Aaaaaaand they're only two months late.
Don’t ask, just go with it.
See the caveat from last year:
As with last year, I will not apologize for these being completely subjective selections, and I reserve the right to present “cumulative” awards much in the way Oscars are sometimes awarded for a body of work rather than for a specific nominated performance (despite the rules to the contrary). Also, given the nature of the way I listen, to call these categories “of the Year” would be deceptive as many of the Radio 4 Extra performances are from as long ago as four decades in the past. With these caveats out of the way, we’ll proceed—and in no particular order.
What a long list I’ve got. In no particular order . . .
Luke Thompson appeared in two plays at the very beginning of 2017 (well, technically speaking, the very end of 2016, but I only heard them in 2017) and then disappeared off the radar. He was excellent, really the best thing in The Shepherd and the new adaptation of Northanger Abbey as Henry Tilney (who is, after Frederick Wentworth, and perhaps Colonel Brandon, probably my favorite of the Austen heroes). Thompson really stretched his acting prowess playing all the roles in The Shepherd, a seasonal drama based on a story by Frederick Forsyth. He got to be altogether more camp for Northanger Abbey but fortunately didn’t take things too flippantly. He made Henry Tilney very attractive indeed.
I discovered the late Anna Massey quite a way into her formidable career (first hearing her as Madame Giry in Big Finish’s quite good adaptation of Phantom of the Opera in 2008). I also heard her in the clever Dear Writer in 2011, in which she played an acerbic writer. In 2016, I was spellbound hearing her in the title role of Vampirella (1976), Angela Carter’s fantastic drama about Dracula’s daughter. (One of my favorite radio dramas of all time—up until that point, I’d only ever read the script.) In 2017, however, I got to be bowled over by a performance par excellence in Spine Chilllers- Figures by Colin Haydn Evans. This beautifully written and very creepy drama originally from 1984 hinged on the convincing and cold-as-steel performances from Massey as Anne, who has just moved into a haunted house with her daughter, and Blain Fairman as her sympathetic neighbor Dr Alex. I’ve no doubt Anna Massey was brilliant in all her radio work.
I liked Annette Badland as the villainous yet sympathetic Margaret Blaine (Slitheen) from Doctor Who in 2005, but had never seen her in anything else. She was fantastic in the very enjoyable series DI Gwen Banbury, An Odd Body by Sue Rodwell. I never warmed to the too-flippant incidental music in this series, but I enjoyed everything else. The first series was made in 1994. DI Danbury and her mother Joan are fantastic roles, and it is really incredibly refreshing for a larger, middle-aged woman and her sexagenarian mother to be the leads in a series of any kind (even if it’s just on radio). The hint of a romance with Gwen’s subordinate Sergeant Henry Jacobs was never overpowering. Once the jokes about Gwen being tubby and still living with her mother were got out of the way, we could enjoy some excellent stories with excellent characters. Gwen’s father was a policeman, so her mother is a natural (if sometimes obtrusive) ally in her investigations. I did keep forgetting this was 1994 until they kept mentioning WPCs; naturally, just a few years after Prime Suspect, the fact that the DI was a woman was a major step forward. Joan was originally played by Gudrun Ure and then in the 2002 series by Stephanie Cole. The second series was slightly less serious than the first. Quite obviously, the whole thing just wouldn’t have gone if not for the tirelessly human performance from Badland.
The first radio drama I knowingly heard Robert Glenister in was the adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black from 1993, in which he played Arthur Kips. I loved this adaptation so much that I read the book, saw the stage play, and watched the movie in teeth-chattering delight. Since then, I have heard him often on radio. Apparently, I listened to Bruce Bedford’s far-out, time-traveling fantasy epic The Bedford in 2010 as well as in 2017; it’s uneven to say the least, but Robert Glenister positively blazed in his performance as Saul, the hapless Poet of Bath. He gave an enigmatic performance as the eponymous Grigory Efimovich Rasputin – Almost the Truth, an unusual tale from Wally K Daly from 1996. He was, however, at his best, searing but understated, in the excellent play by Peter Wolf from 2001, Ghost on the Moor, in which he played Graeme, a scarred, retiring, semi-literate northerner who is struggling to put the past to rest.
