RADIO DRAMA REVIEW Apr 2023
As regular radio listeners will be aware, there have been severe cuts in radio drama commissioning. In 2017 it was 600 hours; the BBC’s last Annual Plan committed to 300 hours of drama on Radio 4 for 2022-23. There has also been a massive push towards BBC Sounds which has reportedly cost about £7 million, accompanied by a good deal of between-programme advertising. Perhaps we should be grateful that we don't yet have adverts in the middle of programmes.
Tim Davie, the D-G, said a while back that the BBC was eventually aiming for digital-only programming, but a little later he backtracked slightly and said that 'legacy' broadcasts, which means those scheduled at a particular time, would not disappear.
There are still new dramas of very high quality being commissioned by the BBC but one should bear in mind the words of Gillian Reynolds when we lost the Friday Play in 2010: "What is universally agreed is that excellence is occasional and only comes from a critical mass of constant production".
I am puzzled as to what is happening in the Monday afternoon drama slot. Recently this has often been occupied by a repeat of a programme not related to drama. Are those in charge of Radio 4 trying to break the habits of those who like to listen to a play in the afternoons? Why not make Monday afternoon a drama repeat slot? Post-2000 the BBC has been buying all rights to its performance programmes so it wouldn't cost much; there would be no repeat fees.
Post-Covid, most radio dramas are now being recorded again in the studio, which must be a relief to all concerned. Remarkable things happened when sound engineers learned how to produce plays remotely, but the unpredictable mini-pauses when recording online make it difficult for the actors to 'bounce off' each other and give their best performance.
The UK International Radio Drama Festival took place in Canterbury again this year, 27-31 March, with both face-to-face and online audiences. Events were managed so that all listened collectively to each play at the same time. There were 100 entries from many countries in numerous languages; translations were supplied as usual and it was an excellent week. Marta Rebzka again won in the 'best long play' category; a beautifully-presented account of the 'displacement' policy - which effectively meant eviction - taking place in Poland after WW2 when the Polish borders were redrawn. The play described the heroic efforts of the Countess Roza and Count Jan Zamoyski in saving four hundred and sixty children from the children's concentration camp (you read that correctly) run by the Nazis at Zwierzyniec.
The Young Producer Award went to First Ditch Collective, Canada for 'Through the Fairy Circle'; a children's story containing some highly original ideas. Denny loves hearing her father read stories from his mother’s old book of fairies, believing that the fairies that supposedly populate the island are the key to ending her family’s string of bad luck. One day, she attempts to summon a fairy through a nearby fairy circle. To her surprise, it works, but it raises as many problems as it solves.
The short-form category was won by a superb play from Iran, where the central characters were a couple of pieces of rubbish in a trash-can and some feral cats. This showed excellent use of the radio medium.
Those interested can listen to the performances online through the 'festival' link on the main radio page. You'll need to use the translations for the Polish and Iranian plays.
The BBC Audio Drama Awards (along with the Imison and the Tinniswood) were scheduled in their new later slot for 19 March rather than end-Jan and this time everything was back to normal. The Radio Theatre was full to capacity and Covid seemed very far away. Those who wish to scrutinise the list of winners should refer to the ADA link, also on the main radio page.
My personal highlights were:
1.Martin Jarvis receiving the Lifetime Achievement award for his long career in radio drama as actor, reader and producer. He has over 2,000 appearances to his credit on BBC Genome; amongst present-day actors, only Nigel Anthony has as many. Martin runs his independent production company 'Jarvis & Ayres' and as well as appearing in hundreds of radio plays, has recorded countless episodes of Richmal Crompton's 'William' stories.
2. Anita Sullivan receiving the award for "End of Transmission" which won the 'Best Single Play category. Her central character, Jude, has lived for 20 years with HIV and now she's 50. She starts to ask questions about the virus, which appears as a speaking character in the play. It takes her on a transmission journey skipping across continents, centuries, decades and diverse hosts to meet the person who gave her HIV. We learned that Anita has lived with HIV since 2000.
3. Dan Rebellato and his team receiving the award for "Best Original Series" for Exemplar (By Ben & Max Ringham and Dan Rebellato). Their character, Jess, is a sound-scientist; the UK’s leading audio forensic examiner. Assisted by her new trainee, Maya, she undertakes a different sound challenge in each episode. The series is fascinating to anyone who has dabbled with wave files or sound-editing programs
As for my impressions of some of the plays on R3 and R4 since January this year:
I was very entertained by the Ayckbourn comedy, BEDROOM FARCE (R4, 1500, 31 Dec 22 - 1 Jan 23), broadcast on two successive afternoons, Sat-Sun. It chronicles a hectic night in the lives of four couples; Trevor and Susannah's marriage is rocky and they inflict their miseries on their six closest friends. I'm fairly sure this hasn't been done on the radio before; I have a TV soundtrack from about 30 years ago which is first-rate, but no radio production. Stephen Mangan and Susannah Fielding play Trevor and Susannah; Martin Jarvis and Rosalind Ayres also take part. Martin produced the play and this was an Indie production from Jarvis & Ayres.
The Saturday Play RARE EARTH, by Richard Monks (R4, 1500, 7 Jan 23) was described by RT as a trade-war thriller set in Greenland. Some background: the rare-earth elements, knowns by chemists as the lanthanides, are a group of 17 chemically similar metals; they are not particularly rare, but are chemically difficult to separate from one another because they are so similar. You can actually buy little magnets made of neodymium on the internet (it's about as common as copper in the earth's crust); they are extremely powerful and are used in electric motors, electronics, smart phones and missiles. China produces about 84% of the current supply. As for the play: In the city of Nuuk in Greenland, America and China try lobbying the Energy and Environment Minister Seria Lyberth to secure an exclusive mining contract. A local activist, Rusa, doesn't want the mine. Then there's a plane crash... I can't say any more without introducing spoilers. Manok was played by Christopher Dane and Rusa by Christina Wolfe. Sound design was by Jon Nicholls, the producer was Sarah Tombling and the director was Nicolas Jackson for Indie company Afonica.
