RADIO REVIEW, April 04
The biggest drama project in recent weeks has been Trollope's THE PALLISERS, dramatised by Martyn Wade and produced by Cherry Cookson & Marc Beeby. Elizabeth Parker, ex-BBC Radiophonic Workshop, has written the music. The production isn't so much pure drama as heavily dramatised narration, but the style is excellent. This mammoth series (R4, twelve one-hour episodes, beginning 1502, 25 Jan 2004) is going out in the "Classic Serial" slot. There was also a short programme about the Cherry Cookson - Elizabeth Parker partnership: WORKING IN HARMONY (R4, 5 Feb 2004, 15.45: The Radio Producer & Composer) where they talked about their methods of combining music and speech in a dramatisation.
DIZZY SPELLS, by David Pownall (R4, 1415, 5 Jan 04) was about the early life of Disraeli. He was a bundle of energy, and found time to write novels, seduce women, confront anti-Semitism and stand as an MP. Geoffrey Whitehead was Disraeli's father, James D'Arcy was Benjamin, and the director was Martin Jenkins.
EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE (R4, 1415, 6 Jan 04, 1415) was a psychological thriller about a mother who trying to protect her family from a man who threatens to expose her past. Maura's son Ryan wins a recording contract as a singer in a television talent show. But then Maura receives an unexpected 'phone call from a man she met on holiday twenty years earlier and who says he could be Ryan's father. It starred Brid Brennan and Orla Charlton and was produced by Tanya Nash.
Laura Watson is a writer relatively new to radio, and her ghost story, NIGHTCAP, which I missed last year, was given a worthwhile repeat (R4, 1415, 8 Jan 04). Nine-year old Tom is shaken from his sleep by a ghostly presence which looks as if it will destroy his while family. Daniel Anthony was Tom, and the director Sarah Brown.
Another chilling tale was broadcast later on the same day: VOICES FROM ANOTHER ROOM, by Philip Martin. (R4, 2302, 8 Jan 04). An artist starts to hear voices; they talk about him, and there is the possibility of murder. Neil Dudgeon played the victim, and Jenny Howe was his long-suffering girlfriend. Music was by Tom Smail and the director was Peter Kavanagh.
SAMPLER T6, a first radio play by Louise Ramsden (R4, 1415, 13 Jan 04) was an interesting piece of work. Among the collection of Victorian samplers in the Victoria and Albert Museum is a piece of needlework: catalogue number Sampler T6-1965. The sampler features what appears to be a suicide note, in stream-of-consciousness form, of the young woman who stitched it, Elizabeth Parker. The play imagines how it came to be made, and why Elizabeth chose this unusual medium to tell her story. With Amy Shindler, Michael Maloney and Frances Jeater, and directed by producer Peter Leslie Wild.
THE OTHER MAN (R4,1415, 20 Jan 04) was an intensely sad and moving story by Bernard Schlink, adapted for radio by Mike Harris. After many years of marriage a man's wife dies. Shortly afterwards, a letter arrives for her from another man. Obsessed with finding out the truth, he writes back, impersonating his dead wife. He discovers a love which he cannot understand. Anton Lesser was the man, Ciaran Hinds the other man, Stella Gonet was the wife, and the director: Clive Brill.
A short season of Don Taylor repeats was broadcast on successive Wednesday afternoons, after his death last November. The plays were A VISITATION(28 Jan), MUSIC AT NIGHT (4 Feb) and ON THIS SHAVEN GREEN (11 Feb). I particularly liked "A Visitation"; a respectable middle-aged man behaved despicably, just once, to a young lady he knew whilst a student. Twenty years later, he receives a 'phone call from her. This was a subtle story of love and revenge. John Wood was Victor (not an apt name, in the circumstances), Prunella Scales was Artemis, and Don Taylor was the director.
THE FLOOD, by Rudie van Meurs (R4,1415, 10 Feb 04) was based on the flooding of a Dutch town in 1953, the year of the Lynmouth flood. There's not a lot to say; the sea gets rough, the tides keep rising, and eventually the sea wall gives way, but it was a an effective piece for radio. The narrator was Colin Baker, playing the adult Simon, who was there as a boy when the flood took place. The young Simon was played by Jack Rawlings and the director was Turan Ali.
David Szalay (pronounced "Sollay") wrote a frightening play, THE SHADOW MAN EXPERIENCE (R4, 1415, 3 Mar 04). Paul is a management consultant under a lot of pressure. One night he has a bad nightmare. Then he has it again, and again......... eventually he dreads going to sleep. Is it a symptom of his stress, or is the "Shadow Man" coming for him real? Greg Wise played Paul, Alice Hart the girlfriend, and the director was Anastasia Tolstoy.
