After five series dating back several years, the conspiracy thriller Tracks finally wrapped up. It’s been a long, old haul. This last series, Abyss, ran to another nine episodes and has been a gargantuan effort to pull off.
In truth, one or two episodes did feel like ideas were becoming a struggle but it’s no surprise given the series longevity. Available on BBC Sounds for those who want to find out how it all ended.
A plane mysteriously falls out of the sky, an 'ordinary' woman turns into an extraordinary sleuth to investigate the death of a loved one and a host of conspiracy theories follow.
Sound familiar? The very concept of Tracks as it happens. Either Goldhawk Productions were inspired by Matthew Broughton’s efforts or the BBC commissioners wanted a similar thriller plot. Or maybe just plain coincidence.
To be fair, this concept that some events are wreathed in mystery and fake news, with the truth being winkled out by amateurs not journalists, is very much true to life.
The versions of news events served up by the BBC and Sky are now so reliant on officialdom that it’s no wonder the maverick secret-spiller Wikileaks has spawned a generation of investigative amateurs.
In this story, flight 702 disappears off the map, leading the protagonist Caitlin to try and piece together what has happened. Her brother, a cyber hacker, was on the plane. Caitlin’s extraordinary access to all the players both in the intelligence and criminal worlds is explained by a mystery mole.
Spies, cybercriminals, terror suspects...it's all wrapped up in conspiratorial aural symphony.
It was only after listening that I discovered the stellar cast list. On re-listening, Morrisey’s vaguely-Scouse brogue was immediately detectable but Branagh as Spencer Tracy, not a jot.
The story revolves around the making of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, the last hurrah of Tracy and Hepburn in 1967. The film about inter-racial romance was controversial at the time in an American riven by race riots (what’s new?).
At the same time, Spencer Tracy was seriously ill so there was a race against time to finish. Adrian Lester stars as Sidney Pointier, the black star thrust into the spotlight.
I was one who seriously began considering not returning when programme-makers eventually decided the Big C didn't really have to get in the way producing full cast episodes; after all, in the last ten years I have successfully ditched Coronation Street, Facebook and cigarettes.
One thing drew me back, like a Pied Piper or the sound of the Furies - and that was Philip Moss being unmasked as an evil gangmaster. The preposterous concept was deliciously absurd. And the most interesting aspect the reaction of his moll, Kirsty, still psychologically traumatised by being left at the altar by the sausage imperator Tom Archer who has disappeared in the manner of a lost Roman legion. So, the tension mounted. How would Philip and his son Gavin be unmasked? Well, to build dramatic tension you would need to give the listener some knowledge at the same time dropfeeding hints via other characters. Maybe introduce an investigator or reporter to ramp up edginess.
Instead, Kirsty confronts Phil thinking he has another woman on the side (in itself laughable) and then comes the confession. Of course, he tried to sugar-coat having non-paid wage slaves by saying they had an X-box to play with.
The worst aspect of how this was handled was in fact Kirsty's reaction. As a journalist I have seen many family members, particularly spouses, put in very difficult positions. If unpleasant knowledge comes to light it causes agony, self examination and discussion. It does not include 'call the police' and describing one's nearest and dearest as a 'monster' and then blithely discussing what to watch on Netflix.
Also, there was a rather bizarre reference to a visit Kirsty made as a child to the Birkenhead Empire. As she is from Merseyside (albeit the posh part, Formby) you would have thought she would know it’s the Liverpool Empire.
Another Scouse tale. For the 40th anniversary of Lennon’s death, Radio 4 repeated a decade old drama in the afternoon slot. I have no real complaints about that although some might argue it could have been updated.
Take, for instance, someone who had obtained Lennon his first guitar. That was the story I heard when sitting in my landlord’s front room on December 8 1980. I was a cub reporter north of Liverpool and renting a room with a chap in his delightful thatched cottage. The only drawback being his parsimony – no lights on after 10 p.m., for instance.
There we were watching the news with just one bar allowed on the electric fire when it was announced that Lennon had been shot. It was quite a shock. After a while, Mr Curtis dropped in the Lennon guitar story.
I was sceptical. I knew nothing about him but did learn that as well as being tight he was a big-licks and former director of Liverpool FC.