Mike Walker's new series about the Medicis (three episodes on successive Sundays, beginning 1500, 8 Jan 23) was an absorbing listen. The subtitle was BANKERS, GANGSTERS, POPES and the three episodes followed the lives of Cosimo Medici, Lorenzo Medici and Lucrezia Tornabuoni, the grandmother of two popes and the great-great grandmother of Catherine de Medici, Queen of France. They certainly had interesting lives; Cosimo de Medici inherited his father's bank and through shrewd trade and business innovation he became the richest man in Europe and a great patron of the Arts. His grandson Lorenzo was more interested in Art and romance than banking. But Lorenzo, who was groomed for power and sent on many diplomatic missions whilst still a youth, had to try and stop the war with the Pope. To do it he would have to negotiate with King Ferrante; a hazardous task. Meanwhile his mother Lucrezia was heavily involved in the holding the bank's iinterests together and the troublemaking monk Savonarola was purging Florence of everything he didn't like - a good illustration of the warning " beware of men doing good". Cosimo was played by Patrick Baladi, Lorenzo by Tom Cullen and Lucrezia Tornabuoni by Sharon Morgan. The producer was John Norton, for BBC Wales.
Hugh Costello's latest play, BORDER CALL (R4, 1415, 10 Jan 23) looked four years into the future. It is 2027 and the UK's Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is under pressure to hold a poll on Irish re-unification. The play follows her progress; she embarks on a fact-finding mission and charm offensive. However whilst appearing on a radio phone-in programme, a caller raises a traumatic memory from her family's past. The story goes from there... Helen was played by Jane Slavin and Emily Cooke by Bronagh Waugh, with Tayla Kovacevic-Ebong, Frances Tomelty and Stephen Hogan. The producer was Eoin O'Callaghan, for Indie company Big Fish.
DEAD WEATHER, by Hattie Naylor (R4, 1415, 11 Jan 23) was a repeat of a contemporary gothic thriller about a middle-aged woman being abandoned by her composer husband for his childhood sweetheart. When a lost young crow turns up in her garden, Sam takes it in and nurtures it. But this act of compassion sets in motion a series of events which affects her profoundly. Sam was played by Juliet Aubrey, Dylan by Matthew Gravelle and Freya by Claire Price; the producer was Sara Davies and the director Nicolas Jackson, again for Afonica. Note that Juliet and Claire won ADAs in 2022, for their performances in this play, which I missed first time around.
Jonathan Myerson's latest drama, NAZIS, THE ROAD TO POWER (R4, 1415, eight weekly episodes beginning 12 Jan 23) was an outstanding drama-documentary series about the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany prior to the Second World War.
It begins in 1918; the German people are starving and revolution is in the air. A 29-year-old corporal is sent to report on fringe political parties in Munich. His name is Adolf Hitler. The political ascent of the National Socialist Party begins here. This series of plays follows the story. We meet the army captain who trains Hitler to make rabble-rousing speeches, the Harvard-educated American who becomes Hitler’s court jester, the millionairess who plays the role of surrogate mother, the niece who shoots herself in his apartment. Nobody imagines the Nazi Party will ever take power – it would require a long chain of unlikely events to happen. But the constant stream of anti-Jewish propaganda and the astonishing ability of Hitler to mesmerise a crowd gradually increases the popularity of the Party. By 1932, the Nazis are the largest single group in Parliament. Eventually after much to-ing and fro-ing, Hitler becomes Chancellor and Hermann Göring becomes Minister of the Interior, in charge of 50,000 armed policemen. They crack down on all Communists, locking them in a new camp near Dachau in Bavaria. Then the Reichstag, the Parliament Building, is set alight. The Nazis decide to put a stop to all opposition and they impose totalitarian rule. This production had a superb cast; too many names to mention and I don't want to single anybody out. The producer was Nicholas Newton and Jonathan was the director. Note that Jonathan also wrote a series of plays about the Nuremberg trials which was broadcast in August 2021.
THE JUNGLE BOOK has been re-set in India a new version by Ayeesha Menon, and recorded there by the Goldhawk crew. (R4, 1500, beginning 21 Jan 23 in the Saturday Play slot.). Mowgli, the orphan boy at the centre of the story, is being brought up by the Wolves, a gang of petty criminals in a tenement block in Mumbai, and learns how to survive. Then the villainous politician, Tiger Khan, threatens Mowgli's life. Most characters were played by local actors, though one or two BBC stalwarts appeared. Music was by Sacha Puttnam. The producer was Nadir Khan and the director Ayeesha Menon.
Ron Hutchinson's play A LEAP IN THE DARK (R4, 1500, 4 Feb 23, rpt. from 26 Feb 22) was written to celebrate the approaching centenary of the UK’s first ever radio play. In 1922, when producer Cedric Maud and his assistant Grace first proposed the idea of a play to be performed on the newly available wireless sets, the idea was initially regarded as impracticable and perhaps impossible to execute. How would listeners know what was going on if they couldn't see the stage? A young writer, Richard Hughes, was commissioned to write a piece which would exploit the potential of the new medium. This play takes a humorous look at the way the first drama producers faced the challenge and invented a new art form which was destined to become very popular - radio drama. Nigel Playfair was played by Alex Jennings and May Playfair by Jane Slavin, assisted by Rufus Wright, Elinor Coleman, Clive Hayward, David Acton and Jos Vantyler. The director was Eoin O’Callaghan, for Indie company Big Fish.
YENTL THE YESHIVA BOY, dramatised by Kerry Shale (R4, 1500, 12 Feb 23), was written in the 1950s but set in the Jewish community of late nineteenth century Poland. Yentl, a young orthodox woman, rebels against the constraints of a woman’s life and disguises herself as a young man in order to be able to study at a Yeshiva, or religious college. She wears her father's clothes and becomes Anshel, a young man in search of a religious future. Yentl was played by Olivia Marcus, Avigdor by Richard Fleeshman and Singer/Vishkower by Kerry Shale, assisted by the ubiquitous Hamilton Berstock. The play was produced by Gary Brown. Kerry Shale and Gary first met as young actors when they were appearing as Yeshiva students in the 1982 movie of 'Yentl'. In 2019 they shared some of their memories on 'The Film Programme'.
