Clive Lever's ten favourite radio plays

My top ten plays of all time

The idea of compiling a list of favourite plays has already drawn comparisons with the Desert Island Discs concept on these pages. I have to introduce my lists with a couple of caveats and exclusion clauses.

First, as happens when I try to think of my eight “gramophone records”, each list would probably be substantially different from the one I’d compiled on the preveious attempt. However, certain titles would appear in all compilations no matter when I created them.

Secondly, it would be easy but predictable to list favourites which have appeared in top tens compiled by others for this site, so I will give them honourable mention.

Time After Time (original 1979 production) would always be a favourite, but though I enjoyed the 2006 remake starring Michael Maloney, the attempt at explaining the context in an extra scene at the end of the production detracted from its sense of mystery. It was as if someone had dismantled a rose to see how it’s constructed. They would know what makes a rose a rose, but no longer have a flower on the bench.

I sometimes wonder how that remake would have worked had they updated it to use the Cyndi Lauper song “Time After Time”, rather than the Sinatra standard, as it shares some of the play’s darkness. Miles Davis recorded an instrumental version which would have piped well in the hotel.

One other musical reference I’d like to add: I always think of the Gerry Jones play whenever I hear the Eagles song Hotel California. It pre-dates the play, and I can’t help but wonder if the song inspired the play in any way, with its closing lines:

“Relax said the night man. We are programmed to receive. You can check out any time you like, But you can never leave.”

Under the Loofah Tree by Giles Cooper could have been there, had he not also written one of my perennial must-have titles. It was interesting to hear Kathleen Helme in the two earlier productions. In the third, I might have cast Charlotte Martin (aka Susan Carter from the Archers) as the wife. Whoever plays this part needs to be able to whine for England, and I didn’t quite get the sense of that in the most recent version.

Stephen Gallagher’s The Horn from Fear On Four deserves a mention too, though it has cropped up in other Top Tens.

1. Lady Chatterley’s Lover
(BBC ws 1985, produced to mark the centenary of Lawrence’s birth. starring Ian Hogg in the title role). He gives the gamekeeper a suitably lugubrious Derbyshire drawl. I felt this production captured the mood of the book much more effectively than the later two-part classic serial adaptation.

Condensing this novel into a 90-minute production can’t have been easy, but all of the themes were expertly brought out. It’s often misunderstood as justabout sex and more sex, but, as shown in this play, it’s also about the value of all things organic over what Lawrence calls “Greedy mechanism and mechanised greed”.

At the start of the play and the novel, Lady Chatterley has an affair with an author from Dublin called Michaelis – could Lawrence have been sending up James Joyce? The novel and the play brilliantly convey the idea that if we continue to plunder the earth’s resources relentlessly, eventually the earth will call in its debts.

It’s sobering to think that Lawrence would never have heard of global warming, the devastation of rain forests or fracking, and the play made me think that Lawrence would have found plenty to write about and rail against had he lived in our time. It made the book seem relevant to contemporary issues without having to resort to anachronisms, such as giving Sir Clifford a computer, a trap into which too many adaptations fall. Hogg would later go on to read the abridged novel for Book At Bedtime, and to me, his is the definitive voice of the gamekeeper.

2. Derek Raby – Tiger
This is almost, but not quite, a 30-minute two-hander between Judy Bennett as “ten-year-old growing up Peter” and Norman Shelley as the world-weary Bengal tiger. In their conversation, which takes up the bulk of the play, the tiger gives the boy the benefit of his wisdom – that you should always chase your dreams and be true to yourself, and never be content to get into the rut of accepting that today will be the same as yesterday.

3. J R Devlin – Shadows In The Sun
This play is in some ways two different genres alternating with each other and eventually converging at the dénouement –From Warwickshire With Love!

The Sun: Two couples from the West Midlands are taking a holiday on a Greek island. Their characters could have been developed into a sitcom. Everything you hope would never happen to you on a package holiday with your two best friends happens to them. They fall out with each other, fall back in again, get hopelessly lost, get ripped off by local taxi drivers…

The Shadows: Meanwhile, a political thriller is unfolding around them and without their knowledge, as an attempt to assassinate a political leader is revealed among the residents of the island. The tourists become the heroes of the hour, and go home unaware of the crucial part they played in foiling the plot.

One of the holidaymakers is Mrs Malaprop reincarnated, and some of her lines are priceless: “Ooh! I’ve just seen the apocalypse”. “I think I’ll try one of those balaclavas! They look ever so nice!”

