Radio play about a radio play... ~
C. Goodwin & P. Wells

My top 10 radio plays ~
Nigel Cropper


15 Nov 2004; R4 Afternoon Play. An interesting first radio play by "double act" Charlotte Goodwin and Pamela Wells. On the day of recording, a writer finds his radio play in the hands of a producer who hasn't had time to read it. As the studio actors go through the drama, the writer obsesses over his female protagonist, blurring the line between fact and fiction. With Andy Hockley as the writer, Julia Hills as the producer, Polly Lister as the actress and Jez Thomas as the actor. Produced by Kate Chapman and Jenny Stephens.

I think the producers had some fun in making this play. (N.D.)

Some interesting comments appeared about this play on the BBC R4 messageboard. I hope the BBC, and Jay Bretton, do not object to this edited, shortened version appearing here. The exchange is interesting and worth preserving. (Jay / BBC ... if you do object, please email me and I'll remove it. I do not know how to contact you)

...first comment from the messageboard.. This was an unusual idea for a play, and I was reminded of it when I heard Jane Morgan introducing a play on BBC7 and saying that one of the cast hadn't been told the date of the job so was replaced by another actress at the last moment. The play, a nature-of-relationship number, didn't seem to suffer."

Jay Bretton (a radio play writer) added the following comments: ....The idea of the Radio Play From Hell worked for me, but the "Life" bit that was meant to contrast with the "Art" was too arty to be lifelike. ..and this is not the way radio plays are recorded. The control room also features a crew of highly trained people (absent from this production), and everyone is thoroughly professional. Actors especially are no trouble and like each other. Writers are happy to have their work reinterpreted. There is plenty of time to get it right.

Another visitor to the messageboard: ..I loved the character of the director, getting everything wrong; most amusing. I'm sure they could expand on that idea for another play.

Jay Bretton again :....The part about the technical crew was true. They are wonderful people, superbly professional and great fun....and the PA's do so much more than write timings down on a sheet.

The reality of budgets and studio time means you have two days to record a R4 play of 44 or 57 minutes, starting at around 10 or 11 in the morning with a full read-through and then normally taking each 'scene' (radio plays don't have them, but nobody can think of a better word for a 'take') in story sequence unless there is some double-voiced narration, schitzoid inner monlogue or same actor playing two parts, or whatever, to be added at post-production, into the evening until you finish.

After my first radioplay was produced by the BBC, my local writers group put me up on a podium with a Giles Cooper (forerunner of the Sonys) award winner from the early 60s, who was horrified when I explained 'rehearse and record' to her. In her day, when the basement drama studios at BH were free of the rumble of the Victoria Line trains that eventually drove radio drama up into the attic, they would get one or even two full rehearsal days before recording. Not any more. (*This was before the days of digital sound editing. It must be easier and quicker now to piece together a perfect recording - N.D.)

So there are problems: Pushy writers who don't like the producer's interpretation (not me, I think of it as a baton relay.) Leading actors who turn out not to have the right chemistry together and who might not have read the script before coming to the recording. Eccentric producers like the one suffered by Richard Dreyfuss in "The Goodbye Girl" who wanted a gay Richard III. It must all happen.

But to return to the original play, Woody Allen dealt with the point about writers writing their own lives into their work and reinventing it in about a minute and a half at the end of "Annie Hall", and it's never been done better.

Compiled by Nigel Deacon, Diversity website.

My Top 10 Radio Plays

By Nigel Cropper

1. Mischief by Ben Travers.
This must be one of the most perfect radio plays ever broadcast. The cast was wonderful, headed by Freddie Jones as the irascible, possessive husband. The specially composed music oozed 1920s atmosphere - I was singing it for months afterwards. I think it won a Sony award.

