RADIO DRAMA REVIEW Apr 18
The seventh Audio Drama Awards ceremony, including the Imison and Tinniswood Awards took place on 28 January 2017 in the Radio Theatre at Broadcasting House. As readers will probably know, the awards were introduced to recognize the excellent work done in Audio Drama by the BBC and by independent producers. Unlike previous awards, it focuses on all members of the production teams, not just the writers and producers. Alison and I were there, and we met writers, actors and production staff, along with members of the writers' professional organizations.
The event was introduced by Alan Davey, controller of Radio 3. Alan thanked the participants for their contributions. He said that the BBC's radio drama is famous for its quality, both adaptations and original works. Most go out on radio 4 but some are broadcast on radio 3. Those creating the plays show great dedication; it is worth remembering that Louis MacNeice lost his life as a consequence of recording sound effects for one of his radio plays. (he died of pneumonia in 1963 after catching a chill working down a mineshaft as he was checking sound effects - probably for his play "Persons from Porlock". - ND)
MC for the evening was Tracy-Ann Oberman, an actress and writer who has worked on theatre, television and radio. She is a familiar figure on TV; less well-known are her appearances in 600 radio dramas. She has also written some radio plays, including "Mrs. Robinson, I presume' (about the making of the film "The Graduate") and "Rock and Doris and Elizabeth" (about the film star Rock Hudson). Tracy-Ann remarked that radio plays inspire millions of radio listeners every day... the people making it .......the producers and the production teams ..... are geniuses.........the act of listening, which is much more active than watching television, is still hugely popular. "Radio drama is in great shape".
There were also two short tributes. Tracy-Ann mentioned the very recent death of Betty Davies, aged almost 101. Betty was an outstanding radio play producer from the 50s to the 80s. The BBC Genome project lists about 1300 of her productions and adaptations, and she probably had a hand in about two thousand radio dramas in all, many of which were for 'Saturday Night Theatre'. She started off as a "secretary" in 1939 which is what they called female production assistants in those days; she soon became a radio producer in her own right. Her first radio play went out in 1943 and she retired in 1980.
The other tribute, by Celia de Wolff, was to playwright John Peacock, who died in 2017. Celia and John had worked together for 27 years. He began writing in 1979 and ended up with over thirty plays; his first ever play, Attard in Retirement, won a Giles Cooper Award. For more information about his work, see our John Peacock page.
Marcus Brigstocke won Best Original Single Drama with his play about alcoholism, "The Red". Marcus has suffered from alcoholism himself, and the play featured a recovered alcoholic who inherits a wine collection from his father. The long WW1 serial "Home Front", directed by Allegra McIlroy and produced by Jessica Dromgoole won Best Series or Serial. Their research team is very thorough; I once received a message from the producer at one point asking for the names of two apple varieties which would have been common in Kent in 1915. Goldhawk made the lists too; it was was good to see the second series of Tumanbay shortlisted; it was as well-made as the first, but was not placed.
Best Adaptation was won by "Midnight’s Children" by Salman Rushdie, ad. Ayeesha Menon, produced by Emma Harding and Tracey Neale. This went out twice; the first broadcast was 70 years (to the minute) after the Partition of India. Nikesh Patel won Best Actor for playing the lead. The sound design was also commended (Peter Ringrose, with Anne Bunting and Jenni Burnett). The production was by BBC Radio Drama London.
As for the Imison and Tinniswood Awards: "The Book of Yehudit" by Alan Usden won the Imison; a woman wants to divorce her husband for his unreasonable behaviour but he won't let her go. The play shows how the Jewish community deals with the situation. Borderland, by Sarah Woods, won the Tinniswood; this was a play looking into the future showing what might happen if border controls become too heavy.
The award for "Outstanding Contribution to Drama" was won by "Midnight's Children", and the whole production team was called to the stage to receive it: Ayesha Menon, who adapted it for radio, with Emma Harding and Tracey Neale, 27 actors, sound designer and SMs Peter Ringrose, Anne Bunting and Jenni Burnett and production coordinators Maggie Olgiati and Jenny Mendez. It was an outstanding piece of radio drama in every way.
The Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Dame Sian Phillips, who has been in radio, acting and drama for 74 years. Sian said that her most intense professional experiences occurred in her first ten years in radio, from the age of 11. In those days, they broadcast live. "A few years later I became a continuity announcer, then a newsreader, then an interviewer, and I loved every minute of it". A clip from "The Minister" by R.S.Thomas was played, with Sian doing the reading.
The other radio drama event which preoccupied us early in the year was the UK International Radio Drama Festival, held in Herne Bay, 19-23 Mar, in which we assisted with promotion and publicity and attended on the Monday and Tuesday. There were entries from the UK (BBC and Independent), Ireland (RTE and Independent), Iran, Belgium, Romania, Germany, Czech Republic, Australia, Iceland, Denmark and Russia. English scripts were made available for those plays not in English, so there was no language barrier; it was like watching a film with subtitles. The plays are online until the end of April.
I had two favourites; the first was "ALMANAK" by Wederik de Backer - the story of a struggling relationship set against the background of a historic building important in the couple's lives. De Meibloem (The Mayflower) was a special place for the inhabitants of the Brugse Poort, a working class neighbourhood in the city of Ghent. The Mayflower was a socialist party hall; it was also a youth club and at one time a cinema. It provided entertainment for the poor youth of the area. When it fell into decline it remained meaningful to the people who had used it.
The second was SURVIVING IRELAND, an excellent comedy from RTE about two young people, Holly and Declan, increasingly addicted to their electronic devices. Declan is not entirely happy about it so signs them up for a digital detox week in the middle of nowhere, run by monks. They are led through a series of increasingly surreal treatments - such as appreciating food without having to photograph it first. It goes smoothly to begin with; then less so...
The festival received a good write-up from Kate Chisholm in The Spectator, 7 Apr 18. Here's an extract from her article:
"To Herne Bay in Kent for the UK International Radio Drama Festival: 50 plays from 17 countries in 15 languages broadcast over five days to the festival audience. It’s an opportunity to find out what radio plays sound like in other countries, but also to experience a different kind of listening. About 25 of us were invited into a suite of rooms furnished with flock wallpaper, floral sofas and armchairs to take us back to the great age of radio listening in the 1950s. A kettle boils in the background; buttered scones on a tiered rack are sitting ready for us to pounce on at the next pause between plays."
