December 1999
September 1999
April 1999


Lots of interesting items have gone out, as ever, but few of them have been memorable, and with drama especially, the feeling has been one of frustration. There are now less plays which one might call "socially aware"; perhaps the BBC hierarchy is starting to realise that most of us like good plots and dislike being preached at. Unfortunately the lack of regular 90 minutes plays has still not been remedied. The subject was aired twice on "Feedback" in December (including contributions from our own Donald Campbell) but it still seems unlikely that anything will be done about it.

Highlights for me have been as follows:

The sense of balance, by Bruce Morton (R4 1415 26 Aug) had a Scottish thirty year old reminiscing about his teen years, and in particular, about a woman he was trying to seduce whilst his parents went off on holiday. A wonderful piece of comedy writing.

The story of the Amulet, by E.Nesbit (1415 30 Aug ); a sequel to "Five children and It" and much superior. Five children travel in time accompanied by the Pssamead, played by Simon Carter. This was gripping listening.

Altaban the Magnificent (R4 1415 was an atmospheric and unusual play about the ultimate illusionist. This play was set in the Nazi era, was full of brooding and menace, and had an extraordinary climax.

The Victorian Reed Organ and Harmonium Museum, Saltaire (R4 1330 3 Oct) featured the pianist David Owen-Norris looking through the huge collection of instruments assembled by ex-London 'bus driver Phil Fluke. I had always regarded harmoniums as monstrosities incapable of making decent music, sounding at best like a box of whistles. The programme went into their history and manufacture, and Mr. Owen-Norris made noises on them which at times were almost musical.

Take Two, by Don Haworth (R4 2100 22 Oct) starred James Bolam as Moses and Tom Baker as The Boss and was a humorous reworking of the story of Moses and his tablets, broadcast on a Friday evening.

On the eve of the Millenium, by Barry Keefe (R4 2100 29 Oct) was another excellent Friday play about an old man suffering mildly from Alzheimer's accompanying his son to a talent-spotting evening at his club. He is so disgusted by the foul language that he goes on stage to show he can do better himself. The old man was ably played by Warren Mitchell.

Milton Jones was given another series. ( beginning R4 1830 26 Oct.) This young comedian gets better and better, and delights us with puns and wordplay delivered with droll good humour. As a teacher I have noticed lessening language skills among 17-18 year olds; I wonder if they could understand and enjoy comedy like this.

Orchestra Paloma, by P. Dodgson, (R4, 1415 8 Nov) had Christian Rodska as a wife-deserter and womaniser giving up his job to follow an ex-girlfriend to Barcelona in order to busk in a string quartet. Rodska is particularly good at cutting asides and insults, and this play was full of them.

The Clock of Heaven, by Michelene Wandor (R4 1415 10 Nov) was a play crammed into about half its proper length concerning John Harrison, the clockmaker who succeeded in producing a clock design which revolutionised navigation because of its amazing accuracy. The most surprising thing about the play is that it was still coherent in spite of the time-slot allocated to it, which says much for M.Wandor's skills as a playwright.

There have been other worthwhile things: John Hegley acting the fool in a short series of plays loosely concerned with biking around the country on a camping holiday; a series presented by Mark Lawson on Northern comics; and yet another series of I.S.I.H.A.C, with an outstanding show, the best I've heard, with guest Heinz Wolf and broadcast on R4, 1830, 6 Dec. This programme has improved considerably in the last few years, and is probably the best comedy of the decade on either radio or television.

Nigel Deacon / 20 Dec 99

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Some interesting items have been broadcast since the last review. Still no regular ninety minute play, and this state of affairs looks set to continue; I hear that BBC management believes most of us are unable to concentrate for long enough. Never mind; there have been outstanding shorter plays by Steve May, Andy Rashleigh, Martyn Wade, Allan Prior and John Arden, to name just a few.

Profile, by Steve May (R4, 1415, 4 June) was a wonderful send-up of the Further Education system. The Faculty of Human Interests has a new, reorganising Dean. One by one the staff members have to invent schemes to market the college more effectively. The best idea ensures promotion to the position of Dean's Assistant. But who wants to be associated with a lazy womaniser called "Nigel"? [no need to reply-ND] The staffroom caricatures were here in full force: the yes-man, the lecher, the cynic, the would-be novelist, the bully...anyone involved with education who has witnessed the half-baked schemes thrown at it over the last decade will find this a real tonic.

Devonia, by Andy Rashleigh (R4, 1415, beginning 2 June) was a series of three excellent plays about the life and times of a paddle steamer and its crew, set in the teens, twenties and thirties. We followed the fortunes of a group of loutish upper-class students celebrating their degrees; a mysterious group of Germans being ferried across the Channel during the war, and a works outing in 1911. Crew member Harry was played by John Duttine and Mercy by Sophie Thompson; Cherry Cookson directed.