Over the last three months, the average standard of drama has been very high. There have not been many highlights, but most plays have been interesting, entertaining or both.
(Note - at the time of writing I have not heard "Dionysos" or the other two recent plays by Andrew Rissik, which went out over Easter, and "Beside the Seaside" by Roy Kerridge, dramatised by Lynne Truss. I have high expectations of these, and will put comments about them on Andrew's and Lynne's pages eventually).
Nigel Deacon / 16 Apr 04
RADIO DRAMA REVIEW, September 04
The main news for Radio 4 listeners is that Helen Boaden, the controller, has left. It's become clear that she likes radio and radio drama, and this has been reflected in the schedules. It was not always the case; some of her predecessors would have been equally happy managing a baked bean factory or Severn Trent Water, judging by the way some of the BBC's writers were treated. I hope her replacement is an equally keen radio listener.
Gillian Reynolds wrote about the future of Radio 4 in the Daily Telegraph a few days ago. She reveals that head of drama, Gordon House, is retiring, and then goes on to say: " ...no other broadcaster does as many plays as radio 4. Not all of them are brilliant, but not all of them can be. To get cream you need a lot of milk. But the whole of the creative industry depends on BBC, and particularly Radio 4, patronage. Actors, writers, composers, adaptors, experimenters, poets can all make a living from their work on radio 4, where writing is taken seriously (....not sure I agree with all of this - ND). It may surprise you how many of the plays have been about real people. There was Ian McKellen as Baden-Powell, Tom Courtenay as Stan Laurel...Michael MacLiammoir's diary of his movie debut, Prunella Scales as Blanche Patch, secretary to George Bernard Shaw, competing for his affections against all comers; Eve Arnold, the photographer....."
A Nice Little Trip to Spain, by Don Taylor (R4, 1415, 4 May 04) was directed by Don's widow, Ellen Dryden, and was his second posthumous play. It concerned a fictional incident in the Spanish Civil War. Uncle Jack, a young Cambridge graduate, died a heroic death, according to the family, when he went to Spain in the thirties. Some strange truths emerge when some bodies are taken out of a mass grave, sixty years later. Don's son Jonathan Dryden Taylor was in the cast, along with Jack Shepherd.
Einstein in Cromer (R4 1415 12 May 04) was a pleasant story based on Einstein's stay in Norfolk a few years before World War II. Written by Mark Burgess, it's about his being forced to flee Germany in the wake of Hitler's rise to power. He develops a strong relationship with his hosts, and he learns to look at the world in a different way through the simple honesty of a local man. Einstein was a great communicator, and this comes through. David Suchet played Einstein, Robert Harper was Douglas, and the other cast members were Jean Trend, John Evitts, Trevor Nichols and Trevor Littledale. The director was David Blount.
Bert Coules has written more Sherlock Holmes episodes based on passing references in the Conan Doyle stories: The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, broadcast on five successive weeks, beginning R4 1415 18 May 04 . Andrew Sachs took the place of the late Michael Williams, and I can't really do better than quote from an on-line review: "These have been issued by the BBC on cassette; they are well written and cast, and a delight to hear. I was a little apprehensive about how Andrew Sachs would be as Watson (since I thought Merrison and Williams were the best Holmes and Watson ever) but by the end of the series I was delighted with the new interpretation, and thought Mr. Sachs had done a wonderful job. Perhaps the stories were a little darker than the originals, but none seemed too far from the Conan Doyle style...." (taken from www.reviewcentre.com and reproduced by permission). Watson is a bit brighter, too, and this doesn't do any harm.
Jadoo! , by Amit Gupta, (R4 1415 19 May 04) was a lovely comic tale about two brothers who run a family restaurant in Leicester's culinary golden mile. One brother does the main courses; the other does the starters. Then they fall out; one brother leaves and starts his own restaurant, on the other side of the road. But such is the brothers' expertise that customers start eating in one restaurant and then go over to the other for the main course. This doesn't endear either of the brothers to the customers, and eventually there is a punch-up....the play starred Saeed Jaffrey and Vincent Ebrahim, and the other cast members were Marc Elliot, Siddiqua Akhtar, Amit Gupta and Philip Fox; the director was Peter Kavanagh. There was a recipe for a special Indian chutney on the BBC website for a few days after the broadcast. Very good, too.
