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December 2000
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RADIO REVIEW: DEC 00

The radio play output since the last 'Circular Note' has continued to improve, and the Afternoon Play slot at 1415 has provided good listening on most days. There have been some excellent things too; Alan Plater has been represented twice; we've also had plays by Don Haworth and David Pownall. In addition, the Archive Hour on Saturday evenings has included many interesting items.

Past Refrain (R4 8 Sep 00, 8pm) by Jill Hyem was a rather frightening play about Lara who hears a foreign nursery tune on the car radio, and is terrified by it. There follows a careful investigation of her past to find the cause. There was an impressive cast, including Ben Crowe and Mary Wimbush; Cherry Cookson directed.

On 16 September, The Archive Hour (R4, 16 Sep 00, 8pm) was of special interest; a celebration of fifty years of Gardeners' Question Time. There were excerpts from each decade, and the programme was fronted by the present chairman, Eric Robson. This is more than a gardening programme; relevant information is there, but there are plenty of anecdotes too; a bit similar to Test Match Special. There was a hiccup in the early 90s when the GQT team moved to Classic FM, and the BBC had to find replacements at short notice. However, the programme recovered, and is now as good as ever; recent highlights have included Bob Flowerdew eating snails' eggs to the amazement of his fellow panelists, and the first broadcast from a nudist colony.

Fumers , by David Pownall (R4, 30 Sep 00, 1500) concerned a stubborn old man refusing to give up smoking but insisting that the rest of his family see sense. As the family hits withdrawal symptoms, he lies in bed puffing away happily. Grandad was Alec McCowen and Jackie Natasha Pyne; Peter Kavanagh directed.

Robin Hood's Revenge , by Richard Bean (R4 20 Oct 00, 1415) unveiled the world of pub quizzes in Whitby. The Robin Hood is in the running to win the final until the other team finds a way of beaming in the answers, via mobile phones and hearing aids. Captain Ted looks after the Robin Hood team: Woody, an ex drug addict, India, full of culture, and Claire, an Oxford graduate and science expert. Sam Kelly was Ted and Nicola Barnfield played Claire.

Ellen Brassheart's Obduracy , by Jennifer Howarth (R4, 3 Nov 00, 1415) looked at the relationship of Ellen Terry to George Bernard Shaw. They exchanged intimate and revealing letters over many years before finally meeting. A similar programme, The master and the boy (R4 6 Nov 00, 1100), looked at Shaw's correspondence and friendship with the heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney; it was presented by the boxer's son, Jay. Shaw had always admired Ellen Terry's skills as an actress, and was similarly impressed by Tunney, who applied himself scientifically and logically to the defeat of each opponent. Programmes about Shaw's life are often more interesting than the preachy tone of his plays.

Purviss (29 Nov 00, 1415), by Nick Warburton was an entertaining play about a lonely widower appointed by the vicar to act as safety officer to the church. The vicar never imagines that his kindness in finding something for him to do will be so ruthlessly exploited. When he finds Purvis writing a sermon, things have gone too far. Peter Sallis was an admirable Purvis, supported by James Fleet as the vicar and Jasmine Hyde as his wife; Peter Kavanagh directed.

Marcus Mundy's change of life (R4 11 Dec 1415), a comic play by Alexandra Caddell, gave Marcus 44 minutes in which to park his car in central London, get to the theatre, and propose to his girlfriend. But parking in London is not easy. First there's the traffic warden. Then there's the faulty meter. And has anyone got change for a 50 note? I have nightmares like this; when the world conspires against you it's like wading through treacle. Simon Pegg was Marcus ; the rest of the world was played by Helen Ayres, Jasmine Hyde, Richenda Carey, William Hope and others. The director was Marion Nancarrow.

On 23 December we heard Michael Berkeley interview Desmond Olivier Dingle and Raymond Box, alias the National Theatre of Brent, in Private Passions (R3, 23 Dec 00, 1200). The company specialises in large-scale dramatic productions, including The charge of the Light Brigade, Zulu, The greatest story ever told: Christ's Passion (R4,1996), Shakespeare: the truth (R4,1993), and Johann Sebastian Wagner's Ring Cycle (in 75 minutes, without the boring bits). The format is simple; the title role is taken by Mr. Dingle, the others (10,000 Zulu warriors, Shakespeare's friends, Jesus's mother & disciples, and everyone except Siegfried) are played by Raymond, who got the job through his acting talents and also by having a van. Mr. Dingle is the alter ego of Patrick Barlow, who sometimes appears in plays not connected with the National Theatre of Brent.