More information about these productions and the others is on our Herne Bay Festival page for 2018; we will be involved with it again next year.
There has again been a wide selection of new drama on BBC radio since the last review. It included two John Wyndham stories, a ten-episode 'Stone' detective drama, a four-episode series about a string quartet, a play about Spike Milligan, more from Patric Barlow and the National Theatre of Brent, a feminist festival ('Riot Girls'), more Home Front and Tommies as WW1 drags on and on, two Ibsen plays, and a light-hearted look at a famous Holbein painting by Martyn Wade.
THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS by John Wyndham (R4, 1500, Classic serial in 2 episodes beginning 7 Jan 18) adapted by Roy Williams, was another dramatisation of this familiar tale. In the word of Dan Rebellato (Guardian, 20 Dec 2010): " If you don't know the story, the village of Midwich is visited by aliens who put the whole place to sleep for 24 hours and depart; some weeks later all the women of childbearing age find they are pregnant, and give birth to golden-eyed telepathic children whose powers are soon turned against the village and the world." Roy Williams' version is a bit different; it occurs mainly in flashback, and parallels are drawn between the isolation felt by the alien-human children and the isolation felt by the disabled. I don't generally like agenda-driven drama; it's often too preachy . Nevertheless the production was very good. Michaela, whose father destroyed the alien children, is thinking about it six months later. She remembers what it was like growing up with the Cuckoos, and the danger they might pose to the world. There's a brief sound collage, and then suddenly we flash back to Midwich, where the new parents are gradually working out how to look after their strange offspring. The play was a team effort between Graeae, a disabled-led theatre company, and Indie company Naked Productions Ltd. Tyrone Huggins played Zellerby, Alexandra Mathie was Janet, Cherylee Houston was Molly and Zellerby's daughter was played by Herman Berhane. The producers were Polly Thomas and Jenny Sealey.
I enjoyed the new comedy drama entitled 4/4 (pronounced FOUR-FOUR) by Sarah Wooley and Robin Brooks (4 episodes beginning R4, 1415, 22 Jan 18). They all had musical titles: Introduction & Allegro, Scherzo, and so on. A violinist in a well-known string quartet has died, leaving a vacancy for first violin. Will young Paul, able but inexperienced, be up to the job? This is the first time that Sarah has written with someone else. We hear about the exploits and life of the quartet, and some of the scrapes they get into. The series was very entertaining; for me the high point was episode 4, where the plot centres around a dead pig. Paul was played by Alasdair Hankinson. Archie by Robin Laing, Fergus by Simon Donaldson, and Skye by Shauna MacDonald. The producer was Gaynor MacFarlane.
FREEZING TO DEATH, AND HOW TO AVOID IT (R4, 1415, 25 Jan 18) was based on a very odd incident. In 1739, the Empress Anna Ivanovna arranged for two of her jesters to be married. After the ceremony the couple were forced to spend the night in an ice palace. This is the story of what happened, and the strategy they adopted to avoid being frozen to death. Did they survive? (no spoilers here). The couple were played by Karl Theobald and Mandeep Dhillon; other parts by John MacKay. The producer was Alison Crawford.
In early February there were some repeats of plays which had recently won awards. One of these was BORDERLANDS by Sarah Woods, the Tinniswood winner mentioned earlier. (R4, 1415, 2 Feb 18). In these days of arguing about Brexit, foreign control of British laws and regulations, and border controls or the lack of them, it is highly topical. It's a thriller from an idea by John Norton, set a few years into the future, based on real stories of migrants. In the play, a mother and daughter travel across the borders of England and Wales and then to Ireland in search of a better life. They meet obstacles everywhere. Layla was played by Juliet Cowan and Rabaa by Sirine Saba. The producer was James Robinson, for BBC Wales.
The National Theatre of Brent paid a return visit with its "ILLUSTRATED GUIDE TO SEX & HOW IT WAS DONE" (R4, 1415, 10 Feb 18) by Patrick Barlow and Martin Duncan, performed by Patrick Barlow and John Ramm. The entire company, Desond Olivier Dingle and Raymond Box, guided us through various representations of sex, with sketches ranging from Oedipus Rex to Brokeback Mountain. Jane Anderson described this memorably in RT as "like Carry-On for Mensa members". The producer was Liz Anstee and the director Martin Duncan.
John Priestley's THE GOOD COMPANIONS was broadcast in a new adaptation by John Retallack (R4, 1430, Saturday Play 24 Feb 18). A factory worker from Yorkshire, Jess Oakroyd, disillusioned with his job and prospects, leaves work and sets off to make his fortune. He joins a concert troupe, and the play focuses on their trials and tribulations between WW1 and WW2. Intertwined with the story of Oakroyd's travels are those of Elizabeth Trant and Inigo Jollifant, two other discontented individuals. Miss Trant is an upper-middle class spinster and Jollifant is a teacher at a down-at-heel private school. All three ultimately encounter each other when a failing concert troupe ('The Dinky Doos') is disbanding as a result of the manager disappearing with the takings. The independently wealthy Miss Trant, against the advice of her relatives, decides to refloat the troupe, now known as 'The Good Companions'. Inigo plays piano, Oakroyd is the odd-job man, and other assorted characters include some members of the original troupe: including Jimmy Nunn, Jerry Jerningham and Susie Dean, along with Mr Morton Mitcham, a travelling banjo player. The time allowed for the story was rather short; condensing a novel effectively into 90 minutes requires great skill. The play was directed by David Hunter and featured Ralph Ineson as Jess Oakroyd, Fenella Woolgar as Miss Trant, Roy Hudd as Jimmy Nunn, Oliver Gomm as Inigo Jollifant and Isabella Inchbald as Susie Dean.
Jane Anderson (of RT) struggled with this and actually had to listen to it three times. "I found it hard to invest in the fates of a self-indulgent variety troupe". She rightly points out that the class divisions seem rather like caricatures in 2018 and it certainly shows some of the social attitudes of the time. However I found it a very cheerful and pleasant listen, and it was good to hear Roy Hudd in the cast, with his encyclopedic knowledge of Variety. Previous versions of "The Good Companion" include the three-part Eric Pringle dramatization in 2002 and the 13-episode Neville Teller abridgement read by Wilfrid Pickles in 1971.