Be Prepared, by Andy Rashleigh (R4 1415 12 Jul 04), was a dramatisation of the life of the founder of the Scouting movement. In this play, set on Baden-Powell's balcony in 1937, he is looking back on his life as he talks to his young son. Baden-Powell would sleep on the balcony of his house, Pax Hill, on at the Hampshire - Surrey border , because, after years as a soldier and regimental commander, he found lying down in a bedroom claustrophobic. The title role was taken by Ian McKellen, and the cast included Zoe Waites, Nicholas Boulton, Jon Glover, John Rowe, Philip Fox, George Hammond and Alice Hart. The producer was Cherry Cookson.
Stan (R4, 30 Jul 04, 1415) was Neil Brand's tribute to a great comic duo. Tom Courtenay played Stan Laurel in a play described in RT as "a poignant and powerful farewell to Oliver Hardy". Hardy is in bed; he's suffered a stroke, can't speak, and is about 4 stone less than he was in the films. Stan is called to the bedside to make his goodbyes, and after he comes out with platitudes about his friend soon getting better, he realises that Hardy wants him to be honest and to tell the truth. This was a powerful play, and a number of listeners on the Radio 4 messageboard said that it moved them to tears. Courtenay was excellent as Stan, and the cast had Ewan Bailey as Ollie, plus Barbara Baines and Ed Bishop. Ned Chaillet was the director.
One of our most experienced radio dramatists, Michelene Wandor, was responsible for Every Eye (R4 1415 26 Aug 04) by Isobel English. This was a complicated love story set in London and Ibiza. Hatty is a pianist, young and ambitious and desperate to fall in love. She meets Cynthia, an older woman who encourages her to follow her heart, and Jasper, a friend of her uncle. There were some surprises in this gentle and interesting story, and it was well-cast and produced. Cyn was played by Jennie Stoller,
We were treated to Homer's epic over the August Bank Holiday. The last time I heard a dramatisation of The Odyssey, it was the Quiller- Couch version, but this dramatisation, by Simon Armitage, was in the same class. It went out on radio 4 in three episodes on radio 4 (90m, 90m and 60m) on 28-29 Aug 04. For those who are unfamiliar, here's how it starts: after 20 years away the Gods decide that it's time for Odysseus to return to Ithaca where his wife Penelope still waits. He left her, newly-married and beautiful, with a baby son. She still has her looks, and it's not surprising that she's surrounded by men who think her husband is dead and want to step into his shoes. She and her son are only interested in Odysseus's return, however, and want the men (the "suitors") out of their lives, but they can't think how to do it. One of the gods intervenes...
It's a cracking yarn, and the 4 hours passed very quickly. There were more colloquialisms in the script than purists might like, but I didn't find them objectionable. Simon Armitage is a poet, so he knows how to use langauge. Odysseus was played by Tim McInnerney, Penelope by Amanda Redman, and the rest of the cast reads like a Who's Who of radio drama, including Mary Wimbush, Geoffrey Whitehead, Adjoa Andoh (playing Odysseus's lover, Calypso), Barry Rutter ( the Cyclops - a frightening radio portrayal - perhaps owing a little to The Lord of the Rings), Jonathan Keeble, Ewan Bailey and John Rowe. Gary Yershon wrote the music, and the director was Janet Whitaker.
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith (R4, 1415, 4 episodes, beginning 10 Sept 04) was in an unexpected style, slightly reminiscent of "Ballylenon" by Christopher Fitzsimon. A lovely serial, dramatised by the author from his novel, set in Botswana. Precious Ramotswe, an independent lady, has been left some money on the demise of her father, and she sets up as a detective. She has commonsense, an innate understanding of human nature, but no clients. In the first episode, there is some scene-setting; she is joined by a clever girl from secretarial college, and finally gets some work. Her first job is to check the bona fides of a man who has appeared from nowhere claiming to be a girl's father. But a darker case is hinted at for episode 2; a man has lost his little boy, and there are hints that a witch-doctor may be involved . Claire Benedict plays the detective, and she is helped by Happy (Gbemisola Ikumelo) and Mr. Maketoni (Joseph Marcell). The director was Gaynor MacFarlane.
For me the best Afternoon Play for a long time has been Mike Harris's The Man Who Mistook his Life for an Organiser (R4, 1415, 16 Sep 04). It was wonderful, hilarious, clever, and as intricate as a story by P.G.Wodehouse. Nigel (good choice of name for a hero) is boring, well-organised, predictable and unremarkable. But when his electronic organiser starts to misbehave, his best friend slowly realises that the Nigel he thought he knew was an illusion. Philip Jackson was the best friend, Nicholas Murchie was Nigel, and the women were played by Emma Gregory, Rebecca Saire and Deborah Findlay. The producer was Clive Brill.