Other things have stuck in the memory: 2000 Tales, where motorists stranded in appalling weather at a motorway service station tell each other stories whilst waiting to be rescued; The Centurions , where a collection of fictional centenarians tell their life stories, and two excellent plays by Alan Plater: Only a matter of time (R4 1 Nov 00 1415) and Time added on for injuries (R4 2 Nov 00 1415), where James Bolam and Alan David fence verbally in two settings a century apart in rural Wales; Bolam is the industrialist who wants to rip up the countryside and build railways, and David is the Welshman who objects. And Robin Brooks' adaptations of the cases of the Victorian lawyer George Lewis, broadcast in four weekly parts as The man who knew everything (R4, beginning 28 Sep 00, 1415) have been very good.

At the time of writing we await Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone , an eight hour reading by Stephen Fry on radio 4. Is the station being closed down for a day, or is it a unique event to connect children to the idea of radio 4? It depends on your point of view, but one thing is certain; if children are not attracted to radio 4 then it has no future as a serious radio station.

Nigel Deacon. 24 Dec 00

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RADIO REVIEW 10 August 2000

What a surprise; there has been an embarrassment of riches from the Radio Drama department since the last Circular Note. As if this was not enough, the new radio 4 Controller, Helen Boaden, has said that she wishes to do something about the lack of full length plays. Only time will tell if she means it. The weak spot has been comedy, and we have had to be content with fairly ordinary stuff plus more Just a Minute and ISIHAC shows. Just a Minute for me is losing its shine, but there are occasional moments of brilliance, and one episode at the end of July was memorable; not least for for some risque remarks by Graham Norton and Clement Freud.

The most notable thing about the drama output has been the high quality of the afternoon plays during August. Additionally, some interesting 60 minute productions have been put out on Friday evenings. But a lot of things earlier in the year were equally good.

As for the individual items:

Not Like Enid Blyton (R4 26 Apr 1415) by Val Sims, was a comedy-drama involving two schoolgirls. They are determined to have adventures, but mother insists that they take along baby Dominic. Unfortunately they become distracted and lose the pram. Brenda and Pat were played by Natalie Lynch and Victoria McGovern, and the action was set in the mid 50s; Chris Wallis directed.

Martin Jarvis read another set of William stories over Easter (R4 24-27 Apr 0845) and did his usual excellent job. His adaptations are so good that one can hardly read the original stories without hearing his voice.

Robin Brooks' "The Art of Love" (R4 23 May 1415) was a comic portrayal of the poet Ovid as a rampant womaniser advising others about their relationships with women. Included is his ultimate guide to seduction. The only problem is, he ends up on his own. Bill Nighy played Ovid and Anne-Marie Duff the long-suffering Cypassis.

Test Match Special has been with us again, without Fred Trueman or Trevor Bailey, who for the duration of the summer have been replaced by Graham Gooch, Donna Symonds, Tony Cozier, and Sir Viv Richards. The team has offered its customary good value, and by the end of the last test Match, even the new members realised that discussing cricket is only part of the job. They are paid to be raconteurs as well as commentators, and this is why they are so entertaining, especially when rain stops play. It is worth mentioning that Sir Robin Day, who died very recently, was the guest in the TMS box on 20 May.

The Bleeper Man , by Mike Harris (R4 23 Jun 2102) was an interesting play about a failing school and how an unusual Head recruits one of his old teachers, a loony leftie past her best and well into retirement, to help him pull it round. This play was full of surprises, and there was a good twist at the end. The oiks were well played too. The head, Pat, was Nigel Cooke, and Beth, his deputy, Alwyne Taylor. The director was Clive Brill.

The Ballad of Billy Rainbow , by Tony Ramsay (R4 24 Jun 1502) was a comic detective story set in Elizabethan Norfolk. Billy Rainbow is an actor on the London stage, but because of his indiscretions with a local butcher's wife, is obliged to flee to the country. A series of misunderstandings force him to masquerade as an unmasker of devils and witches, on a country estate where there has been an outbreak of Satanism. The hapless Billy was played by Michael Maloney and Abigail by Daniela Nardini; Janet Whitaker directed.