The first Saturday Play in March was SHAFTED, by John Godber (R4, 1430, 3 Mar 18). This was billed as a comedy drama in Radio Times. We follow a bad-tempered former miner and his wife in the 30 years following the Scargill miners' strike of 1984-5. I enjoyed the broadcast but it might be described by some as a bad-tempered play; not everyone would get to the end feeling better than when they switched on. The wounds caused by the miners' strike run very deep. Harry was played by John Godber and Dot, his patient wife, by Jane Godber. Production was by Toby Swift.
Martyn Wade's HOLBEIN'S SKULL (R4, 1415, 5 Apr 18) was another of his 'biographical' plays. He has written about involving Percy Grainger, William Baines, Ben Britten, Delia Derbyshire, Jack Moeran and Sergei Rachmaninov. Holbein is the first artist he has used as a subject, and the play was light and playful, inspired by Holbein's painting 'The Ambassadors'. In the picture there is a collection of ephemera surrounding the two men, causing historians to interpret it in different ways. Martyn's play imagines two French ambassadors to the court of Henry VIII negotiating Henry's argument with the Pope. They are persuaded to have their likenesses put onto canvas. Holbein seems fairly amiable but he is definitely a bit odd, and we learn that he likes painting skulls. Jean de Dinteville was played by George Farthing, Georges de Selve by Sam Alexander, and Holbein and the King by Clive Hayward. The producer was Tracey Neale.
I liked FINDING LOVE AT THE END OF THE WORLD (R4, 1415, 3 Apr 18) by Declan Dineen. This was a gentle story of romance, set at the South Pole. A reclusive scientist's old flame arrives at his research station. Now, she has a dreadful husband who's more interested in his job than her. Her former boyfriend is, from her point of view, equally useless; he's so used to ice and penguins that he's forgotten how to relate to ordinary human beings. Can he re-learn to be normal? Rory was played by Owen Whitelaw, Isobel by Jasmine Hyde, Wanda by Buffy Davis and Vance by Ryan Early. The producer was Bruce Young.
Another memorable John Wyndham play went out recently: THE KRAKEN WAKES (R4, 14 & 21 Apr 18: Saturday Play slot), adapted by Val McDermid in two episodes. I had reservations about the climate alarmist predictions we were given before each broadcast, which sounded almost as obsolete as acid rain, given that global temperatures stopped increasing twenty years ago. That said, however, this is is an adaptation quite different from any which has gone out before, updated to the present day and performed in front of an audience. Once the action started it was first-rate; a tremendous buildup in episode 1 to the first appearance of the Kraken. There is also a 4-minute video clip on the BBC website of the recording taking place, with actors sitting at a table delivering the lines and the BBC Philharmonic supplying the music; well worth a look. For those who don't know the story, it's the well-known sci-fi tale of monsters from the sea. Mike and Phyllis Watson were played by Paul Higgins and Tamsin Greig, with Richard Harrington, Sally Carman and Abdullah Afzal. The producer was Justine Potter.
I also need to mention THE ELFIN OAK, by Ian Billings (R4, 1415, 16 Apr 18. ). This was an excellent comic fantasy inspired by Spike Milligan's attempts to preserve the Elfin Oak in Kensington Gardens fifty years ago. Ian is a children's stand-up comedian by trade (see his website www.ianbillings.com) and this was his first radio play, so it would qualify for the Imison Award. There were plenty of appearances of Goon Show gags in the script, and David Threlfall's impression of Spike was uncannily accurate; David is well-known to radio drama enthusiasts as Paulo Baldi, the Franciscan detective, but the two voices are completely different. Jane Anderson gave the play a good write-up in RT, commenting that Spike was more interested in preserving this iconic hollow trunk for its elves and fairies rather than toning down the political references in his play "The Bed Sitting Room" for the Lord Chancellor. Along with David threlfall we heard Charlie Brand (aged 9) as young Spike, Norma Farnes, Kerry Gooderson, and some excellent performances by those voicing the elves and fairies. The producer was Gemma Jenkins, and Neil Brand supplied the music.
Other programmes worthy of note included Ibsen's "Enemy of the People" (Classic Serial in two episodes), a ten-episode police marathon "Stone" lasting seven and a half hours, another play by Sarah Wooley "Spark", about Muriel Spark's time with MI6, Milton's "Paradise Lost" (great production), an interesting feature about Spike Milligan by Michael Palin, "The Things we Never Said" by Ming Ho about the fragmentation of a mother/daughter relationship, and "Real Worlds" by Jane Rogers, where a disabled mother lives in virtual reality. I also noted a play part-written by Guy Meredith, a production of Ian Fleming's "Moonraker" by Jarvis & Ayres, and Christopher Green and Roy Hudd telling us about the life of the music hall singer, Fred Barnes. The last three I still haven't heard; they are on my 'to do' list.
ND / 23 Apr 2018
RADIO DRAMA REVIEW Sept 2018
This review covers the period from late April to late September. This year we have almost-unprecedented hot weather for a very long period, and radio drama has not always been at the forefront of my mind. However, I have heard a few plays and recorded some of the others. There have been some good repeats; if you're going to repeat a significant amount of material then the summer is the best time to do it. Nevertheless there have been many new offerings too. A few of my highlights are described below.
MYTHOS, by Julian Simpson (R4, three plays beginning 24 Apr 18; a repeat) were broadcast on successive days. They were highly original; described in RT as paranormal fantasy thrillers. In play 1, there's an investigation into an unusually high number of deaths from heart failure in a small village. Play 2 sees the paranormal expert taking her boss to Glamis castle and investigating a secret room, 50 miles wide. The third play sees an enormous sink-hole opening up beneath London. Lairre, the investigator, was played by Nicola Walker, Johnson by Tim McInnerney and Parker by Phoebe Fox, with an excellent varied cast making up the rest. The producer was Karen Rose, for the Indie company Sweet Talk. This was weird, strange and very listenable radio; I hope there are more episodes in the pipeline.