Although there have been some excellent productions, some of them have been preachy in tone, reminding us of how dreadful life can be. We've had a guy talking to his tumour, a girl finding a Kamikaze handbook and sending herself off the rails, a dying woman who wants her son to pack in his sport (boxing), and so on. We've also had some radio collages in the afternoon slots, which is disappointing if you're expecting drama . There was a good play about Christopher Isherwood in July, Christopher Himself, which wasn't improved by four "expert interviews" being inserted into the script. This affected the play's atmosphere; I couldn't concentrate because I kept wondering when the next expert was going to cut in.
Recent Friday plays have been well produced and acted, and very realistic, but they have been heavy going, and since 24 July, only one has been directed by a man. A lighter touch for this end-of-the-week slot would be welcome, perhaps with more commissions for writers who have a proven track record in knowing how to tell a good story.
Radio Review, 20 Dec 04
There are moves to save money at the BBC, and the papers have reported more proposed changes in the management, which will mean increased hassle and uncertainty for programme-makers. I saw a headline recently along the lines of "BBC viewing figures lowest for several years". It is remarkable how Radio 4 continues to make such good programmes in the face of negative media hype on the one hand and political interference ( Kelly inquiry and its aftermath) on the other. In a year when there have been clashes between BBC and Westminster, and threats made about BBC funding, it is good to know that at its core are professionals who refuse be intimidated and who are determined to ensure that, at least on radio 4, we are able to listen to programmes of the highest standard.
The Cyhiraeth (R4, 1415, 8 Nov 04), in the "double acts" series of afternoon plays, was by Ruth Jones and Debbie Moon. It took place in two time-frames; Elizabeth died a tragic death two hundred years ago after an unhappy love affair, and Jess's romance in 2004 looks to be following a similar course. But Elizabeth is determined that her own mistakes will not be repeated. Siriol Jenkins and Sian McDowell were the women, and the men in their lives were Matthew Morgan and Mike Hatward; Alison Hindell directed.
Are We As Offensive As We Might Be? (R4, 1145, 14 Nov 04) was a programme presented by Ian Hislop about the Wipers Times, a satirical magazine written against all the odds in the trenches in the First World War. I found a reprinted, bound copy of this in a bookshop in Uppingham a little while back, and it's an amazing story - a party of English soldiers looking through the ruins of Ypres in 1916 (pronounced "Wipers" by the Tommies) found a printing press. One of the men was a printer, so they decided not to use it for scrap but to produce a humorous magazine. The first edition, produced under heavy shelling, was an unexpected success with the troops. It mixes witty editorials, spoof adverts, fake readers' letters and replies, and it pokes fun at the higher-ups who were running the war with such ruthless incompetence. Captain Roberts, in the bleak days of 1917, says "Of course, it's quite likely that this war business may interfere with our plans". But the war never stopped the flow of humour; this remarkable magazine was printed until 1918. In 2004, information flows more freely, and there is endless debate by the media and ordinary people about military decisions. The hidden incompetence of the First World War seems an age away.
The Distance Between (R4, 1415, 15 Nov 2004) was an interesting first radio play by another "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. During the recording, things go from bad to worse. Then the director's life starts to resemble that of the woman in the play. It starred Andy Hockley as the writer, Julia Hills as the producer, Polly Lister as the actress and Jez Thomas as the actor. It was produced by Kate Chapman and Jenny Stephens.
I think the producers must have enjoyed making this play. It led to some interesting comments on the BBC messageboard, including one Jay Bretton, a radio dramatist: "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."
Distant Whispers, by Garry Lyons (R4, 2102, 19 Nov 04) was a welcome repeat, broadcast as the Friday Play. A random killing causes a murder trial from thirty years ago to re-surface. The detective who handled it is retired and terminally ill. But all the evidence is still in the police files. His successor revisits the surviving witnesses, including one with whom VRPCC members may identify - an elderly bird-watcher who has filled his house with thousands of reels of tape, all containing bird calls. On one of them, he says, is the voice of the murderer...Paul Copley was excellent as the retired Inspector, and Christine, the new Inspector, was played by Denise Black. The audio analyst, presumably using something like "Cooledit Pro" to decipher the tape, was Kate Williamson; Nadia Molinari directed.