Looks Like Rain, by Jimmie Chin (R4 25 May 1415) was a lugubrious northern drama starring Bernard Cribbins and Dora Bryan. Joyce and Stan have just been to their mother's funeral. They sort through her belongings and their memories. And what about brother Charlie - is he really family? Cribbins and Bryan acted superbly, as ever.

The Luck of the Bodkins, by P.G.Wodehouse (R4 17 Jun 1502) involved odd goings-on aboard the liner The Atlantic . This was a typical Wodehouse story with broken engagements, a smuggled pearl necklace and blackmail involving the whereabouts of a toy Mickey Mouse. Monty and Reggie were played by Nicholas Boulton and Jonathan Firth, and Lottie by the excellent Lorelei King. Peter Woodthorpe appeared a little further down the cast list.

Lloyd Peters' "A Higher Education" (R4 20 Jun 1415) was a comedy set in a university drama department. A depressed lecturer locks himself in a studio with a shy student, and a gun which may or may not be the real thing. Then a drunk parent turns up, followed by the police. Rik Mayall and Helen Lederer starred, and Polly Thomas directed.

Michael Mears wrote and performed "Slow Train to Woking" and "A slight tilt to the left" (R4, 5-6 Jul 1415). Michael Mears is unusually talented, and the writing in these and other plays by him is very sharp. Furthermore, he appears solo, but these are not monologues. Mears plays all of the voices: 28 different characters in "Slow Train", for example, where a lonely bachelor visits his ageing mother, week after week, putting up with her eccentric demands and hymn singing. "A slight tilt" is about Lenny, whose father has just died - a man obsessed by horse racing, and buried next to the local racecourse. the problem is -his father's headstone is starting to tilt. What can be done about it? Mears has made a speciality of these one-man plays, and they are of the highest quality. Readers may remember "Tomorrow we do the sky" , which was performed to great acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival in 1994 and broadcast on radio 4 shortly afterwards.

In July we had a week of original collaborative plays by writers new to radio. The writing teams were brought together by BBC Radio Drama, BBC Regions, and radio 4 "to give a platform for fresh voices and to encourage innovative ways of writing for radio" (I thought most of these were known already). But in spite of the management-speak, they produced some good work. Cardamom , by L. Aboulela and S. Phelps (R4 20 Jul 1415) was a little gem of a story about a genie imprisoned in a cardamom bottle for 900 years, and the mischief she causes when she gets out. Cadamom was Adjoa Andoh, Hope was Lisa Coleman, and the thick boyfriend was Mark Bonnar. In the same series, Cottage industry (R4 19 Jul 1415) concerned a landlord's revenge after a set of visitors staying in his holiday cottage wreck the place.

There were many other plays worthy of mention: The Cowboy and the tenderfoot (R4 31 Jul 1415): a fascinating portrait of Owen Wister, who wrote "The Virginian" in the last days of the Wild West; The Block , by Alex Lowe (R4 1 Aug 1415), where a little twerp who manages the local residents' association is visited by a documentary team; Jeff's Kingdom , by Martin Smith (R4 2 Aug 1415) where Jeff Darlow, a paranoid manager, way past his sell-by date, has his misfortunes intoned by a Greek chorus of office cleaners as the plot unwinds; and Bucket and the Whited Sepulchre, by James Hendrie (R4 3 Aug 1415): a comedy thriller set in Victorian London, and a play by the excellent Peter Roberts: Raising the Sage (which I missed). The following week we had 5 superb plays in as many days: (R4 7 -11 Aug 1415): The bed & breakfast star , by Jacqui Wilson; The Midnight Fox by Betsy Byars; The growing summer , by Noel Streatfield, where a family of children stay with their dotty aunt in a crumbling ruin; The fast gentleman , a farce set on a boat and adapted by Jeremy Nicholas; and possibly the best of the lot, Place of the invalids , by Lynn Truss; where Hilary has taken to her bed with a terrible cold and is about to tune in to the afternoon play when her hypochondriac husband turns up and finds a hundred imaginative ways to ruin her day.

Radio drama is in better shape than six months ago; let us hope that the improvement continues.

Nigel Deacon. 24 Aug 00

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Radio Review 9 Apr 2000

As ever, lots of interesting bits & pieces have gone out over the last quarter, but looking through my recordings, only a few of them were sufficiently memorable to keep. Docu-dramas are usually done well, especially dramatized biographies. There have been some longer plays on radio 3 and I regret missing most of them, though I did hear Billy Budd (R3, 12 March, 1930) by Herman Melville: the tale of an innocent and handsome sailor victimised by one of his shipmates and the tragic consequences when he retaliates. Paul Scofield was Captain Vere and Charles Simpson Budd.