In Autumn 2022, Lucy Catherine travelled to the high arctic on a sailing ship with 29 other artists, searching for inspiration in the polar twilight. She wrote about this amazing experience in VOICES FROM THE END OF THE WORLD (R4, 1500, 25 Feb 23); she tells the story of the voyage and her thoughts along the way, combining this with a drama about two people travelling to a beautiful wilderness in search of a new beginning. Anna was played by Amanda Hale and Lucas by Joel McCormack; the soundtrack was by Peter Ringrose and the producer was Sasha Yevtushenko.
A famous birthday party took place in 1962 at Madison Square garden - that of John Kennedy, American President. In HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MR. PRESIDENT (R4, 1415, 14 Feb 23), Sarah Wooley described the problems which the organisers had in getting Marilyn Monroe to agree to attend, to actually turn up for it and to sing appropriately to mark the occasion. Lydia Wilson played the prima donna, Richard Adler was Justin Salinger and the producer was Gaynor Macfarlane.
An interesting new production of GASLIGHT, by Jonathan Holloway (R4, 1415, 18 Feb 23) seemed apposite, what with the term 'gaslighting' (being made to doubt one's own sanity) being in use so much recently. Jonathan's was a modern adaptation set in the present, with original music by Imelda May. The action takes place in London; Jack Manningham has used his wife’s inheritance to buy a big property which they will renovate. Jack is a movie producer down on his luck, but in the house is something which may restore his fortunes. He and his wife Bella occupy part of the ground floor and the basement and it's lit by gas. The lights flicker alarmingly when he's out and Bella is alone; it scares her, and some of the things her husband says to comfort her are tactless and unhelpful; she thinks she's going mad. James Purefoy played Jack, with Rebecca Night as Bella and Cathy Tyson as DCI Nina Rawe. Production was by Johnny Vegas, for indie company Woolyback.
THE SONG OF THE COSSACKS (R4, 1445, 25 Mar) was a 90-minuter; a mind-blowing production of a stage play documenting events in 1945. Harry Turnbull had this to say about it:
"A solemn lament to the thousands of Cossacks Britain consigned to death in another shameful episode in this country’s history. Jean Binnie’s stage play has been reconstructed for radio to retell the story of the fate of Cossacks following the end of WWll hostilities. Fighters along with civilians, women and children were held in camps, hoping the fair-minded Brits would allow them to go on their way. However, Churchill had already sold them out in an agreement with Stalin at Yalta.
This radio production was severely jolted when writer Kit Hesketh Harvey suddenly passed away, but in true ‘the show must go on’ fashion, producers Jonanthan Banatvala and Melanie Nock engaged Stephen Wyatt to complete the project in double-quick time. It is of course a bleak story and the mood is reflected in sombre choral music throughout. In addition, there are real-life testimonies from those who were involved, portrayed by actors. Wyatt confers a human element in the story by creating fictional characters in the shape of British officers appalled when they discover their task is to hand people over for execution or gulags.
It should be pointed out that many of the Communist-hating cavalry warriors had fought on the side of the Nazis and therefore did not get universal sympathy. The production demonstrates that people are often the forgotten victims of global geopolitics."
Another outstanding production was LIFE LINES, written by Al Smith and produced by Sally Avens. We had a repeat of the two episodes in series 5 and two new episodes (beginning R4, 1415, 12 Apr 23) comprising series 6. For those who don't know, this is a drama set in an ambulance call centre; Carrie answers the phone and the first thing we hear is "Ambulance service - is the patient breathing and conscious?" The pace is relentless; she works long shifts and the pressure is constant. She has to juggle the available resources to try and help everyone she speaks to. It could be a man intent on suicide, a refugee trapped in the back of a refrigerated lorry, a person driving along the motorway whose daughter has had a fit and she's had to stop on a live lane ... I saw a few comments online about the programme and it's clear that it has a profound effect on listeners.......
"Damn ... crying again, and we're only halfway through ....."....." It's superbly acted and one of the best things on R4". "..... "Radio 4 drama is different from what it was say 15 or 20 years ago - so I rarely feel any urgent hope or peril, but yesterday afternoon listening to Life Lines I was almost screaming 'Get her out, get her out, please get her out!' at my radio".
The connection between the actors in a drama like this and the listening audience is amazing; a real credit to the whole production team. Carrie is played by Sarah Ridgeway and the voice in her ear, Will, by Rick Warden.
There have been other good items: Antic Hay, more of Aldrich Kemp, Galapagos, a dramatization of a Dumas story by Testament, and some Jon Canter 'Boswell' repeats. I hope that if the reduced 300-hour quota of new commissions stays with us, we get more classic repeats, and that 'no-drama Mondays' are soon a thing of the past.
ND / 24 Apr 2023.
RADIO DRAMA REVIEW SEP 2023
2023 is an important year; Charlotte Moore said as much when she introduced the 2023 Audio Drama Awards in the Radio Theatre of the BBC back in February. She pointed out that the event marked the centenary of radio drama, which began a hundred years earlier with a Shakespeare excerpt and a short item by Phyllis Twigg ... and in all of the time since, the BBC has been telling stories and captivating listeners. She called for applause for Phyllis Twigg (that first play was called The Truth about Father Christmas, with Phyllis in the title role), and the audience responded with enthusiasm.
I have spent a fair amount of time in the last two years writing about radio drama cuts and its reduced funding, but the BBC still commissions far more radio drama than any other network: CBC has given up, ABC stopped broadcasting radio plays about 10 years ago, South Africa stopped in the 70s. Italy's annual radio play commissions are (according to an Italian playwright I know) barely into double figures; it's the same in Belgium. Germany still broadcasts quite a few, and so does RTE, but in spite of the recent 50% reduction, the number of plays from the BBC is still an order of magnitude above the rest. The quality remains very high; it's never difficult finding twenty or thirty plays to write about when compiling these reviews.
I must draw attention to the recent death of radio drama legend Richard Wortley, aged 89. He produced around 2,000 plays at the BBC and assisted in many more. In 2004 I wrote to him about his work and he responded with "SOME REFLECTIONS ON A LIFETIME IN RADIO" - a 15,000 word resumé of his career. There could not be a more appropriate time to read it. We send our condolences to his wife Ros and to the family.