A few days later, on the kitchen table, lay an old faded photograph of him with the legend and a guitar. Might make a good tale one of these days! In this story, promoter Sam Leach organises a big memorial knees-up for the fallen Beatle.
When I saw the title of this broadcast, I had an idea what was coming. The ‘I’ refers to digital and the ‘promise to pay the bearer’ phrase also sprang to mind. As suspected, it was a story about cryptocurrencies, and more specifically, seemed designed to educate a Radio 4 audience about this strange world of computer-generated money. If that was the intention, it sadly failed.
This was never clearer when criminal mastermind Kevin Straw – the now familiar Irish brogue of Jonathan Forbes from Tracks – launched into a monologue about cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin without even being prompted by a question from another character.
This, as any creative writing student or visitor to the BBC Writers’ room knows, contradicts the Golden Rule of ‘Show don’t tell’. This means explanations are given via action and dialogue not by a summarising statement or monologue.
Briefly, the story concerns a computer hacker called Bit (dear me) who is courted by both security services and a gang intent on obtaining crypto millions from a supercomputer created by a mad genius who died in a plane crash. Bit’s task is to crack the key and release the fortune.
It was so muddled and clunky I am sure most listeners would have been left even more baffled about his new form of monetary exchange. We were also treated to a policy statement; that in fact digital currency is no different to paper money as both rely on those willing to believe in them as a store of value. Of course, this isn’t quite true as paper or ‘fiat’ money as it is known, is legal tender backed by governments.
I was actually reminded of some dealings I had with the England and Wales Cricket Board when I was a magazine editor and left stupified by the number of digital marketing ‘experts’ that were being employed to ‘modernise’ the game. It was clear the old guard had been bowled a googly and just went along with any old preposterous jargon they heard. I can only assume whoever commissioned this was similarly bamboozled.
Quite how it captured the classic serial slot on Sunday is another mystery.
Oh, by they way, if you still want to catch up on BBC Sounds, I think it is also meant to be comedic although I am sure the producers Afonica will describe it as ‘tongue in cheek’.
In which a taxi-driver ferries a failed drug-dealer around Liverpool and listens to his existentialist musings. Written by Tony Schumacher, who, before taking up the quill, operated as a cabbie in Liverpool.
Tony has been quite well-known in certain circles of the city as a former odd-jobber and underpants salesman trying to make it as a scribbler. Now he is being mentored by the legend that is Jimmy McGovern, that seems to have assured take-off.
The message of this story seemed to be that the underclass like Mikey (Noble) have no option but a life of misery, usually fuelled by either taking drugs or selling them. Now I am sure Tone has seen a lot of the underbelly of life but even so, this is a tad pessimistic and very much 1980s Liverpool.
Harry Turnbull .
...It’s currently the final countdown for the medical mystery thriller Tracks which winds up after five series. Dr Helen Ash and her sidekick Freddy Fuller, have ridden a roller-coaster of conspiracy conundrums since the first episodes aired in 2016. The initial series saw the good doctor investigate why a plane her father was travelling in crashed in Wales and since then dodgy ethics, corporations and sudden deaths have abounded. In the last episode (Nov 9) the plucky pair almost came to grief in Polar bear country. If you haven’t heard Tracks before, all previous series are currently on BBC Sounds.
I caught up with writer Matthew Broughton, who created the original concept, which has grown to become one of the BBC’s radio drama big hits of recent years. continue reading
Half of a Yellow Sun
Things Fall Apart
No Longer At Ease
A trio of powerful stories examining the pre and post-Colonial experiences in Nigeria. This was quite timely for me as I have recently re-read Heart of Darkness as part of an assignment for my creative writing degree and research into Conrad’s novel inevitably leads to Achebe - the Nigerian writer who turned literary criticism on it’s head when he declared the author ‘a bloody racist’.
Hitherto, Conrad had always been regarded as someone who had shed light on the more gruesome aspects of land and trade expansion. Achebe claimed that Conrad gave himself away by his use of language, and to be fair, he was very fond of using the N word, although they were ‘different times’.
‘Things Fall Apart’ sets out to give a lucid account of how life changed for the Igbo people of Nigeria due to the arrival of the white man. The 15 minute drama with cast is dramatized by Biyi Bandele and characterised by the bleakly sonorous tones of Cyril Nri who plays Obierika and narrates the story.