Sarah Woods, Tinniswood winner, came up with her take on DAS KAPITAL (R4, 1430, 15 May 18) by Karl Marx, updated for the 21st century. About half of the world's population owns a smartphone, but hardly anyone knows about the people who make their components. The materials are sourced in Third World countries; sometimes carried out by child labour or under dreadful conditions where no attention is paid to health or safety, for pitiful wages. Some of the people involved go through hardships we can only imagine. Marx and Richard were played by David Threlfall, of 'Baldi' fame, Sasha by Kimberley Nixon and Delphine by JP Opong, with Peter Bankole, Samuel James and Sam Swainsbury. The producer was James Robinson, for BBC Wales.
Philip Palmer's gritty Cold War detective drama was repeated in KEEPING THE WOLF OUT (R4, 1415, two episodes beginning 3 May 18). It is set in communist Hungary in 1963. A former member of the secret police has been found murdered. Bertalan Lazar, special investigator, has the job of finding the killer but not all of his colleagues share his zeal; why should they worry if a state snooper has been found dead? Bertalan was played by Leo Bill; Franciska his wife by Clare Corbett, with Andy Linden, Nicola Ferguson, Susan Jameson and Sargon Yelda. The producer was Toby Swift.
I am quite taken by the INSPECTOR CHEN plays (R4, 1430, three Saturday plays beginning 12 May 18. These are crime tales, dramatised by Joy Wilkinson from the novels by Qiu Xiaolong, set in Shanghai. They feature Chen Cao; he wanted to be a poet, but the authorities gave him a job in the Shanghai Police Department instead. He is a good detective, but cannot escape the struggle between what the Party wants and what justice demands. The stories give a glimpse of how Chinese society is run, and how an honourable man makes his way in a world which does not always reward honesty. This new set of three dramas, broadcast as successive Saturday Plays (beginning R4, 1430, 12 May 18) looked into pollution released by a chemical company, an investigation into a director's activities whilst under house arrest, and a case of financial corruption. Chen is played by Jamie Zubairi, Yu by Chris Lew Kum Hoi and Li by Daniel Yorke. The first play was produced by Toby Swift and the other two by David Hunter.
COUNTY LINES, by Amelia Bullmore (R4, 1415, 1 Jun 18) was set on a train; a young black woman sits opposite a middle-aged white woman. Neither of them is what she seems; it's difficult to say much about the plot without introducing spoilers but it's safe to report that one of them becomes involved in unexpected criminal activity. Middle-aged Joy was played by Brid Brennan and young Umi by Tamara Lawrance, with Sean Murray as the steward, Ryan Early, Nahel Tzegai, Ryan Whittle and Lauren Cornelius. The producer was Mary Peate.
The Saturday Play on 2 June was unusual: ESCAPED ALONE (R4, 1430, 2 Jun 18), a radio adaptation of the stage play by Caryl Churchill , as performed at the Royal Court, with the same cast. I asked the producer if they used scripts - she said no; they didn't need them. As for the play: it is notable first for starring four mature actresses. Each is terrific. Sally (Deborah Findlay) talks in smug, soothing tones barely concealing a twitchy nervousness. Lena (Kika Markham) is agoraphobic and fragile. Vi (June Watson) is a streetwise woman who has spent several years in prison. Sally is terrified of cats. Lena is imprisoned by a paralysing depression. Vi is haunted by blood and never seeing her grown-up son. The fourth lady, Mrs Jarrett (Linda Bassett), seems to have come from a parallel universe where apocalyptic events are taking place. Either that or she is away with the fairies. The conversation is curious; they interrupt each other, lose their train of thought, and wander off on tangents. Mrs. Jarrett prophesies lots of strange things; apparently at some future point, she says, men will starve, others will die from chemical poisons, apart from private patients who will be OK because they will be able to buy the gas masks. In spite of the oddness, the play spits and fizzes like a box of fireworks where someone has dropped a match. The producer was Susan Roberts and the director, as in the Royal Court performances, was James MacDonald.
Roy Williams' new series of "THE INTERROGATION (R4, three plays, 1415, 4-6 Jun 18)" was police drama at its best. This was series 3, with Kenneth Cranham as Max and Alex Lanipekun as Sean. They are alarmingly realistic. The plays were given names as titles. In 'Ross', Max and Sean interview a young prisoner about an attack on a fellow inmate. 'Jack' concerns a man suspected of shoplifting; the investigation uncovers something more serious. 'Heather' concerns a man attacked in his own home; there's no apparent motive for the crime. Each of the plots is linked closely to topics of concern in the present day. The supporting cast, changing a little between plays, was Rupert Holliday-Evans, Billy Seymour, Georgie Glen, Michael Shaeffer, Kerry Gooderson, Jo Martin and Claire Rushbrook. Production was by Mary Peate.
Trevor Preston died in May, and Radio 4 repeated his play BECAUSE (R4, 1415, 8 Jun 18) as a tribute. He was the author of a number of several hard-hitting radio dramas showing the darker side of life, including one in the 'Dangerous Visions' series. It's worth quoting what Moira Petty said a few years ago on hearing his play 'Second Body':
Trevor Preston is a scriptwriter whose work includes thriller and action TV series alongside more experimental work, and he merges these two strands in Second Body. Tara Fitzgerald plays artist Anna, for whom dreams filled with symbols and prophecies seep into the daytime. Beautifully scripted, it is a thriller of the unconscious with more than a touch of Salvador Dali. (.....Moira Petty, early 2013; taken from her radio drama review in "The Stage".)
As for BECAUSE, this is best described as a psychological thriller. Ruth was a successful investigative journalist until a terrible accident in France. Mentally she is now in a terrible mess. Her physical recovery has to take second place to her need to remember what happened that night. She has to recover her memory. Ruth was played by Raquel Cassidy, Dr. Quinn by Caroline Catz, Elsa by Jasmine Hyde and Bernard by Stephane Cornicard; the producer was Toby Swift.
Jonathan Holloway's version of Dostoyevsky's THE DOUBLE was interesting, broadcast as a single episode in the Classic Serial slot (R4, 1500, 10 Jun 18). It was described in RT as a re-imagining of the original story: a civil servant who lives alone is driven mad when his life is taken over by a doppelganger. Golyakin and the villain were both played by Joseph Millsom and Olsufy by Sean Murray, with Elizabeth Counsell, Kerry Gooderson and Lauren Cornelius. The producer was Gemma Jenkins.