As for the plays broadcast since April, here are s few which have caught my attention:
AN EYE FOR A KILLING (R4, 1415, beginning 28 Apr 23) by Colin MacDonald was an account of Scotland’s serial killers, Burke and Hare, two former canal labourers. On Christmas Eve in 1828, William Burke was on trial for murder at the High Court in Edinburgh, accused of killing an old woman, Madgy Docherty. In the witness box was his accuser, William Hare, his accomplice in 16 murders. At that time, Edinburgh was a world-leading centre of medical training and dissection. The anatomists needed bodies so they could practise their dissection techniques and give demonstrations, but the supply of bodies from hospitals and prisons couldn't meet the demand. Burke and Hare discovered they could earn £10 by selling a dead body and decided to lure victims to their lodging house and murder them. This appalling story was told in five 30-minute episodes in the Friday afternoon drama slot. The narrator was Jack Lowden, with Gavin Mitchell and James Boal playing Burke and Hare. Production was by Bruce Young.
It was good to see that radio 4 is continuing the tradition of broadcasting a Shakespeare-based play on or around St. George's Day. THE RIVAL, by Jude Cook (R4, 1415, 29 Apr 23) was a re-imagining of how he came to write the sonnets. In 1590, young WS was called to Titchfield House, hired by Lord Burghley to compose some sonnets encouraging the young Earl of Southampton to marry Burghley’s granddaughter. When the playhouses were closed due to plague in 1592, Will was forced to leave London to live at Titchfield, where he was given a second commission. The play was introduced by Will Tosh of the Globe Theatre. Elliot Barnes-Worrell played William Shakespeare, with Freddie Fox as the Earl and Phililp Jackson as Lord Burghley. The producer was Jeremy Mortimer, for Indie company Reduced Listening. I can add that RL, in spite of their title, are now back to recording their plays in the studio.
Sarah Woods' latest play, A FORBIDDEN SONG (R4, 1415, 4 May 23) featured two young musicians, Valya and Masha, who have to keep their relationship secret because of prejudice and fear of violence. Valya is a refugee living in Wales; Masha is still in Kyiv. Included in the drama is the story of the bandura, the Ukrainian national instrument, suppressed by the communists. It's a folk instrument resembling a lute, but it has a much larger number of strings, like a zither, and the neck is a lot shorter. In 1932, on the order of Stalin, the Soviet authorities called on all Ukrainian bandurists to attend a congress in Kharkiv. Those that arrived were taken outside the city and shot. The play includes interviews with Ukrainian refugees. Valya was played by Diana Simchuk, Masha by Aliese Chydzhan and Natalia by Elena Gryshchenko. The producer was Emma Harding and sound design was by Catherine Robinson and Nigel Lewis, for BBC Wales.
Another of Sarah's plays went out two days later, repeated from 2021. IN THE SHADOW OF MAN (R4, 1500, 6 May 23); an account of Jane Goodall's work in observing the chimpanzees of Gombe, Nigeria. Tthe radio play was constructed from Jane Goodall's diaries. An early observation was that chimpanzees make and use tools to carry out certain tasks. The drama takes us into the Tanzanian forests with Jane, telling us of the discoveries she made as she came to know the chimps and they came to know her. A conversation between Sarah and Jane weaves through the drama. There is now a Jane Goodall Institute, and Jane is a UN Messenger of Peace. Young Jane was played by Jeany Spark, Vanne by Marilyn le Conte, and Rashidi by John Kamau. Sound design was by Nigel Lewis and production was by James Robinson and Emma Harding, for BBC Wales.
An interesting series of plays began on 13 May, entitled 'Turning Points'. This was a collection of plays about historical turning points, after which, nothing could be quite the same again. The first play, FIRST OF MILLIONS (R4, 1500, 13 May 23) was the story behind the science leading to the birth of the first IVF baby. Steptoe was responsible with biologist and physiologist Robert Edwards and the nurse Jean Purdy for developing in-vitro fertilisation. Louise Joy Brown, the first test-tube baby, was born on 25 July 1978. Edwards was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the development of in vitro fertilisation; Steptoe and Purdy were not eligible for consideration because the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously. Tthe play was was based on the facts with some imagined characters and scenes. Edwards was played by Vincent Franklin, Steptoe by Pip Torrens and Purdy by Kymberley Cochrane; Katy Sobey played Lesley Brown. The producer was Gemma Jenkins.
Nick Warburton's new comedy drama DOWNSTREAM (R4, 1415, 16 May 23) was a gentle comedy set in a boatyard. The Platter community is an eccentric one but at its heart are Pat and his sister Libby. Libby has been away from home for a long period and on her return she discovers that Pat has a new appointed a manager to make all the difficult day-to-day decisions, the fiercely efficient Martine. This could be the basis of a series, perhaps. Monica Dolan played Libby, Oliver Chris was Pat and Kymberley Cochrane was the formidable Martine. The producer was Tracey Neale.
A few days later we had A ROOM WITH A VIEW (R4, 1500, beginning 21 May 23), Morgan Forster's witty story of Lucy Honeychurch's trip to Italy. The adaptation was by Marcy Kahan, and it went out on two successive Sundays. Lucy is accompanied by her straightlaced cousin Charlotte; they arrive at the Pension Bertolini to discover that they have no view from their rooms. When another guest offers to swap rooms with them it sets off a train of events that causes Lucy to question the conventions of polite Edwardian society and open herself up to passion and romance.
Lucy was played by Rosie Day and Charlotte by Rosie Cavaliero, with a strong supporting cast. The producer was Sally Avens.