Who Ate All the Pies? (5 episodes, R4, Sundays, 1445, beginning 21 Nov 04) featured Ian MacMillan travelling the country finding out about (and eating) local pies. The first programme featured the Melton Mowbray pork pie. Only a genuine Melton pie is grey when you slice it through, and the flavour is unsurpassable - it's probably the king of pies, and more people should know about it. In the following weeks we had programmes on Pie and Mash from Goddard's Pie House in Greenwich, Sussex churdles, Forfar bridies, and finally Mousehole star-gazeys (so-called because the heads of pilchards poke through the crust). Ian McMillan sounded like the leader of a lost tribe of pie-eaters, and by the sound of it, is probably no lightweight. The series was a pleasure to hear; these short features are among the things the BBC does best.
There has been another series by Ian Curteis (final, he says) of Love, with Barbara Leigh-Hunt and Bernard Hepton (weekly, beginning R4, 1415, 25 Nov 04) . May and Ferdie are well-known characters to Afternoon Play listeners, and the plots interesting and well worked out. I liked the story of a local widow needing money to avoid having to sell up and move. She has her late husband's manuscript describing his exploits in the war, and she reckons that publication will enable her to settle her debts. That's when the problems start. Simone (the widow) was played by Ann Bell, and the producer was Marc Beeby.
Pressing the Flesh, by Francis Turnley (R4, 1430, 27 Nov 04), repeated from earlier in the year, was a thriller about a doctor who learns that favours leading to his rapid promotion only come at a price. This play received mixed reviews on the BBC radio 4 website but I found it exciting and well-paced, and like many good radio plays, it left one wondering what happened next. The doctor was played by Lloyd Hutchinson, his wife by Eileen McCloskey and the producer was Tanya Nash.
Teddy and Toad, by Jerome Vincent (R4, 3 Dec 04) told the unlikely story of how Kenneth Grahame's tale, "The Wind in the Willows", was pushed to publication in America by President Roosevelt, where it achieved its initial success. Kenneth Grahame was played by Bill Paterson, and Vincent Marzello was Roosevelt; production was by David Blount.
The Laughter of Stafford Girls' High, by Carol Ann Duffy (R4, 1415, 7 Dec 04) received an excellent write-up by Jane Anderson in Radio Times. Based on a "haunting and erotic poem", it tells of unstoppable laughter which threatens to wreck a school. Regular readers of these reviews will know that I do not enjoy poetry, and I found the play curiously static. Nevertheless it was worth a listen. The narration was by Joanna Lumley, who did an excellent job, and the cast included Siobhan Redmond, Brigit Forsyth, Emily Woof, Alexandra Gilbreth and Becky Hindley; Graham Frost directed.
Two linked comic plays, one of which we've heard before, were Aidan Dooley's Homecoming and Holy Water, by Alan Butler (R4, 1415, 14-15 Dec 04). In the first, a deceased poet is shipped back into the remote Irish village of Kildargon, where his grave gives the local economy a much needed boost. The sequel concerns a local rogue who decides to bottle water from the local spring. He plans to sell it in the local store, but the woman who owns the spring won't give him access to it. This doesn't stop his scheme, however. The cast included Bryan Murray, Marcella Riordan and Jim Norton, and the plays were directed by David Jackson Young.
I found Shell Station Story, by Ewa Banaskiewicz (R4, 1415, 15 Dec 04), very much to my taste. A young Polish woman comes to London to visit her boyfriend for Christmas, but finds he's living with someone else. She is distraught, but a chance encounter with a shy young man from Sri Lanka in a petrol station leads to a cautious, tentative friendship, and possibly more. Ania Sowinski was Asia, Riz Meedin was Thiru, and Eve Karpf was the other woman; Sally Avens directed. Plays like this show the degree of realism which has come to radio drama in the last twenty years.
In addition to the above we have had an exciting series of stories by Sebastian Baczkiewicz and Steve May about King Arthur, the cast list apparently compiled by a dyslexic speller (Lanslot, Camlot, Galhot, Gwenfar.... though "Merlin" survives intact), a return of the hilarious "I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue", some good thrillers on Saturday afternoons, and more gritty realism on Friday nights. We had a superb play by John Fletcher entitled Ebola Attack about events which happened not long ago in a rural hospital in Nigeria; another one about the separation of Siamese twins, and a highly entertaining play about Kinsey and how his report came to be written: Mr Sex. I also discovered that Steve Walker had a play broadcast by World Service in late summer, entitled The Birth of Olympia; a comic version of the first Olympic Games, written in his inimitable style, and highly entertaining. Broadcasting still seems in good shape on BBC radio.
Nigel Deacon. 20 Dec 04
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