantripp, a pious humbug in the great tradition. Hers is one of the secret lives laid bare by the action : a gossip columnist and a best-selling novelist are also exposed. The complicated plot is worthy of Wodehouse (or, of course, Benson at his best). Mrs. Mantripp is Margot Boyd at her most consequential and Pauline Collins presents the novelist as a girlish, warm-hearted woman with a sweet, cooing voice, wholly at odds with a romantic male pseudonym.
4. "The Unrest Cure" Also very funny, as befits a faithful adaptation of a dazzling 'Saki' story. Its protagonist is Clovis Sangrail, a world-class wit and a gifted and inventive mischief-maker. From a chance meeting on a train, he devises a plan to lift a stodgy household out of its drab routine with the reverse of a rest cure. It is one of his triumphs, bringing an anti-Irish pogrom to the English shires and striking terror into the hearts of James and Amelia Huddle. Peter Egan is Clovis (and his alter ego, Prince Stanislaus) and Michael Aldridge and Vivian Pickles his victims. All are superb - as is the script by Rex Anderson and Nick Higham. The murder of the postman by the Boy Scouts is a comic highlight and Miss Pickles' determination to have her headache makes me laugh out loud.
5. "The Dog It Was That Died" Tom Stoppard's spoof spy play, a great lark, hugely entertaining. All the characters are odd in some way and some are actually unhinged. People talk at cross-purposes, and delusions and idées fixes proliferate. The cast is one to dream about - Dinsdale Lansden as the spy determined to cut and run; Charles Gray as the Foreign Office smoothie; Kenneth Cranham as the glum spy in the mackintosh; Maurice Denham as the imperturbable spy-master. Penelope Keith plays a horsey wife and Betty Marsden and John le Mesurier are assorted lunatics. Stoppard's dialogue is worthy of them. Its wit and playfulness make listening a continual pleasure.
6. "A Bullet In The Ballet" The first of a series of idiosyncratic comic novels by Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon. It is also a detective story, which explains its appearance in Penguin with green covers. Pat Hooker's adaptation preserves both the eccentric humour of the original and the tension and logic of its mystery. Inspector Quill attempts to establish why the role of Petroushka proves fatal for those who dance it for the Ballet Stroganoff. He is continually hampered by Slav temperaments, boastful, wilful, artful, soulful. Trevor Nichols brings great charm to the role and makes a magical moment of his capitulation to the power of the ballet. The eccentrics in the Company include Peter Woodthorpe, Nickolas Grace and Sian Phillips, and Simon Callow is Stroganoff to the life, eternally hopeful despite the body count among his dancers.
7. "Kafka's Dick" A rather whimsical play by Alan Bennett, bringing together Kafka and his biographer Max Brod with a modern Kafka expert and his bored wife. It contrives to present valid critical insights into Kafka's life and work through the medium of an anarchic comedy. The radio version knocks spots off the recent stage revival which suffered from ragged direction and some poor performances. The final scene, where Kafka finds to his horror that Heaven is a permanent wild party, is far funnier on radio. The performers are all good : Richard Griffiths and Alison Steadman as the modern couple, Nigel Anthony and Michael Cochrane as Kafka and Brod. Best of all is Peter Woodthorpe as Kafka's dreadful father, richly rolling his voice round some of Bennett's choice lines : ' "Vile Bodies" by Evelyn Waugh - now she sounds as if she knows how to please a man'.
8. "The Private Life of Hilda Tablet" One of Herbert Reeve's investigations as to figure among my favourite ten. Norman Morrison gave us an excellent summary of Henry Reed's remarkable series in issue 8 of "The Circular Note". The level is so consistently high that it is hard to say which, if any, is better than the others; but The Private Life of Hilda Tablet occupies a special place in addicts' affections. As the second in the sequence, it has the advantage of an established idiom, with characters ripe for development; and it moves Hilda Tablet to the centre of the stage. Poor Reeve is no match for Miss Tablet and by the end of the play he finds himself committed to working on a 7-volume critical biography of the ebullient 'composeress', who never so much as considers that "no" might be an answer. Mary O' Farrell brings this fearsome woman to vibrant comic life and every detail of her Coptic Street ménage is cherished by Tablet groupies, from Evelyn's equivocal welcomes to Elsa's threats to return home. It's supremely clever and irresistibly funny - and there will never again be anything like it.