A GHASTLY MISTAKE, by Nicholas McInerny (R4, 1500, 1 Jul 2023), examined events in the life of Sir Ewan Forbes, a Scottish nobleman, GP and farmer. Ewan was actually christened as a girl: Elizabeth Forbes-Sempill and officially registered as the youngest daughter of John, Lord Sempill. After an uncomfortable upbringing, he began presenting as a man in the 1930s, following a course of medical treatments in Germany. He formally re-registered his birth as male in 1952, changing his name to Ewan, and was married a month later. In 1965, he stood to inherit the baronetcy of his elder brother William, Lord Sempill, together with a large estate. But the inheritance was challenged by his cousin, who argued that the re-registration was invalid; under this interpretation, Forbes would legally be considered a woman, and thus unable to inherit the baronetcy. The legal position was unclear. Drawing on Ewan’s autobiography and press reports from the time, this drama explores the court case, telling the story of a man who was intent on living a quiet life as a GP and farmer, but was resolute about affirming his identity, the validity of his marriage, and his family reputation through the confirmation of his inherited title.
Our radio reviewer Harry Turnbull adds: "If the issue causes division now, imagine what it would have been like in the mid-sixties. As it happens the legal case was held ‘in camera’ and although it became widely known after Forbes' death in 1991 the full documentation was only released in 2021.
"The story has been revived by writer Nicholas McInerny and will surely resonate given the times we are in. Although set at the time of the court hearing, he uses the device of introducing Forbes deceased mother Gwendolyn as a voice from beyond the grave. It seems extraordinary in such times that she embraced her offspring’s transition from female to male, a situation he insisted on from the age of six and made legal on his birth certificate years later in 1952. The title of the tale, ‘A Ghastly Mistake’, refers to Forbes' anger that he was registered a girl at birth.
"The dialogue does detail the technicalities of male and female physical attributes and it may be that the actual issue here is not a trans one but that of DSD (Disorders of Sex Development). It's possible that Ewan was a hermaphrodite and frustrated that he wasn't born with the full male attributes more than someone wishing to transition, but also angry he had to prove who he was."
Forbes was played by Kit Green, Margaret by Lesley Harcourt and Gwendolen by Frances Barber. This was another cracking production by Jonathan Banatvala and Melanie Nock of the International Arts Partnership.
A most curious play THE WIRE CUTTERS went out in July (R4, 1415, 5 Jul 14) written by Joseph Charlton and Angus Harrison. It was originally intended to be a documentary in response to some very odd acts of apparent vandalism in West Yorkshire. In the spring of 2022, there were reports of a series of unusual attacks on electrical hardware. Farm equipment and electrical substations were targeted. A flock of hens was scorched to death because the ventilation system was turned off; electrical substations were torched or damaged, and there were other incidents, but nothing was stolen. There were power cuts; communications were disrupted and the incidents affected the livelihoods of some of the residents of Halifax. It was assumed that a group of vandals was involved, and they became known as 'The Wire Cutters'. But it wasn't that simple; when two local reporters started to investigate with the intention of making a documentary about it, one of them started to behave strangely and a more peculiar story began to emerge. Leanne played Jess, with John Biggins as the other investigator. The soundscape was notable; put together by Jon Nicholls, with original music by John Hartley. The executive producer was David Hunter, and this was a debut production by Indie company Burning Bright Audio.
I was fascinated by a quirky science-fiction serial from BBC Northern Ireland: BITTER PILL (R4, 5 x 30m, beginning 1415, 7 Jul 23) by Michael Patrick & Oisin Kearney. It was about memory and trauma. After being involved in a near-fatal car crash which left the driver in a coma, Mary joins a clinical drug trial that promises a cure for the flashbacks which refuse to leave her; she has a bad case of PTSD. The medication seems to send her mind back to the incident; she has to distract the driver so the accident doesn't happen ... but when the drug wears off and she returns to reality, it's not quite the same reality as before. She wonders if she was just an observer or whether she has actually affected the future. And if it's the latter - perhaps there are multiple possible futures. The play reminded me of Christopher Nolan's film 'Inception' in which there are different levels of reality: dreams within dreams, perhaps. Mary was played by Seainin Brennan and Jackie by Charlotte McCurry, with Shaun Blaney as Carl, the man in the coma. The producer was Michael Shannon.
NOT A NICE GIRL (R4, 1500, 15 & 17 Jul 23) by Christopher Reason, a two-parter, was a repeat of a play I missed first time around; Constance is the mother to Miles Sterling, one of the richest men in Britain. He's accrued his fortune in oil and plastics. Miles is treading a fine line between reputability and disrepute, and when a dark secret comes to light it puts his whole career in the balance. Constance, played by Glenda Jackson, casts an admonitory eye over the action, with Robert Glenister as the tycoon and Jonathan Keeble as Rufus. This was an imaginative well-paced script with superb production values, directed by Pauline Harris. The broadcast took up two of the slots in the six-part series 'Money' a sequence of dramas inspired by Zola's Rougon-Macquart Series, where Zola examined different areas of society in Second-Empire France, updated for the 2020s.
THE SCORE, by Roy Williams (R4, 1415, 19 Jul 23) was another play in the 'Money' series. Carlton is a small-scale football agent with aspirations. His most promising footballer is his son, Jordan, a rising star, potentially worth a lot of money. But Jordan has a secret, and when it's released, Carlton feels obliged to take drastic action to protect his business. Constance (Glenda Jackson) maintains a ghostly presence, with Don Gilet as Carlton and Makir Ahmed as the potential football star. Conor McNamara, the Irish football commentator, made an appearance and the producer was Pauline Harris.
THE VENICE CONUNDRUM (R4, 1500, 30 Jul 23) was a clever combination by Robin Brooks of two works by Jan Morris, in the Sunday afternoon slot. Jan was originally James Humphry Morris, born in 1926. The two books were Conundrum', the story of her transition from man to woman, and 'Venice', her most famous travel book. Jan wrote Venice as a married family man, but all the time she was grappling with the life-long knowledge that she had been born in the wrong body, and soon after publishing Venice, she embarked on her ten-year transition. She was a Welsh historian, author and travel writer. She was known for the Pax Britannica trilogy, a history of the British Empire, and for portraits of cities including Oxford, Venice, Trieste, Hong Kong and New York. She published under her birth name, James, until 1972, when she had gender reassignment surgery after transitioning from male to female. Jan was a member of the 1953 British Mount Everest expedition; the only journalist to accompany the expedition, climbing with the team to a camp at 22,000 feet, and using a prearranged code to send news of the successful ascent.