Martin Jameson's five-part dystopian drama FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS (R4, 1415, 11-15 Jun 18) looked at a future Britain where civil war is about to break out, focusing on an ordinary couple whose daughter is about to get married. The Queen is no longer on the throne; it is not Britain as we know it. The week's broadcasts involved a very large cast: 22 actors, including Jeremy Swift, Ryan Whittle, Elizabeth Counsell, Sam Barnard and Lauren Cornelius (see our 2018 drama listing page for the complete cast). The drama used research from BBC correspondents, analysts, contingency planners and those with direct experience of the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. Martin said that the series was commissioned off the back of the Scottish Independence Referendum and the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. He said that his research had revealed the fragility of the UK's infrastructure; its very sophistication making it vulnerable. For example, he had asked a number of senior financial people what their plan was, if the electronic financial system was suddenly not there. He received no realistic answers. It does not seem particularly unlikely to me that a day may come when a massive computer problem hits the whole country and no-one can access any of their money.
The series begins with the planning of a wedding. But as the country's problems escalate, they impinge on the family and it soon becomes clear that their plans are not going to work out as intended. How can they buy stuff? Electronic money becomes worthless. Smartphones stop working as their networks gradually collapse. There are shortages in the shops; people get desperate; eventually no-one pays for anything; there is looting and violence. The fact the UK is on the brink of breaking apart almost becomes an irrelevance; civilised behaviour retreats and everything becomes a struggle for survival. I was greatly relieved when it got to the end. The producer of this memorable epic was Jonquil Panting.
It was a treat to have another series of THE CORRUPTED, by Gordon Newman (R4, 1415, 10 episodes on weekdays beginning 25 Jun 18) It follows the fortunes of the Oldman family, as they progress from small-time business and petty crime to entanglement with major figures and politicians of the Establishment. We have reached the 1980s; Margaret Thatcher is in charge of the country and Sir Robert Mark is sorting out corruption in the police force. Brian Oldman, an obnoxious villain and thug, is back in jail for a crime he did not commit. He suspects that his father Joseph was the perpetrator, but cannot prove it. There are themes which recur regularly in these series: the police are corrupt; politicians are corrupt; bankers are corrupt; in fact the whole of life for the characters in the drama seems to be one long struggle against corruption, unless a way can be found to profit by it.
There are uncomfortable links to real political events, and one wonders sometimes if some of the unpleasant violent incidents in these episodes are entirely fictional. Joseph Oldman, the anti-hero of the story, is played by Toby Jones; his long-suffering wife by Isabella Urbanowicz, and there is a superb supporting cast: Alec Newman as a senior bent copper, Jasmine Hyde as a victimised wife who has broken free and made a life for herself; Jonathan Tafler as a crooked banker; the list goes on and on. The producer of this excellent series was Clive Brill, for his company Brill Productions.
We are all familiar with McLevy, by David Ashton, which has now sadly drawn to a close. David has now written MASTER OF THE MINT (R4, 1430, 21 Jul 18) about an episode in the life of scientist and genius Isaac Newton. After 30 years as a don at Cambridge, he was, astonishingly, offered a new job at the Royal Mint. He was asked to investigate and to put a stop to the manufacture of false coin. This was a significant problem; the forgers were hard at work and a fair fraction of the coins in circulation were fakes, some of them surprisingly good. The penalty for those caught doing it was death by the most painful process imaginable; it was an offence against the country and it was treason.
It is not long before Newton, invested with enormous power and resources from the authorities, is breaking into drinking dens and interrogating prisoners in jail in pursuit of a counterfeiting gang. Is he capable of catching the ringleaders before their criminal plans trigger a financial crash threatening to topple the Government? William Gaminara plays Newton, with a strong supporting cast including Gunnar Cauthary, Kerry Gooderson, Nicholas Tizzard, Michael Nardone and Jonathan Forbes. The producer, as for McLevy's later exploits, was Bruce Young.
In these curious times when self-appointed public guardians specify, for reasons of their own, words they say we should not use any more, this play seemed curiously appropriate. Philip Palmer's SPEAK (1415, 18 Jun 18) envisages a world where everyone uses the same limited vocabulary. Orwell warned us about this; we should remember his book was a warning, not a blueprint. In Philip's drama, Lucian has a vocabulary of about 1500 words. Clara wants to teach him about some of those which are forbidden. The path of his education does not run smooth. Clara was Pippa Haywood, Lucian was Andrew Gower and the producer was James Robinson, for BBC Wales.
The BBC blurb ran as follows (my summary): The OED lists 171,476 English words in current use. The average adult native English speaker has an active vocabulary of about 35,000 - 50,000 words. But studies suggest our vocabularies are shrinking. "Globish" is a real international business language, developed in 2004, made up of the most common 1500 English words. It is designed to promote international communication in the global economy. 'Speak' imagines a future in which Globish has become the official language. This is a drama about the power of words; how words - or their absence - can control, confine, leach emotion and trap minds. (Not bad for a BBC blurb, though it should be; the BBC is highly knowledgeable about propaganda and how it works - Ed)
WHERE THIS SERVICE WILL CONNECT by Katherine Jakeways (R4,1415, 2 Aug 18) was the sequel to her two other episodes of her romantic comedy; beautifully written and acted; it reminded me of Marcy Kahan's delightful comedy series 'Lunch'. Suzie arrives at the office to see David; she is the worse for wear after a party the night before. It's months since they sat next to each other on a train journey; now she needs his help. Suzie and David were played againby Rosie Cavaliero and Justin Edwards. The producer was James Robinson. For those who wish to investigate further, the previous episodes were broadcast on 27-28 Apr 2017.
Two linked plays from 2016 were repeated during the summer: THE ABDICATION (R4, 1415, 16-17 Aug 18), looked at that famous piece of history from 1936. The first play, by Christopher Lee, observed the event from the point of view of the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who both believed that the proposed marriage between Edward And Wallis Simpson was inappropriate. Stanley Baldwin was played by Jim Broadbent and Edward by Anthony Calf. The second part of the story, by Nicola Baldwin, was told from the point of view of Wallis Simpson. She escapes to France to escape press harassment, and then tries to persuade the king not to abdicate, saying that they can continue their relationship without marrying. Wallis was played by Frances Barber; both plays were produced by Celia de Wolff. Incidentally I thought that Wallis emerged very creditably from this unfortunate event.