The main character Okonkwo is a deeply-flawed individual, which demonstrates that Achebe was not intent on just painting a rosy picture of idyllic life before the British. In fact, he was a wife-beater who killed his adopted son. Director Nadia Molinari skillfully weaves the story through these paradoxical questions that call into account indigenous cultures and the role of women as well as the brutality and ignorance of the colonial conquerors. The book itself was published just before Nigerian independence in 1960 and was later followed up by ‘No Longer At Ease’.
This was a production for Book at Bedtime read by Paterson Joseph. It carefully dissects the issue of corruptibility in the post-Colonial state, demonstrating a complex mix of old and new cultures clashing in the form of Obi Okonkwo (the grandson) who is sponsored to enjoy a British university education but finds it difficult to assimilate back into Igbo society. Again, there is a sense of internal as well as external struggles in this sequel. And corruption hasn’t gone away - far from it as I can recently attest, having been forced to grease palms to the tune of £400 for a replacement birth certificate for my Anglo-African daughter.
‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ deals with colonial aftermath, focusing on the Biafran war that exploded after Nigerian independence. The scene is set by suitably mournful music and narration as the story unfolds against a backdrop of conflict. Of course, many readers of a certain vintage will remember the famine that was featured in the media at the time and the assertions that starvation was being used as a tool of war. The story still resonates as there continues to be calls for an independent Biafra and naturally it asks the question about colonial legacy.
Construction of this production was quite unusual in that it featured a frame narrator as well as three further narrators within the story of love and loss within a plot prominently featuring two sisters. Anyone catching up with these varied production will acquire a real knowledge of time, place and history.
Aired 23 and 30th August on BBC Radio 4
Featuring Scarlett Courtney as Charity Selbourne and Tim Dutton as Richard Byron. Adapted by Marcy Kahan from the novel by Mary Stewart and produced by Caroline Raphael. A Pier Productions work for Radio 4.
A rip-roaring yarn in the thriller tradition with exotic locations, relentless pursuits and dastardly characters. The difference between author Mary Stewart and some of her predecessors is that she thrusts an unsuspecting female into the role of hero. In this case Charity Selbourne, a self-possessed, educated young woman, finds herself caught up in adventure in the South of France. She meets various characters in a hotel who all end up being part of a murderous plot.
You can see why a heroine would appeal to a modern audience, even though she was created in the 1950s, but I’m not sure the endlessly contrived plot devices so beloved of writers of ‘romances’ stand the test of time.
Sure Buchan masterminded the art of coincidence and even Greene was embarrassed to employ it in ‘The Confidential Agent’ but Stewart ramps it up to a whole new level here. Does a series of wildly implausible events hold the audiences’ attention? Not according to the ‘experts’ at the BBC Writers’ Room yet in their media release of this production the corporation describes Stewart as one of the great storytellers.
I suppose it’s great for a piece of old-fashioned hokum but I know for sure that this sort of story would be thrown in the bin these days if pitched to producers. To cap it off, the story ends with a ludicrous Deux ex Machina moment which brings everything neatly together. I am still not sure what the title refers to, either.
Harry Turnbull, 1 Sep
Aired Sunday August 9 and 16
Luxembourg Gardens: Afternoon drama aired Monday August 17
Adapted by Katie Hims, director Jessica Dromgoole, featuring Hattie Morahan as Katherine Mansfield.
Mansfield gained a reputation as a modernist teller of short stories and a collection of her work was spread across two Sundays in the classic serial slot. The New Zealander took her cue from Chekov, whereby thoughts, sensation and feeling rather than plot are the guide and Mansfield followed also her acquaintance D.H Lawrence in declaring that each piece of fiction should not contain a superfluous word. Some of the stories offer a poignancy that reveals her yearning for something more than she had.
Now I know these works are planned well in advance but the 45 minute drama ‘Luxembourg Gardens’, capturing the essence of some of her final days in France, had a chilling resonance with the cringingly dreadful monologues that The Archers has inflicted on us recently. The ubiquitous Hattie Morahan plays the author in all these works and particularly portrays well the melancholy of Mansfield’s time in France when she gives up writing to improve her health.