In the play, Jan was played by Edalia Day and the traveller was Theo Fraser Steele. The producer was Fiona McAlpine and sound design was by Alisdair McGregor for Indie company Allegra Productions.
Another play in the series 'Turning Points' was the Saturday Drama BEHIND BEYOND THE FRINGE (R4, 1500, 5 Aug 23) by Jeremy Front. It was a repeat from 2005, but well worth hearing again. The play looked at the rise to fame of Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore in 'Beyond the Fringe'. Beyond the Fringe transformed the style of British comedy; it also threw poison darts at the Establishment; it revived satire and it led to the end of the age of deference. The Four were played by Ian Dunnett Jnr (Moore), Matthew Durkan (Bennett), Tom Durant-Pritchard (Miller) and David Reed (Cook). The producer was Sally Avens.
I was very taken with the five-part thriller series from Goldhawk, THERE'S SOMETHING I NEED TO TELL YOU (R4, 1415, beginning 11 Aug 23), written by John Dryden and Misha Kawnel. A young couple Jake and Kayla meet a stranger in a hotel; Jake unwisely discloses that he's short of money and the man makes him an offer he can't refuse. This is a bad decision - there is an incident at the hotel; it implicates the couple in an assassination, and they find themselves plunged into a deadly world of espionage, where there are further killings. They attempt to escape but everything they do seems to make things worse. The pacing of the story was remarkable, and to my surprise the dramatic tension was maintained until the last minute of the final episode. Jake was played by Chris Lew Kum Hoi and Kayla by Sophia Del Pizzo; original music was supplied by Sacha Puttnam and the producer was Emma Hearn. The best thriller I'd heard for a long while.
Helen Kluger's play NORMAN BOWS OUT (R4 1415 23 Aug 23) was about an elderly pantomime star nearing the end of his career. Norman is a well-known comedian and panto performer, most famous for his ventriloquist act. He's been treading the boards for decades; now he's about to embark on what will be his final tour, so he decides to give his dummy, Willy, a last outing. Jim Broadbent took the title role, assisted by Michael Simkins, Christine Kavanagh and Tom Glenister; the drama was produced by Celia de Wolff for Pier Productions.
AN AFRICAN IN GREENLAND (R4, 1500, 27 Aug 23) by Rex Obano was a dramatization of the book of the same name. Tete-Michel Kpomassie, a teenager in 1950s Togo, is about to embark on the journey of a lifetime. After a heart-stopping encounter with a snake in a coconut tree, he happens upon a book in his local library. It shows him a land of ice and snow, 4000 miles from home. Immediately spellbound, he runs away from home and starts his intrepid journey to Greenland. He enters a land where the culture and values and the people are totally different from anything he has encountered before. Older and younger Tete-Michel were played by Danny Sapani and Tunji Kasim; the producer was Anne Isger.
As part of the 100th anniversary of radio drama we had an interesting re-make of a play first broadcast in 1952 by Nigel Kneale, the creator of Quatermass. In YOU MUST LISTEN (R4, 1415, 20 Sep 23) a solicitor's office has a new phone line installed. Unfortunately when the staff use it they keep hearing a woman's voice. Engineer Frank Wilson is called to fix the problem, and gradually the disturbing story of the woman starts to emerge. The drama explores many of the themes that Kneale later tackled in Quatermass, The Stone Tape and The Road, when the paranormal collides with modern science. No recording of the original version of You Must Listen seems to exist, but Kneale kept a copy of the script, and this is a new recording to mark the centenary of BBC Radio Drama. Frank was played by Toby Jones, Mr. Paley by Reece Shearsmith, with Caroline Catz and Jessie Cave; the producer was Simon Barnard for Indie producer Bafflegab.
There have been other worthwhile programmes to mark the anniversary broadcast in the last week or so, and after listening I intend to write a separate piece describing some of them. Meanwhile you may be interested to read "100 YEARS OF AUDIO DRAMA" ; Harry Turnbull's piece where he talks about Tim Crook's pick of plays from every decade since the 1920s.
ND / 26 Sep 2023
RADIO REVIEW, DEC 2023
In spite of the recent cuts in radio drama funding, there have been some excellent dramas between September and December. We even had a brief comedy interlude by Jasper Carrott woven into the plot of The Archers on 22nd December. And 'Front Row' did a recent radio drama feature; a few days ago they interviewed writer Alison Kennedy and actor Bill Nighy about Alison's upcoming play "A Single Act" (Boxing Day, 1415) in which Bill plays a man who always wanted to be part of a double act but has ended up being on his own. Now he wonders if radio might be the answer. I think he might be right. He could still end up without a partner, but in the words of Martin Jarvis (DT, 22 Dec), "There's something unique about the way audio appeals to the audience's imagination."
As for the plays since September:
"Scenes from the East India Company" by Fin Kennedy (R4, 1415, 12 Oct 23) was about about one of the most profitable businesses ever launched. The East India Company was one of the biggest, most dominant corporations in history, long before the emergence of tech giants like Apple or Google or Amazon. It was incorporated by royal charter on December 31, 1600 and went on to act as a part-trade organization, part-nation-state. It obtained vast profits from overseas trade with India, China, Persia and Indonesia for two hundred years. Its business flooded England with tea, cotton and spices, and gave its London investors returns as high as 30 percent. At one point it had a private army of 260,000 soldiers, twice the size of the British army, enabling it to conquer territory and coerce Indian rulers into one-sided contracts. (https://www.history.com/news/east-india-company-england-trade) Fin's play looks at how it came into being. The cast included Holly Atkins, Kyle Abdullah and Nigel Barratt; the producer was Boz Temple-Morris and sound design was by Alisdair McGregor; an Indie (Holy Mountain) production.