2. Crisp and even brightly By Alec Rowe.
A witty treatment of the Good King at Wenceslas last story, complete with Slavnik spies who are masters of improbable disguise, a page called Mark who has to accompany Wenceslas on a pointless expedition of thoroughly disingenuous goodwill to try to prop up his popularity ratings, and a hermit called Kermit. Timothy West as Wenceslas heads a fine cast. Incidentally, when I produced this play at Bolton School, Alec Rowe not only came to see it but actually scripted a new scene for it. I have both his stage script and the original programme as broadcast.

3. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.
Actually, I loved all of John Tydeman's Chandler adaptations, but this is my favourite of the Philip Marlowe books, and Ed Bishop captures his character splendidly.

4. The village fete by Peter Tinniswood
This plague was the precursor or of the various Winston serials and revolved around the talented, sexy, but uncouth Winston Hayballs - played by the in comparable Bill Wallace - and his relationships with the members of a dysfunctional family held together (just about) by elder daughter Nancy, after they moved from London to a ramshackle house in the country.

5 Appleby's End by Michael Innes (J. I. M. Stewart)
This is Innes at his whimsical best: his hero, chief - Inspector Appleby, finds himself entangled with the many members of an artistic family, the Ravens, in a part of England known as Dream country. A series of deaths occurs, bearing similarities to short stories by gothic horror writer Edward Raven, and Apperley falls in love. I think it was the gentle presence of John le Mesurier as the current head of the Raven family that made this broadcast.

6. 40 years on by Alan Bennett.
I heard this when it was first broadcast and still revel in its edgy humour today. My favourite sequence is the account on Bloomsbury life with Virginia Woolf - "I was a frequent visitor to her Sunday morning soirees, for I was distantly related to the Woolf family through some Alsatian cousins" and "Hemingway had remarked to her "when I reach for my gun, I hear the word culture"". Actually, it's dreadfully uneven, but with a cast including Gielgud and Bennett himself, it made for wonderful listening.

7. Unman, Wittering and Zigo by Giles Cooper.
When I first started teaching English, we had a textbook which included the first classroom scene from this play. I had never heard of it, and at that stage it was out of print, but I managed to get a copy through Inter - library loans, and subsequently produced it. A colleague then lent me a tape of the original 1958 broadcast, albeit in poor sound, having been "miked" from the medium wave. Later, all that changed, for in 1986 it was rebroadcast and about a year later, it was republished. I regularly read it with classes and have produced it twice since.

8. Who, me? By Michael Davies

I love a good thriller, and this play, concerning environmental pollution and the dumping of illegal chemicals at sea, held me from beginning to end.

9. Barnstaple by James Saunders. This half-hour offering from a theatre of the absurd series on Radio 3 is a gem - I just wish my tape had better sound quality. Variation on fiddling while Rome burns - three characters go on talking whilst their house falls down around them. Again the wonderful Gwen Watford starred.

10. One of our aircraft is missing by Jonathan Myerson.
Another excellent thriller stemming from the discovery of a crashed Spitfire in East Anglia, and the gradual uncovering of the highly secret and highly illegal mission it was engaged in. The ending is reminiscent of the film "defence of the realm", but it was a well-constructed play.

There are many others. Any list of 10 is arbitrary. Had not someone else listed them, I might well have included "Miss Hargreaves" or "the dog it was that died". I never tire of the splendid Ian Carmichael Lord Peter Wimsey recordings nor of the Clive Merrison Sherlock Holmes. There are other dramatisations I love: the Brother Cadfael series, the V I Warshawsky serious starring Kathleen Turner, the early 1970s Forsyte Saga. Other much - feted productions leave me cold. Whilst John Moffatt is superb as Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie's plots irritate me - probably unreasonably. I've always found her work to be quite unreadable. I really don't enjoy the P G Wodehouse dramatisations with Richard Briers as Wooster and Michael Horden as Jeeves - both seemed miscast to me. I grew up with the TV series starring Ian Carmichael and Dennis Price, who seemed to be so much better suited to the roles.

Nigel Cropper.

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