It is easy to forget how much society has changed over the last couple of generations. Two plays entitled THE TRIALS OF C.B.KING by David Morley (R4, 1415, 5-6 Sep 18) illustrated this. Chevene King was an early African-American lawyer, born 1923, who worked at a time when there was segregation of black and white in America. He was born in Albany, Georgia and obtained a B.A. degree from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee in 1949, and a law degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio in 1952. Although other promising opportunities were available to him, he decided to return to Albany. He became the only black attorney practising in his community, and one of only three practising in Georgia outside of Atlanta.
He spent much of his life contributing to the causes of justice, opportunity, and dignity for all Americans. Although he remained Albany-based he became nationally known; during the early 1960s, he was a leader of the Albany Movement, demonstrating for civil rights such as desegregation of buses and public facilities, and for employment of blacks in business. He led boycotts of places to achieve these goals. He was severely beaten by police and faced many threats to his life for his persistence in the civil rights struggle.
David Morley's plays showed the extremely difficult conditions under which "C.B" was forced to work; he was openly abused by officials and others both in and out of court. King was played by Leo Wringer, Bobby Peel by Tom Forrister and Carol Kind by Cecilia Noble; the producer was Marc Beeby.
BILLY RUFFIAN (R4, 1415, 7 Sep 18) by Lisa Osborne is the story of what happened to Napoleon after he had been beaten at Waterloo and had escaped to Paris. As the royalists took charge of the city, Napoleon travelled to the coast, hoping to get to America. The title is a corruption of the name of the ship HMS Bellerophon. Captain Frederick Maitland, in charge of the ship, was told to keep a watch on him and if necessary, to stop him getting away. He carried out his job effectively and Napoleon's days of fame were over. Napoleon was played by Adrian Scarborough, Maitland by Arthur Darvill, Bertrand by Adam James, Madame Bertrand by Emerald O'Hanrahan and Mott by Sam Alexander. The producer was Lisa Osborne.
There were other noteworthy plays which I have not yet heard; Denis Potter's The White Hotel, a Lenny Henry play about a priest who has lost his way, more classic history from Mike Walker on Sunday afternoons, a new Inspector Morse play, a drama about David Bowie, some classic Jules Verne, more 'Tommies' as the end of WW1 approaches, and a Mark Lawson play 'The Unseen Government' about a country which seems happier being run by civil servants than by an elected administration.
ND / 26 Sep 2018
RADIO DRAMA REVIEW Dec 2018
With the arrival of Autumn and the colder weather, it was to be hoped that we would get an increased number of new dramas and fewer repeats, and although I haven't done any statistical analysis, it seems to me that there has been a lot of good stuff since the last review in September. A new conspiracy serial, some political plays including three about Republican presidents, another 'Road' play by Douglas Livingstone and Jane Morgan, some good comedy drama, another Marcy Kahan play and the return of 'Pilgrim' for a Christmas season special. I had some heavy commitments in October and November so don't be upset if your favourite plays are not mentioned here; I missed quite a few.
Angela Carter's THE CHRISTCHURCH MURDER (R4, 1430, 22 Sep 18) was a radio version of an unproduced screenplay, adapted by Robin Brooks; partly-dramatized narration rather than drama, based on a murder taking place in the fifties in Christchurch, New Zealand. Two teenage girls, friends, are disillusioned with their lives and plan to run away to Hollywood. They commit a murder rather than be separated. Fiona Shaw narrates as Angela Carter, with Dolores Carbonari as Nerissa, Erin Wallace as Lena and a large supporting cast. Sound Design was by Lucinda Mason Brown and the producer Fiona McAlpine. This was an independent (Allegra) production.
WE'RE BACKING BRITAIN, by David Morley (R4, 1415, 25 Sep 18) was a satire inspired by the 'I'm Backing Britain' campaign of 1968. The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, has had to devalue the pound; his economic policies have been a disaster; he has seen the country almost wrecked by excessive wage demands and plagued by strikes. The big Trades Unions are effectively running the country. The play takes us back to that time and shines a light on the industrial strife which followed. The Labour government has been fighting budget deficits with austerity measures, struggling with a small Commons majority and trying to change Britain's relationship with Europe; it is not yet a member of the Common Market. The typists of Colt Ventilation decide that something has to be done; to make a gesture they decide to begin working half an hour a day for nothing, to help the country fight economic hard times. Unfortunately, by doing this, they put their local shop-steward on a collision course with the Union hierarchy. The idea of working for nothing is initially encouraged by the Prime Minister, but it's not long before the Labour Party is put under pressure by the TUC to abandon this foolish behaviour. Harold Wilson and Jack O'Hea are played by Duncan Wisbey of Dead Ringers; Geoffrey McGivern plays the shop steward Harry Tyler, with Nicholas Boulton, Felicity Duncan, Catherine Lamb and Alana Ramsey. The play was produced by Richard Clemmow and directed by Sean Grundy; an independent Perfectly Normal production.
An interesting three-episode series of plays about the Republican Party by Jonathan Myerson, produced by Jonquil Panting, was broadcast during October. The first play, RONALD REAGAN - DEATH VALLEY DAYS (R4,1430, 6 Oct 18) was set in 1965. Ronnie Reagan is working as the host and actor on Death Valley Days, a well-loved TV show. Meanwhile the country has election fever, and Barry Goldwater is the Republican candidate. His campaign against Lyndon Johnson is turning out to be a disaster. The party needs a fresh face; someone who can handle television with confidence. One day, Reagan, a very popular figure, is approached by the Republican Party with an offer. Will he consider standing for president at some point in the future? Reagan begins to wonder about the possibility of a president with no political experience. The drama is framed as an episode of the TV show. Reagan is played by Kerry Shale, Nancy by Madeleine Potter, Maureen Reagan by Samantha Dakin and Barry Goldwater by Corey Johnson. Richard Nixon (Jonathan Hyde) also makes an appearance. Johnson was president from 1963-69; Nixon from 1969-74.