9. "The Event Of The Season" A bravura piece by Perry Pontac, a stylish radio dramatist, most recently in evidence with 'Casual Slaughters', a send-up of the classical whodunit. It is designedly absurd and outrageous, fizzing with wit and grotesque fancy. The dialogue is very carefully wrought, evoking comparisons with Wilde, Ronald Firbank and Joe Orton. It has some of Orton's flippant brutality and continually confuses the trivial and the profound, like Wilde at his best. There are echoes, too, of 'The Admirable Crichton' by Barrie and Giles Cooper's 'Mathry Beacon'. The event of the title is is Lady Wulfruna's garden party, which has to be shelved when nuclear war breaks out. Much of the action occurs in an underground shelter, where life goes on, with the butler in attendance. The play is impeccably performed, particularly by Geraldine McEwan, squeaking and drawling to brilliant effect. George Baker is also notable as a truly dreadful Doctor.
10. "Distant Music" Adapted by Christopher Fitz-Simon from 'The Dead', the last story in James Joyce's 'Dubliners'. It re-emerged recently as the climax of the 'Dubliners' week on Radio 4, this time with the title of its source. It's a famous story, subtle and penetrating, often light and lively, yet also with moving poetic power. It made a wonderful film in John Huston's handling and it also made exceptional radio. Dermot Crowley plays Gabriel Conroy, the pivot on which the dual action turns : the adored nephew, proposing the toast at his aunts' Christmas party, and the stricken husband, who learns almost casually that he has never had from his wife the depth of love she once gave freely to another man. A purist might object to Aunt Julia's song, doggedly delivered and quite without distinction (though given with genuine accomplishment in the story); but in everything else, Joyce is served with impressive and rewarding fidelity.
BARRY A. PIKE.
(Reproduced by permission of Barry Pike and Roger Bickerton, editor of The Circular Note, newsletter of the VRPCC, where this essay first appeared)
TEN FAVOURITE TAPES by Donald Campbell
The list of 10 plays provided by Barry Pike (and yes, he is a friend and correspondent of mine, Roger) has made me think about which tapes I would wish to have on my Desert Island. My list resembles Barry's not one jot or tittle. His predilection is for the more literary and the original, mine for entertainment pure and simple - a commodity seemingly no longer catered for by our betters (?) at the Beeb, whatever the length of play. But the destruction of the 90-minute play is another story! Here, then, ten best in rough order of delight.
1. Inter-City Contract (Rod Beacham, 1986)
This is an "enclosed environment" thriller, set on the overnight express sleeper to Edinburgh. It introduced me to my two favourite 'radio actors', Melinda Walker and Steve Hodson. A mixture of whoduunit and whydunnit, it has a glorious "over the top" performance from the delightful Margot Boyd as the archetypical explorer and round-the-world woman and first-rate 'blue stocking'.. A cracker of a play.
2. A Touch of Frost (R.D. Wingfield, 1982)
This play was my initiation into the world of Rodney Wingfield, the (now) under-used and probably no-longer-used and expert radio dramatist. A fine performance from Derek Martin delivers Frost with pace and beautiful timing. The whole has plenty of twists and a satisfactory dénouement. Why no more "Frosts" were commissioned by the BBC after this one defeats me. Glad to say that I still revel in the YTV/David Jason productions, thankfully repeated ad infinitum. Leslie Sands did "Three Days of Frost" nicely, but, for me, Derek Martin has the edge.
3. Rogue Male (Geoffrey Household)
This has the merit of a suitable faithfulness to the original story - unlike the quite dreadful Holywood version with the (always) wooden Walter Pidgeon as an unconvincing hero. I wonder why ITV has never repeated the excellent Peter O'Toole version put out about 15 years ago. But to the radio play : Simon Cadell is excellent as the hero and Geoffrey Whitehead appears (wonderful radio voice) as EINE GERMAN POLICEMAN. The strange story of the hunted hero hiding in an animal hide is well handled, and the whole is a convincing and exciting adventure.
4. Never Come Back (John Mair, 1986)
Strangely, I was not too happy with this on first hearing and almost wiped it (see also no. 5). I am so glad I kept it. Colin Douglas is excellent as the Chairman of "The Organisation" - deep Northern gravelly voice with a suitable whine when uncovered and threatened. The hero, played by Gareth Armstrong, is laconically and edgily good. Of course, the truth is that this story has not got a hero. Published in 1942, this is an example of an early "anti-hero". Julian Symons, quoted in 'Radio Times' in November, 1986, refers to this story (republished with his support by Oxford Publications in 1986) as being remarkable "because it introduces the first anti-hero in Crime Fiction, the cynical smart-alec, Desmond Thane".