Martyn Wade has written a number of interesting biographical plays, covering the lives of the composer William Baines and the preacher John Wesley amongst others. His Bodies & Souls (R4, 1415, 29 June) was on a different track altogether. Harry has been married to Joyce for longer than he cares to remember. To be blunt, his marriage started badly and ended worse. So when she seems to be taken over by the soul of Hildegarde of Bingen he sees it as a welcome (though probably temporary) improvement. As he puts it, "her interest in photography didn't last long; why should reincarnation be any different"? David Horovitch plays the long-suffering Harry and Marcia Warren his wife.

Tower to the Sun (R4, 1415, 12 Aug), by Allan Prior, was the true story of the building of Blackpool Tower. Inspired by the Eiffel Tower, John Bickerstaffe dreams that a similar construction in Blackpool could bring the town fame and money, but influential people in the town do not agree. Peter Gunn was Bickerstaffe and Stephen Thorne Mr Ridings in this excellent dramatisation.

John Arden's "Woe, Alas, the Fatal Cash Box" (R4, 2100, 23 Jul) was his first radio play for some time. It was another of those plays which only work on radio, a little like Alan Plater's "The What on the Landing", or Giles Cooper's "Under the Loofah Tree". Julius Applewick, recovering in hospital from a heart attack, has a stream of visitors; some real, some imaginary. With some of them he revisits his childhood. Sparkling dialogue made this compulsive listening. Bernard Hepton, with his conspiratorial half-whisper, was well cast as Applewick.

The Summer Book, by T. Janssohn (R4, 1415, 2 Aug) told of an old lady's last summer in Finland with her grand-daughter. The grandmother was by turns discreet, wise, mischievous and child-like; my vision of what a perfect grandmother should be.

Bomber (R4, 4 parts: 1430, 1730, 1950, 2330, 4 Sep) was the story of a bomber crew, based on Len Deighton's novel about an air raid on Saturday 18 February 1943. It was broadcast in real time, and followed the fortunes of Sam Lambert and his men as they carried out a night attack on Krefeld. The play included interviews with pilots and others who were involved at the time. My father recalls counting six hundred bombers in the sky simultaneously in 1943 above Kirby Muxloe in Leicestershire, and thinking what feat of engineering it was to get so many planes airborne at the same time. Tom Baker narrated this stunning 4-hour production, and the cast included Samuel West, Jack Shepherd, and Frank Windsor as Air Marshall Harris: "If I have to, I will flatten the whole of Germany". The dramatisation was by Joe Dunlop.

The Uncertainty Principle (R4, 2102, 20 Aug) by Marcy Kahan was set in 2099; a world where everyone knows his lifespan. People live at the appropriate pace; short-lifers are frenetic; short-attention-span, beer-swilling hedonists; long-lifers are more laid back: advocates of lifelong learning, retraining for different jobs each decade, and making long term investments. When a short-lifer overstays his welcome by not dying at the right time, why does it have to be kept secret? Kerry Shale and Clive Swift were Adam and Igor; Gordon House directed. Kahan also wrote "Everyone comes to Schickelgruber's" - the play about Hitler's long lost brother, discovered aged 90 running a cake shop and broadcast a couple of years ago; this effort was in the same class.

"Just a Minute" and "I'm Sorry I haven't a Clue" maintained their usual high standards in recent short runs over the summer. There have been one or two effective sitcoms, too: "Married", by Tony Bagley (R4 1830 beginning 14 Jul) had confirmed bachelor Robin Lightfoot waking up in a parallel universe where he was married with two children.
Just Juliette, about an unlucky female broadcaster, Juliette Johnson, (R4 1830 beginning 12 Aug) by Julie Balloo and Jenny Eclaire also had lots of good lines, especially those which criticized men. The four radio remakes of Only
Fools and Horses (R4 1830 beginning 17 Jun) were very welcome and, as expected, hilarious.

Nigel Deacon / Sep 99

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Good listening has been a little more difficult to find since January, and working full-time means that certain programmes are difficult to catch. On several days I heard a few minutes of This Sceptred Isle, a potted history of Britain, whilst driving home through the traffic, and it sounded excellent; Anna Massey narrating and Paul Eddington as Churchill. Just a Minute continues to be good, but the death of Derek Nimmo deprives us of a superb raconteur and entertainer, and he will be badly missed. Of around sixty plays, about a dozen made an impression. Larkrise and Beyond, a classic of rural life from Oxfordshire, was interesting, but incorporated present-day comment, making it an uneasy hybrid of play and documentary. A number plays turned out, disappointingly in most cases, to be monologues. These are only minor grumbles, however; no broadcasting network is perfect, and good programmes are there if one looks hard enough.

625Y, by Wally K. Daly (R4, 22 Jan) investigated what might happen when a gene is discovered which can extend a person's life. For a while it looks as if scientists will have the discovery to themselves. Then politicians hear of it, and events rapidly spiral out of control. The story was very believable and for that reason disturbing.The lead parts were played by Amanda Root and Geoffrey Whitehead.