The second play was RICHARD NIXON: SEARCHLIGHT HAS LEFT THE BUILDING (R4, 1430, 13 Oct 18). It's now 1970 and President Nixon has announced the invasion of Cambodia in a televised address to the nation. He justifies it as a necessary response to North Vietnamese aggression, and he says that the objective is to capture the headquarters of the communist military operation in South Vitenam. Student have protested loudly and vigorously; their protests have spread across America, with National Guardsmen shooting four students dead at Kent State University. Washington is on high alert. When President Nixon wakes up in the middle of the night and sees beligerent students gathering at the Lincoln Memorial, he walks over to talk to them. Richard Nixon was played by Jonathan Hyde, young Richard Nixon by Rupert Simonian, Bob Haldemann by Aaron Vodovoz and Manolo Sanchez by Joseph Balderrama.
The concluding play was about President Ford, who succeeded Richard Nixon in 1974 after the Watergate affair, in GERALD FORD - FASCIST INSECT (R4, 1430, 20 Oct 2018). Time has moved on; it's 1975; the President is fighting for his political survival and the Republican Party is in poor shape. Challenger Ronald Reagan is attacking him in weekly radio broadcasts: “Make America Great Again” is his catchphrase. Saigon has just fallen and the Panama Canal is threatened. There’s political fervour everywhere. Even Patty Hearst, celebrity rich-girl kidnap victim, seems to have turned terrorist. Then an FBI informant, Sara Jane Moore, decides that she is the woman to catalyse the revolution. She attempts to shoot Gerald Ford at a gathering in California, only 17 days after a failed assassination attempt in Sacramento. Two days later, California governor Jerry Brown responded to both assassination attempts by signing into law bills imposing mandatory sentences for persons convicted of using guns in committing serious crimes. (Ford was succeeded by Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1977, and Reagan eventually became president in 1981, serving a double term.) Gerald Ford was played by Nathan Osgood, Betty Ford by Barbara Barnes, Sara Jane Moore by Sian Thomas and Bob Hartmann by Daniel Betts.
Douglas Livingstone's latest play, ROAD TO LISBON (R4, 1415, 15 Oct 2018) was the latest in a long series of collaborations with producer Jane Morgan which began in 1983. In each of the 'Road' plays, a specially recorded soundtrack made at a major festival is used to create a drama. This time it's the Feast of St. Anthony; the Lisbon Sardine festival. St. Anthony is the patron saint of missing objects, but in Portugal, he’s the patron saint for singles - the matchmaker. During the festival, charcoal-cooked sardines and barbecues can be smelled all over the city. But the play is not just about sardines and sangria - we learn about life under the dictatorship of Dr. Salazar and the effect that the Carnation Revolution had on Tony's father: one of the so-called ‘Returnados’ who had to return to the home country after the fall of the Portuguese fascists. He found himself equally unwelcome in his native Lisbon, so made a new life in England. Then on his death, his son unearths a secret... Tony was played by Carl Prekopp, Paolo, the father by David Westhead, Sharmila by Carlyss Peer and Joan by Elizabeth Rider. The producer, as mentioned above, was Jane Morgan.
Shon Dale-Jones has written an outstanding monologue called THE DUKE (R4, 1415, 22 Oct 18) which he has performed, without fee, all over the world. The radio adaptation was comical and witty; The Duke is a valuable porcelain figure of the Duke of Wellington on horseback, and Shon's mother has accidentally broken it. Shon's quest is to find another copy. The website activateperformingarts.org.uk describes it like this:
"Since 2005 I've been working on a film script, which is in the very final stages of development. In the autumn of 2015 I sit at my desk waiting for an email that will tell me what I need to do to the script to get it onto the screen. I turn the radio on. I listen to a report about the refugee crisis. My mother calls. She tells me she’s broken The Duke. My mother, my film script and the refugee crisis all need my attention."
"The Duke" weaves together the fate of a family heirloom, the quandary of a scriptwriter stretching his integrity and an unfolding disaster as thousands of children flee their homes. Blending fantasy and reality, this playful show gently challenges our priorities in a world full of crisis. (from activateperformingarts.org.uk)
The performance was produced by the writer and directed by James Robinson, for BBC Wales. The writer tells us that so far, his appearances with "The Duke" have raised £46,000 for Save The Children.
A tale by Nigel Kneale, writer of Quatermass, was broadcast in late October: THE ROAD (R4, 1430, 27 Oct 18). It was originally a television play but has now been adapted for radio by Mark Gatiss and Adrian Scarborough. The year is 1768; a philosopher and a scientist investigate ghostly outbreaks in a country wood. A servant girl has heard strange sounds; they seemed to come from under the ground. The philosopher believes in the power of abstract thought and despises experimentation; the scientist prefers a more practical approach. He sets up some equipment amongst the trees and they wait there all night to see what happens. They all get more than they bargained for. Gideon was played by Mark Gatiss and Sir Timothy by Adrian Scarborough; Lady Lavinia was Hattie Morahan and Jethro was Colin MacFarlane, with Susan Wokoma as the girl. The play was produced by Charlotte Riches.
CHIMERA, another 'Tracks' series by Matthew Broughton was a marathon 9-episode conspiracy thriller (R4, 1415, beginning 1 Nov 18). The writers were Matthew Broughton (eps. 1,2, 5, 8, 9) assisted by Matt Hartley (3), Lucy Catherine (4), Caroline Horton (6) and Timothy Atack (ep. 7). This follows the two previous series, Tracks: Strata (prequel), broadcast 2017, and Tracks: Chimera (2016). The plot: Helen Ash is unlucky enough to witness a disaster: the collapse of a tower block full of people. But before the catastrophe, she sees a man on the roof, waving his arms. Astonishing, after the building has collapsed, the man arises from the debris and rubble and then slowly walks away, apparently unharmed. Shortly afterwards Helen discovers she's pregnant, but she has had no sexual partner in the last 18 months, and there are other surprises. Helen was played by Hattie Morahan, Freddy by Jonathan Forbes, Megan by Zahra Ahmadi and Dr. Grace by Claire Cage. The producer was James Robinson, for BBC Wales.