Ben Cottam's adaptation of 'A Matter of Life and Death' (R4, Saturday Play, 1500, 14 and 21 Oct 23) was based on a famous film by Emeric Powell and Michael Pressburger. It's set in 1944, when Squadron Leader Peter Carter miraculously survives a jump from his burning plane, and meets June, an American radio operator to whom he has just delivered his dying wishes as his plane plummets to the ground. Face-to-face on a tranquil English beach, the pair fall in love. When a messenger from the hereafter arrives to correct the bureaucratic error that spared his life, Peter has to mount a fierce defence for his right to stay on earth. Apparently he ought to be dead; the heavenly authorities have missed him in the sea fog. Peter demands an appeal; he wants to live, not go into the afterlife. Peter Carter was played by Will Tudor, June by Lydia West, Frank, who didn't survive the burning plane, by Geoff McGivern and the Administrator by Miles Jupp. It was produced by Simon Barnard and was an Indie (Bafflegab) production.
Lucy Catherine's 'Harland' (Series 3) continued the creepy supernatural thriller begun a couple of years ago. It's about the new town of Harland, a few years into the future, built on the site of a village abandoned 900 years ago. In Lucy's words: "I wanted to think about what a new town would be like now in the digital world. If a new town had been built in the year 2000 by a Steve Jobs type character, what would it be like now or in fifty years from 2000? Would it be living up to its utopian ideals? I didn’t want it to be a real place; if it was set now we’d think it was Milton Keynes and I wanted it to be unfamiliar and strange."
I won't attempt to describe the plot; it's impossible to summarise, but the three series kept me gripped for several days; they're all on BBC Sounds. Dan was played by Tyger-Drew Honey; sound design was by Peter Ringrose & Caleb Knightley and the producer was Toby Swift.
A new production of Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner made a very agreeable Saturday Play (R4, 1500, 28 Oct 23). The adaptation was by Sarah Daniels; the previous one was by Michelene Wandor forty (!) years ago. It's 1921; Lolly, the spinster aunt, lives a quiet life with her tedious brother Henry and his family. When she decides to move to the countryside, there's considerable opposition, but she's determined. She settles in a village in the Chilterns, where she discovers a darker calling: witchcraft. Laura was played by Louise Brealey, Titus by Hugh Skinner and Henry by Robert Bathurst. The producer was Sally Avens.
On 31 Oct 23, 1415, we had Rehab, by Phillip Palmer. Jenny, a Glasgow social worker with a chequered past makes it her personal mission to save a young offender from making the same mistakes she did. Jenny was played by Phyllis Logan and Finn, the man perpetually either in therapy or in prison, by Brian Vernal. The producer was Gemma Jenkins.
Mark Lawson generally writes thought-provoking plays, and Sticking Points (R4, 1415, 8 Nov) was no exception. Climate extremists, protesters, activists, terrorists - whatever you want to call them - have been disrupting ordinary people's lives recently, and one of them finds her way into this story. Whilst presenting degrees and prizes at a university, a government minister shakes the hand of one graduate and finds he's unable to let go. The recipient is a climate change protester who's glued herself to him. They have to wait several hours before the medics can reach them, and they have little option other than to speak to each other. They have more in common than they realise. Dominic, the Secretary of State was played by Alex Jennings, the Chief Whip by Jane Slavin, Snick, a special advisor, by Tom Glenister, and the environmentalist by Rebecca Birch. The producer was Eoin O’Callaghan, for Indie producer Big Fish.
How to Build a DJ, by Michael Southan (R4, 1415, 13 Nov 23) told the story of Ben, a disabled 18 year old who strives to follow his grandad in becoming a DJ. But his mum, Gwen, views his job as more important and hasn't much patience with his part-time dabbling. She is also trying to save the local community centre from closure. This was a well-written 'feelgood' play where things turn out quite well in the end. Ben was played by Callum Mardy, Dennis by David Crellin and Gwen by Carla Henry. Polly Thomas and Eloise Whitmore were the producers, for Indie company Naked Productions.
An interesting serial, Spores, by Marietta Kirkbride, was broadcast in five 30m episodes on successive days in late November (R4, 1415, beginning 20 Nov 23). This was another impressive sci-fi story from Indie producer Afonica. I remember their recent series of plays which looked into what might happen if certain people had the 'longevity gene' and knew they were likely to live for twice as long as expected ("157 years"). Now we have a psychological horror story set in rural Wales amid the mysterious world of fungi. When social worker Cassie discovers mould in the flat of a vulnerable young woman she puts it down to poor quality housing. But then she discovers it in her own house and begins to fear for the safety of her family. The main problem she finds is that ... well, listen to the play and find out; it's on BBC Sounds. No spoilers. Cassie was played by Kate O’Flynn, the interviewer by Laurel Lefkow and Morgan by Owain Gwynn. Sound Design was by Jon Nicholls and the producer Nicolas Jackson.
It was good to hear 'Puckoon' again (R4, 1500, 25 Nov 23). This is the comic masterpiece by Spike Milligan, adapted by Ian Billings. It's a madcap satire on the division of Ireland: borders and brain-dead bureaucrats. It's full of wonderful one-liners and odd scenes which fall into one another, in the style of the Goons. In 1924, the Boundary Commission is given the tak of creating the new official division between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The border ends up running through the middle of the small town of Puckoon. Houses are divided from outhouses, husbands separated from wives, bars are cut off from their patrons, churches from graveyards. Dan Milligan tries to make sense of it all. Ed Byrne was Dan, with Barry Cryer, Pauline McLynn, Kate Harbour and other well-known names. The producer was David Morley and the director Dirk Maggs, for Indie company Perfectly Normal; a repeat from 2019.