I once went on holiday to Sciathos and overheard a couple from the West Midlands who could easily have stepped straight out of Devlin’s play: Woman: “Ooh look! Orry Gar moy flyvered Creesps!” Man: “That’s not Orry Gar moy! That’s ory Gah now, yer daftoy?” (pause) Woman: “Whazznt oy in the Wambles?”

4. Giles Cooper, Unman, Wittering and Zigo.
I came to this play via the 1970s remake, and so, because it is the one I grew to love first, it remains my favourite production of the three. It conveys the pack instincts of schoolboys in the claustrophobic culture of a public school, and does so just as effectively as William Golding captured the cruelty of undisciplined lads stranded on the island in Lord Of The Flies, a novel which I believe Cooper had previously adapted for radio.

5. Frederick Bradnum – The Girl Who Didn’t Want To Be…
The play opens with a gentleman looking around a church, and being shown portraits of local virgins which hang on the walls. He looks at one particular picture and says cryptically: “That girl shouldn’t be there.”

As it turns out, she was no virgin, and had enjoyed her brief life to the full. The handsome, young new incumbent vicar is then haunted by the ghost of the girl, which attempts to seduce him. He also hears, and investigates the reason why he hears the sound of a motorbike accident outside the Church. Her ghost cannot rest because she didn’t want to die with so much life to live, and so many men to be had…and she certainly didn’t want to be remembered as a virgin!

If you listen on headphones, the moment when the spirit manifests itself with a low, seductive “Hel-lo-oh?” to the vicar, as he works alone in the Church, will have you looking around to see who has crept up behind you! It’s very like the way Sharon used to give John Archer the come-on in the early 1990s episodes of the Archers!

6. Patrice Chaplin – The Tinker’s Daughter:
A young girl from a family of landed gentry falls in love with one of the local peasants, and somehow the scandal must be hushed up and a suitable gentleman must be found to marry her. not only is the relationship unacceptable to the family because of the class difference between the lovers, but also because theirs is a same sex relationship. The daughter of the squire is played by Deborah Makepeace (1956-1998), who was always excellent in plays about the awakening of innocent young girls.

7. Wally K. Daly – A Plague Of Goodness:
A fake evangelist tours the world ‘preaching the word’. The tour promoters are in it for the money, and he himself doesn’t believe in God. Suddenly and dramatically he discovers that he is a new Messiah. My favourite part of this play is the point at which he wants to give up his evangelism, but is persuaded against his better nature to continue with the tour. He addresses a rally in Glasgow, televised worldwide. The crowd grow silent. He doesn’t have a clue what he is going to say. You think he is going to lose his nerve and dry up completely. Then he speaks…and he is everyman, heard by each listener in their own language and dialect.

8. James Follett – The Doppelganger Machine:
The British occupants of a wartime plane slip through a rent in the fabric of the universe, and land in a world in which it is 1974 (the broadcast date of the play), but it is a 1974 in a world where the Nazis had won the second World war. Somehow, they must convince their interrogators that they have landed in the wrong world by accident, and find a way to slip back through the point at which the parallel universes have collided, and return to the world as we know it.

9. Basil Copper – An Invitation To The Vaults
(Fear On Four, adapted by Wally K. Daly) Starring Sarah Baddell, if you like Jill Hyem’s Remember Me, in which Baddell also took the starring role, you’ll like this, a similarly styled tale of revenge, featuring underground passages, rats, and a horrifyingly literal take on the idea: “If thine own hand offends thee, cut it out!”

10. Tanika Gupta – The Parting:
Four passengers are stuck in a waiting room, waiting for the train which will take them on the next stage of their journey. They recount tales of their past lives, their regrets and and those things that trouble their consciences. It becomes clear after a while that the train journey is a metaphor for something quite other. R4, Afternoon Play,24 July 2004,14:15,45m,Trevor Peacock/Danny Dyer/Don McCorkingdale/Calum Callaghan/Ewan Bailey,

Bubbling under:
Other plays that nearly made the list include:
Alan Berrie: The Queen’s Arms
Joe Eaton – Syrup Of Figs
Allan Prior: The Chief
Bill Naughton: The Mystery
Friedrich Durrenmatt: A Dangerous Game
Michael Butt: The Honeybourne Tapes

Clive Lever

(reproduced with Clive's permission - thank you.)

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