The setting is a hotel in Paris and the nearby gardens. Mansfield was increasingly turning to alternative remedies for her condition at the same time as yearning for a 'normal' life of children, gardening and writing. The material from many of her final letters demonstrates a quiet desperation and deeply sad introspection. Sadly, she was unable to overcome her health issues and never experienced the longed for contentment she desired.
Harry Turnbull, 1 Sep
At first this tale about two men in a boat just seems odd; and on re-listening it becomes oddly unnerving. The conversation between the pair - simply named The One and The Other - has a poetic rhythm that mirrors the gently lapping of the water provided by the production’s soundscape. The boat bobs its way from the safety of the shoreline to the more energetic waves of the open ocean, much as the two men’s exchanges become increasingly agitated.
Fosse doesn’t provide a plot, just a vehicle for dialogue between an experienced sailor who appears tired of life and a novice companion who acts as his sounding-board. Lee Ingelby plays The One and Shaun Dooley The Other, and if their faces don’t spring to mind their voices have a comforting familiarity. Indeed Dooley is one of the foremost voiceover artists in the country, having narrated many a TV documentary.
I Am The Wind was initially a theatre production but lends itself to the airwaves with a background of gently breaking waves and seagulls. These existential works are difficult to describe and must be aurally experienced. Well worth a listen.
Harry Turnbull, 19 Aug 2020
Jules Verne’s tale of subterranean daring-do has been adapted for TV. film and radio numerous times, often veering from the book’s content. Creating a female lead character has been a favourite deviation but others have included introducing a villain and even a duck in a minor role.
So what would the diversity supremos at the BBC come up with? Well, the production was adapted and directed by females so one might anticipate the gender agenda to be prioritised. Instead the Beeb have done a sidestep that Gareth Edwards would have been proud of and produced a version that remains faithful to the original story (Hurrah, I hear the traditionalists cry).
But this comes with it own problem as exemplified when the professor cries that they have found the inactive volcano Snaefelljokull that intrepid predecessor Arne Sacknussum had identified as the gatepost to the earth’s netherworld, and that now the journey can begin; what,only now exclaims Axel. I know what he means for the first part of the book is a bit of a plod, to be honest.
Later comes the giant mushrooms, dinosaurs and fierce underground sea that have made such a spectacle for film-makers. Not so easy on radio though, so the second-half contains a lot of shrieking and shouting that becomes a bit wearing. It would have been better as a one off production of an hour or 90 minutes rather than in the two hour classic serial slot.
Harry Turnbull, 19 Aug
Thirty-minute stories in which Du Maurier’s displays her versatility. Each one focuses on a situation which gradually begins to unravel and engages the talents of some fine actors. The Chamois follows a hunter as he stalks the elusive antelope-goat of the title in a Greek mountain range with his wife in tow. The hunt’s sub-plot is the precarious nature of the couple’s relationship and has an unnerving feel reminiscent of de Maupassant’s’ mountain adventure The Inn. A fascinating collection.
Harry Turnbull, 19 Aug
A disturbing, unsettling drama of our times. And not just because Camus' dark pestilential French tale echoes Coronavirus but the fact it is narrated by a Caribbean islander - the sort of lilting voice usually associated with sunshine and manana. It made for an odd, jarring listen.
Not only is the leading voice a West Indian but also female and a lesbian - the Beeb's diversity agenda on supercharge.
Personally I was betting they would come up with a twist on Love in the Time of Coronavirus for these troubled times.
Camus explores the effect of an epidemic on mental health and the structure of society and how it is led. In this radio piece paralleling current events I was disappointed not to find a Dominic Cummings character unless he was one of the furry friends spreading the bubonic outbreak.
If La Peste published in 1947 is said to reflect the rise of facism across Europe perhaps Covid Number 19 heralds the death of Capitalism - after all the virus is the ultimate leveller unlike the inequalities of the elites' favourite financial system.
Radio is unique in conjuring up images that fire the imagination rather than relying on visual impact and so it is voices and soundscape that shape the listening experience.
In this respect I was left rather frustrated, with a repetitive clanging being the predominant discordant sound ... and that Caribbean drawl.
Harry Turnbull, 10 Aug 2020
....Surveillance has become an accepted evil and its psychological impact on all has opened a rich seam for writers. In this drama .. secret agent Claire is looking for terrorists but a new listening device makes her realise she is not always making her own decisions... (summarised from Fiona Hughes's review in RT)
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