Nightworkers, by Louise Doughty (R4, 28 Jan, 1415) begins with two men checking the condition of some lesser used tunnels belonging to the London Underground. They meet a man on a similar errand but who is oddly dressed, and who speaks in the style of a century ago. Eventually they realize that something odd has occurred...what has happened to the exits? Will they be able to return to the surface, and, if so, what will be the year? The best play of 1999, perhaps, so far.

The Death of Charles the First, by Jack Emery (R4, 30 Jan) was a 90 minute dramatization of the events leading up to Charles' execution. The future of the monarchy and the abolition of the House of Lords feature in the Putney Debates, which preceded the execution of the King on 30 January 1649. John Rowe was an excellent Charles, and Derek Jacobi and Timothy West were Herbert and Cromwell. Margaret Drabble interrupted periodically to explain the historical background. The play, directed by Piers Plowright and Martin Jenkins, who retired a couple of years ago, was first broadcast in 1979.

Only a Matter of Time, by Alan Plater (R4, 4 Feb) was a superb 45-minute play about the coming of the railway to rural Wales in the middle of the last century. Alan David was the Welsh farmer, and James Bolam the representative of Mr. Brunel's railway company. The verbal fencing between these two was radio writing at its best.

Lack of Moral Fibre, an excellent comedy by John Antrobus (R4, 20 Feb, 1500) concerns a retired Wing-Commander running a hotel on the moors in Cornwall in 1970. He dislikes visitors, and refuses entry to nearly everyone. Then a stranger comes, bearing a strange resemblance to a man he knew during the war, and the radio starts playing programmes from the forties...Richard Briers stars as the Wing-Commander and Brian Murphy as his friend Dennis.

Eating at Coopers, by Rod Tinson (R3, 20 Feb, 2100) was the story of Cooper, a restaurant owner, trying to get his place mentioned in Herschel's official guide. He has problems, however; his partner is allergic to food, and the new assistant seems to know more than him. And will Herschel ever arrive? This was very much in the old "Radio 3" style; well-written and interesting, with Anton Lesser and Belinda Sinclair preparing the dishes and Simon Carter as the long-awaited Herschel.

Andrew Rissik's superb Greek Trilogy was repeated, also on Radio 3. King Priam and his Sons (R3, 27 Feb, 2055), The Death of Achilles (R3, 28 Feb, 2115) and Helen at Ephesus (R3, 28 Feb, 2315) were all of the highest standard; the cast included Paul Scofield, Michael Sheen and Geraldine Somerville. Early Greek drama can be rather leaden, but this production had sparkling dialogue, well-paced story lines and was compulsive listening.

There was an unexpected treat on St. David's Day with Don Haworth's first radio play since 1993: "High in the Clouds" (R4, 1 Mar, 1415). It was in the light, humorous style of his earlier work; full of odd characters and colourful incidents and based in a small Lancashire community in the 30s. Harold and his wife (Christian Rodska and Brigit Forsyth) begin to restore the manor house, and use one of the outbuildings as the base for a new craze in the village - gliding. But some of the residents object to gliding on the Sabbath - or on any day. Stephen Thorne made an excellent narrator, recalling his part in "Events at the Salamander Hotel" many years ago, and Polly Thomas directed.

Mothers' Day gave us M for Mother, by Marjorie Riddell, dramatized by Gabrielle Lloyd (R4, 19 Mar, 1415). It's 1954, and Sarah is moving to London for her first job. Mother is coping with it as best she can, in the face of comments from a surging sea of aunts. To borrow the words of Bertie Wooster: "Not so grim as my Aunt Agatha, perhaps..... but certainly well up in the class of Jael the wife of Heber and the Madame Whoever-it-was who used to sit and knit at the foot of the guillotine during the French Revolution." Jennifer Lowe was Sarah, and Miriam Margolyes Mother in this entertaining tale.

Patricia Hannah, G.W.Fraser and Minna Bluff were the authors of a short dramatization of part of Scott's expedition to Antarctica to study the embryology of the emperor penguin: The Winter Journey (R4 16 Mar 1415). Penelope Wilton was the Snow Queen, and who would not imagine her to be present on a journey like this? The journals of Scott, Evans, Ponting and Cherry-Garrard are superb source material; read all of them if you are at all interested in Antarctica, or human nature, or ingenuity in the face of overwhelming difficulty. A full length drama-documentary of this journey would be something to remember.

At the time of writing I have not listened to Flambards , a welcome 90-minute play put on for Easter Saturday (R4, 3 Apr, 1500), nor to the new Just William series (R4, beginning 5 Apr, 0945) with the wonderful voice of Martin Jarvis as William, nor to the new Wodehouse series Full Moon (R4, Mondays beginning 5 Apr, 1130). BBC Radio is still producing good work; we must ensure that this tradition continues.

Nigel Deacon. 3 Apr 99.

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