I was pleased to see three more plays in the series London Particular, by Nick Perry (R4, 1415 beginning 27 Nov 23). A further treat was that it ended the run of no-drama Mondays, at least for a while. To recap from series 1 (2020); the first episode had a very creepy beginning [spoiler alert -avoid it by going directly to the next paragraph] - a schoolboy, Alan, gets up: "into the bathroom; put on school uniform, go downstairs, have breakfast, say goodbye to Mum, out the door, heading for the bus stop ... and this moped goes past and backfires; scared the hell of me, and I wake up. I wake up - I'm in bed. I realize I've been dreaming. So I roll out of bed, hit the bathroom, uniform, downstairs, breakfast, 'bye, Mum'; I'm out the door, at the bus stop, along comes a bus; I get on; just as I'm finding a seat the bus suddenly lurches, and ... I wake up.... I've been dreaming again. The whole thing. Waking up, bathroom, breakfast, bus stop; I've dreamt it all. Not once, but twice. By this time I'm beginning to wonder - am I actually awake now... or am I still asleep? Am I still in dreamworld? Anyway, this time I think ok - I'm properly awake. Pinching myself to make sure ...slapping myself; mum asks what I'm doing and what's happened. "I can assure you, son, I'm not a figment of your imagination... if this is a way to get out of going to school you can forget about it right now ..." So I finish my breakfast, out the door ... this time I get into school, and I keep thinking ... I'm gonna wake up again ...but this time, I don't. Then a teacher looms up into my face ... I'm his star pupil ... but on this occasion he's really pissed off; he roars something at me - can't remember what - and I wake up again! I'm still in bed. I've been dreaming ..... and it happens again ... and again ... I get as far as morning break on one occasion, and then someone screams, and I'm awake again, back in my bed ... and it wasn't until I'd got through most of the day and the sun began to go down that that I began to believe that I really was awake.....".
And thus we are not quite sure, when the story starts in earnest, whether he is in the real world or in a dream... Shortly after this episode, the schoolboy disappears without trace. His family is distraught; his sister searches for him but gets nowhere.
Then whilst travelling on the London Underground one afternoon, his sister Alice mets the gaze of a man standing on the platform of a mysterious "ghost station"; one of the stations mothballed for decades. As her train hurtles into a tunnel, he's gone. She's sure that it was Alan; missing presumed dead for the past five years. The encounter is the beginning of Alice's increasingly bizarre search for her missing brother, a journey leading her back through time into London's past.
Now, moving to the present series, Alice resumes the search for her brother. She's no longer trapped in 1945 but has returned to the present. She manages to speak with Alan via an intermediary but many questions remain unanswered. So when she hears an account of a strange anomaly on top of the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, she decides to take a leap of faith. She ends up in a very odd version of London, working amongst victims of the plague. The drama was full of interesting little twists, and if you only have time to listen to one drama, this should be it. Alice was played by Scarlett Brookes, Sarah by Claire-Louise Cordwell and Deb by Lauren Cornelius; there was a long cast list and not a weak link anywhere. Sound design was by Peter Ringrose and the producer was Sasha Yevtushenko.
We've had a number of good podcast series on Fridays recently, and for those who like some escapism, English Rose (series 2) is certainly worth a listen. It's by Helen Cross and it recounts the adventures of a young female English vampire in the present day. (R4, 1415, five 30m episodes beginning 1 Dec 23). Rose has now made a fresh start, but she's unable to ignore the past. Her fellow-vampire Myra loves never getting older and has plans for a 'rejuvenation' spa. Rose was played by Alexandra Mardell, Maya by Miranda Braun and Austin by Demetri Goritsas. The producer was Mary Ward-Lowery.
"Mae West" by Tracy-Ann Oberman and David Spicer shone a light on a remarkable woman who rose to the top in the film industry. She directed, produced and starred in numerous box-office hits at the time when women rarely reached such heights of responsibility. On 26 Apr 1926, she opened her first real hit, Sex on Broadway. The reviews were scathing, but with its provocative title and critics' comments such as “the cheapest and most vulgar low show to have dared open in New York this season,” everyone wanted to see it.
Mae (real name Mary Ann West) wrote the work under a pen name (Jane Mast) and played the leading role of a fleet-following prostitute with a heart of gold. The production ran for a remarkable ten months before being raided and shut down by police. She was arrested on stage the following year and accused of "corrupting the morals of youth". There was a court case, which ended with her being offered the choice of apologising and paying a fine or going to jail for ten days. She chose jail. Whilst she was confined to Welfare Island, a women's prison, she was invited to dinner with the Warden. The play imagines that dinner and celebrates her remarkable career. One other fact: a magazine paid her $1000 to write an article about her time in prison; she did so and donated the sum to the prison to establish a library so that the female inmates might learn to read and better themselves. Mae West was played by Tracy-Ann Oberman and the Warden by Stuart Milligan. The producer was Liz Anstee, for Indie company CPL.
Kiss of the Spider Woman was an unusual play by Manuel Puig, translated by Allan Baker (R4, 1415, 10 Dec 23). Two men, Valentin and Molina, share a prison cell. Valentin is a Marxist imprisoned for his political actions; Molina is a window-dresser imprisoned for being homosexual. They don't seem to have much in common, but Molina has an unusual skill; he can recreate films in words for his cellmate and a relationship develops between them. But there's a complication: Molina has been promised an early release if he can get the Marxist to open up and to talk. Is Molina prepared to grass on his new friend? The play is set in Villa Devoto prison in Buenos Aires in 1975. Molina was played by Kadiff Kirwan and Valentin by Alfred Enoch. Sound design was by Sharon Hughes and the producer Nadia Molinari, for BBC Drama North.
Tess of the Tollbooth (R4, 1415, 20 Dec 23) was a gentle comedy inspired by the tales of toll-booth workers on Itchen bridge in Southampton. In the play, Tess is the person stuck in the booth who collects the money on the night shift. The only interest for her is Rob; a drummer who crosses the bridge most nights on his way home from a gig. But it's difficult to get to know someone if you only see him for 20 seconds at a time. Meanwhile Tess's love life with a dull man who wants to leave his wife but never quite gets around to it, has been on hold for months, if not years. Tess was played by Shaparak Khorsandi and her friend Kel by Rosie Cavaliero. Rob was played by Jonathan Forbes and the play was produced by Nadia Molinari for BBC Drama North.
There were other worthwhile plays: an Elsinore trilogy by Sebastian Baczkiewicz, a play about the founding of The Samaritans; The Human Way, where the characters enlist on a program to jettison technology.... and a number of other intriguing titles. There have been cuts in drama funding but there are still good quality productions going out. As for the Christmas season - look out for Gordon House's first radio play at 3pm on New year's Eve. It's a fun story about what happens in the radio drama studio when the annual BBC pantomime is recorded, based on the writer's experiences as a producer. And as the author suggested to me - before listening I'll loosen up, perhaps with a glass of wine.
I send all of my readers my very best wishes for the Christmas season and for a happy 2024.
ND / 24 Dec 2023
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