The Swansong, by David Greig,(R4, 11 Feb, 2102) concerned Lydia, about to commit suicide by throwing herself into a pond, numbing her senses with gin when a handsome swan arrives, who takes her round Edinburgh for a wild evening of pubs and clubs. In spite of the sombre beginning, this was an uplifting tale: comic, surreal and entertaining.

An interesting biography of the composer Ivor Gurney went out on R4, 8 Feb, 1415, entitled simply "Gurney", by Tim Sanders. Gurney's output is quite small, but includes some attractive songs, piano pieces, and chamber and orchestral works, all of which showed great potential. He was badly affected by his war service, however, and he retired from music, ending his days in a mental hospital in 1947.Gurney was played by Anton Lesser.

Another Don Haworth play went out in the same week: Challenged (R4, 12 Feb, 1502): the story of a Pennine farm owned by a widow (played by Brigit Forsyth), and the hostility between her teenage son (Matthew Booth) and a hired worker (Paul Copley, sounding very like Christian Rodska). Not memorable, but well written and worth a listen.

On the same day, Cliff Michelmore spoke for an hour to Sue MacGregor about his fifty years in television and radio, in The Archive Hour (R4, 12 Feb, 2000). During the war he qualified as an RAF pilot, but an accident affected his eyes and he became an Engineering officer. He knew nothing about radio, but became involved in making a few programmes for the British Forces Network in Germany. About that time he met Jean Metcalfe, who was working for the BBC on the other end of the radio link, and to whom he became engaged soon afterwards. He moved to BBC Television in 1950, working on children's programmes; on one occasion playing Little John in "Robin Hood", beside Roger Moore and Raymond Baxter. A long way from the political journalist and travel broadcaster known to most of us.

Margaret Attwood's "Handmaid's Tale", (3 episodes, beginning R4 15 Jan, 1502, on successive Sundays) was unusual for the "Classic Serial" slot, which usually confines itself to "classic literature". Not so here; we are in a nightmare world where the marriage unit is man, woman and "handmaid" - a euphemism for legalised breeding machine. The dramatization was by John Dryden; and starred Marsha Dietlein, Leslie Hendrix and Dylan Chalfy. An imaginative and gripping piece of radio.

Bluethroat Morning, by Tony Ramsay, consisted of two related plays set in Morston, Norfolk, a hundred years apart, and broadcast on successive days (R4, beginning 11 Jan, 1415). Morston is famous for its wildlife, especially its birds, but we gradually become aware that hidden in the marshes is a trace of a hundred-year-old murder. Both plays used the same cast, including Ronald Pickup and Alison Pettitt; Janet Whitaker directed.

Many men of high intellect and bold spirit who made their names famous in the Middle Ages came from poor families. One such individual was the physician and alchemist Philipp Theophrastus von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus, who was given a radio biography on R4, 10 Mar, 2102, in Mercury, Sulphur and Salt, by Beatrice Colin. Paracelsus was the king of experimenters; he believed nothing unless he had seen it or done it, and even went into the metal smelting laboratories to learn what the fashionable academics of his day despised- Chemistry. He is known for using mercury compounds to fight syphilis, which was otherwise incurable. Paracelsus says, in "Paragranum" (1565) of self-satisfied medics: "Heaven will create other physicians who will recognize the four elements...they will know the mysteries and possess the tinctures. ...where will you clowns dwell then, after the revolution?"

A subject as interesting as this cannot fail to make good radio. The cast included Mark McDonnell as Theo and Crawford Logan as Erasmus, and the director was Patrick Rayner. An earlier treatment by Mark Barratt (The Peacock's Tail) went out in April 1991.

Other things which have interested or amused me have been Georgina Pritchett's dog comedy "Stay" (R4 19 Jan, 1415), Machiavelli's "The Prince" (R4 21 Jan, 1415), and David Calcutt's play about the Knossos excavations, "The bull beneath the earth" (R4 1 Mar,1415); this last play enhanced by carefully chosen background effects.

One piece of news worth mentioning is that Helen Boaden, who has worked as reporter, Woman's Hour presenter, and editor of File on Four, is the new Controller of Radio 4. She says that she wants to simplify the commissioning process, and to get to know the programme makers. Let's hope this means that full length radio drama gets proper consideration.

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