THE BENEFICIAL OWNER, by Hugh Costello (R4, 1415, 2 Nov 18) was an example of what can happen if you spend too much money too rapidly. An accountant whose twins are at an expensive private school has difficulty in keeping pace with the mortgage and the school bills. After a difficult interview with the Principal he meets another parent at the school; an attractive woman who offers him a way to make some extra money. He can't resist the offer or her, and before long he is in a lot deeper than he anticipated. Then there are BBC news reports of money laundering. He gets worried, and his problems increase. Tony was played by John McAndrew, his wife by Jane Slavin, and Xenia by Emma Fielding. Eoin O'Callaghan was the producer.
James Lever's play CHEETA, MY LIFE IN HOLLYWOOD (R4, 1430, 3 Nov 18), based on the novel by Stef Penney, looked at Hollywood from the point of view of the world's most famous chimp. Cheeta recalls his capture in the jungle and the training which followed, and the fun he had in the films. He featured in many of the Tarzan adventures starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan in the early 30s, providing comic relief. He died at the advanced age of 80; very unusual for a chimp in captivity, and outlived Weissmuller (d. 1984 aged 79) and O'Sullivan (d. 1998, aged 87). In the radio play, Cheeta was played by John Malkovich, Weissmuller by Julian Sands, numerous other characters were played by Edita Brychta, Enn Reitel, Darren Richardson and Elisa Bocanegra. The producer was Kate McCall.
David Pownall's latest radio play IN PRAISE OF EVIL (R4, 90m, 1430 17 Nov 18) imagines the consequences if Monteverdi had been summoned to Rome to appear before the Inquisition. Monteverdi has just written a stunning new opera "The Coronation of Poppea", full of sublime music. Unfortunately he has ended the work with a love duet between Nero and Poppea; the Catholic Church thinks this is heresy because evil must be punished, not celebrated. The charge is that Monteverdi has allowed blasphemy and immorality to triumph. Weak and frightened, the elderly Monteverdi is brought face to face with the highly unpredictable Pope. Can he escape the suffocating clutches of the Church? Will the Inquisition succeed in stifling his creativity? Why is the Pope so involved? Monteverdi is played by Jim Norton, Barberini by David Horovitch, Claudia by Monica Dolan and Busenello by Anton Lesser, with Michael Maloney and Carl Prekopp. The producer was Martin Jenkins, for Pier productions.
Another novel by Patrick O'Brian, FORTUNE OF WAR (R4, Classic Serial, 1502, beginning 18 Nov), dramatized by Roger Danes, was broadcast in November in three episodes: In 1812 Britain is at war with America and France. When Captain Jack Aubrey and surgeon Stephen Maturin are forced to abandon ship in the South Atlantic they are picked up by a Royal Navy frigate, Java, in pursuit of an American heavy frigate, Constitution. But when the ships exchange fire the enemy proves superior. This adventure is lower in action and higher in talk than the previous stories, mainly because the captain and his surgeon are locked up for a prolonged period as prisoners-of-war. Nevertheless the story is interesting throughout. Jack Aubrey was played by David Robb and Stephen by Richard Dillane, with Candida Benson, Jon Glover and Sam Dale. The producer was Bruce Young.
KAFKA'S METAMORPHOSIS, by Alan Harris (R4, 1430, 24 Nov 18) was a new version of Kafka's famous novella, but with a change of location; it's set in a call centre. One day, Gregor wakes up from his life of “work, eat, sleep, repeat” to find he's been transformed into a gigantic insect. It is a seriously creepy tale, and a good example of a story which is more effective on radio than on film or TV. It was written in 1915 and there have been other radio adaptations; I remember one by John Turner in 1983 called 'Metamorphosid Arkwright' (sic) which was also very effective. In the new version, Gregor was played by Tom Basden, Grete by Emma Sidi, Father by Kenneth Collard and Mother by Felicity Montague. The narrator was Peter Marinker and the producer James Robinson, for BBC Wales.
THE WINTER QUEEN (R4, 1415, 10-11 Dec 18) by Sebastian Baczkiewicz was a one-off special featuring his well-known character William Palmer, 'Pilgrim', split into two 45m parts, written for the Christmas season. When an old burial mound is disturbed by a developer, a woman, Mrs. Bronson, cold but alive, is found among the roots of an old yew tree. It turns out she was imprisoned there by her brother, centuries ago. Now she has a thirst for revenge. Before long, she is causing havoc. She takes a local man, already engaged to be married, for her own. The weather grows colder; a blizzard and an evil enchantment threaten to overwhelm the town. The only person equipped to deal with her is William Palmer, who has encountered her before. He has to choose whether or not to lift her curse. William was played by Paul Hilton and Mrs. Bronson by Fenella Woolgar, with Carolyn Pickles, Tony Turner and Cameron Percival. The producer was Marc Beeby and the director Jessica Dromgoole.
Marcy Kahan's new play THE WARHOL YEARS (R4, 1415, 17 Dec 18) took a light-hearted look at the life of Oscar Wilde before he had written anything of note. Wilde has left University; he is in his early 20s, and he embarks on an American tour, determined to become rich and famous. He meets Sarah Bernhardt, Walt Whitman and Henry James, gives a series of lectures, and by the end of the tour, his reputation is spreading rapidly. The play was part of Radio 4's celebration of his life. Wilde was played by Max Bennett, his friend Charles Kitteridge by Liam Lau Fernandez and Speranza Wilde by Dervla Kirwan; the producer was Emma Harding. There was a play by Lavinia Murray, OSCAR AND CONSTANCY, also about Wilde, on the following day.
There were other plays of note: IN MY OWN SKIN, where a girl has intimate photos stolen from her internet cloud; another excellent series of HOLDING BACK THE TIDE by Nick Warburton, and a two-episode fun piece by Barry and Bob Cryer about some events at 221b Baker St entitled MRS. HUDSON'S RADIO SHOW, with an all-star cast including Miriam Margolyes. There have been celebrations of Oscar Wilde and Henry James, with plays by both, and an Angela Carter serial NIGHTS AT THE CIRCUS on two Sunday afternoons.
I must also say something about the coverage of WW1 in the four-year marathon of TOMMIES and HOME FRONT. The programmes have been quite outstanding; many writers have contributed, but particular mention must go to producers Jonathan Ruffle, Jonquil Panting, David Hunter (Tommies) and Jessica Dromgoole and Allegra McIlroy (Home Front) for the amazingly thorough research and high production standards which have gone into every episode.
ND / 20 Dec 2018
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