5. The Smiler With The Knife (Nicholas Blake)
As with "Never Come Back", I almost ditched the tape after first recording the play. Purporting to be a Nigel Strangeways adventure, it has Simon Cadell, laid back and pithy, as Strangeways and Jacky Smith-Wood as his wife Georgia who ends up as heroine-on-the-run in the grand tradition of The 39 Steps. The ever-dependable and silky-toned Jack May (Nelson Gabriel of 'The Archers') is the leader of the "baddies". Margot Boyd again escapes from The Archers to portray a delightfully loopy character with an elephantine ladies' dance troupe.
6. Black Bartlemy's Treasure/Martin Conisby's Vengeance (Jeffery Farnol)
I place these two together because they are sequential novels by the arch-master of the 'Mummerzet language'. The end of the first play sees the hero, Martin Conisby, marooned on a desert island - just as the book indicated - he then continues his adventures in the second play. I don't know what gap Farnol had between publication of the two books, but the BBC managed a year between broadcasts! At the time, my request for information about completion of the saga was met by a Duty Officer telling me to "keep an eye on the 'Radio Times' ". 12 months later, the eye was rewarded. A great galumphing historical adventure, the two parts are welded together by strenuous and loud use of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's music filched from "The Sea Hawk". It works - just. Unremitting and delightful escapism.
7. The Box of Delights - 2 versions (John Masefield, 1996 and 1978)
Another bit of cheating here (two for the price of one), but I would not be without either. The first is the 1996 offering dramatised by John Peacock with original music by Neil Brand. Although I was reared on the John Keir Cross and Robert Holland version in 1943, with music by Victor Hely-Hutchinson, this wonderful 1996 version is remarkably faithful to to the book and has performances to savour from an OTT Donald Sinden as Abner Brown and a fruity Lionel Jefferies as Cole Hawkins. The other version was a re-working by Keir Cross alone and was first aired in 1978 or thereabouts. The marvellous David Davis acts as narrator (Kay Harker as a man) and the production retains the Hely-Hutchinson music - to be expected, because David would have been involved with the originals on Children's Hour in 1943 and 1948. Although much truncated, this is still an adaptation that is surely rewarding to both child and adult.
8. Paul Temple (Francis Durbridge from 1938 to 1968)
Picking the best from the available Paul Temple serials is not easy, but I muist choose the Van Dyke Affair from 1950 with Kim Peacock as Temple. Splendid though Peter Coke was in the same serial, and later as Temple of course, I think that Peacock is both more suave and less acid than Mr. Coke. Marjorie Westbury as Steve shines in every one of these evocative and nostalgic "what-the-hell-is-happening" who-dunnits. If no one is looking, I shall also slip in the commercial reading of Paul Temple and the Harkdale Robbery which is brilliantly read by Francis Mathews (the best radio Paul we never had?) on Pickwick from the 1970s.
9. Sad Cypress (Agatha Christie, 1990).
I could not be without at least one of John Moffatt's incredibly fine portrayals of Hercule Poirot. This one has a devious and quite nastily calculating villain, but it is the characterisation of Poirot that gives every one of the Moffatt impersonations such class.
10. Regency Buck (Georgette Heyer).
My number 10 could just as easily have been my first choice. A brilliantly sardonic performance by Steve Hodson as Lord Worth in one of Heyer's best stories - a thriller-cum-historical romance. There is a nice sense of period and a delightful regard for the nuances of the book in this Neville Teller adaptation.
What all of these radio plays have is integrity and more than a nodding commitment to tne original (or, at worst, to the original's intent). There is also a good balance between voices and clear differentiation which can often be lost in casting by an unwary Producer/Director. I find that my liking for adaptations is dominant here and, because of this, I might not please the aficianados of the original 'written for radio' play. Not one of these would win a Giles Cooper award, but they are unashamedly entertaining. Thrillers, adventures and detectives are what satisfy me - it is little wonder that my needs are rarely met by modern day trends.
I regret that there is no room for Wimsey. He would have to be next on the list (in the Gary Bond impersonation, if pushed). I have also had to omit Oppenheim's "The Great Impersonation", the Barry Foster essays as "Sergeant Crib", David Rintoul as Richard Hannay in "The 39 Steps", along with Buchan's "Huntingtower" and Nigel Anthony's Hannay in "The Island of Sheep", which has a notable performance from Robert Lang. Also sadly left out is a splendid reading of "Biggles Flies North" by Michael Palin, produced in 15 episodes by the BBC.
Ah, well! Perhaps after all I will stay away from the desert island, remain at home and listen to everything on my shelves once again - not just "My Ten Best".
(Reproduced by permission of the author and Roger Bickerton, editor of THE CIRCULAR NOTE, newsletter of the Vintage Radio Programme Collectors' Society) .
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