While his brother Robert has been a fixture on BBC Radio, 2017 was the first time in which I heard Philip Glenister in radio roles, both of them fantastic. In South Riding by Winifred Holtby, dramatized by Gill Adams in 1999, he played the complex Robert Carne, a source of fascination and frustration to the heroine, Sarah Burton, played with aplomb by Sarah Lancashire. South Riding took awhile to get into, but I’m glad I stuck with it. While at first, Carne as a haughty gentleman farmer seemed more Darcy than anything else, he is nuanced, a role in which Glenister can stretch his acting chops. However, previous to this, Glenister knocked my socks off in an adaptation of Peter Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee. Glenister was absolutely sublime as the mysterious Matthew Palmer, who finds upon his father’s death that he has inherited a bizarre Tudor house in Clerkenwell. After some digging, he finds out that the house belonged originally to Dr Dee. For me—as for many, I suspect—Philip Glenister will always be identified with DCI Gene Hunt. BBC Radio’s loss was television’s gain.
I know I chose Lee Ross last year as well for his work in Tommies, but I couldn’t help it—he was doing great radio work in 2017, too. Despite Mickey Bliss’ fading fortunes in 1917, Ross was still playing the role superbly—particularly in the 17 April 1917 episode, which as an emotional rollercoaster to say the least. Furthermore, he was fantastic in I Confess by EV Crowe, playing the role of the charming psychopath with chilling brilliance.
I’m beginning to see that Toby Jones, too, is a perennial BBC Radio player, often a brilliant one. I was very impressed by his performance in the black comedy/mockumentary by Peter Strickland, The Len Dimension. Set in the early ‘80s, Len is a struggling actor with delusions of grandeur. Self-absorbed and abrasive, Len alienates everyone around him. Jones does this without alienating the audience; I found parts of this play to be laugh-out-loud funny.
Clare Corbett, too, is frequently to be heard in BBC Radio drama. Yet she is extremely versatile. She was fantastic in Simon Bovey’s 2006 The Voice of God as Sam Rideout, the somewhat naïve seismologist who stumbles onto weapons of mass (sonic) destruction. She had a small but memorable role in Stephen Wakelam’s Lying Low, about Samuel Beckett in 1959, but she outdid herself in Philp Palmer’s terrific Cold War thriller, Foreign Bodies: Keeping the Wolf Out, as Franciska, a wife and potential spy.
Andrew Leung was nominated for a BBC Radio Drama Award (which he didn’t win). I think he should have, as he was excellent in Crime Down Under: Prime Cut, the Australian crime thriller adapted by Adrian Bean. Leung played DSC Philip “Cato” Kwong, exiled from the detective fast track—he had been on all the recruitment posters as the golden boy for multiracial Australian policing—to the Stock Squad. Cato was charming but his own worst enemy, and the type of sleuth I would like to follow in further adventures.
I had to highlight Gillian Kearney’s performances in two dramas I heard this year. The Second Son by Peter Whalley was an interesting and unnerving play in which an estranged son’s identity is stolen. Kearney played the son’s fiancée who is instrumental (for good or bad) in setting events in motion. She was utterly believable as the journalist who isn’t above using subterfuge. More impressive still was her performance in Nightmare by Dave Simpson from 2004. This was an excellent and thrilling psychological drama with excellent performances throughout. Kearney played Jilly, a nurse who is tormented by recurring nightmares of being stalked by a masked murderer. Jilly can barely keep hold of her insanity when her nightmares become reality, and yet no one believes that she is being stalked. She was also great in Don Webb’s Boots on the Ground (see below).
As I said last year, for me personally, directors/producers have a difficult time standing out. Basically, if they’ve done their job well, you shouldn’t really notice their presence at all (that’s my opinion, anyway). Nevertheless, there are some directors whose batting averages are just so superb, they deserve a shout-out.
Sally Avens is an experienced director, with many credits to her name. As just a sample, there were many dramas I heard in 2017 directed by her which are worthy of a mention. These include A Call from the Dead from 1997, an outrageous, surreal, and very suspenseful drama by Carey Harrison. In it, a psychologist gets a call in the middle of the night from his former patient, who had always been troubled by fears of being confined, of premature burial. This patient claims he has been accidentally buried alive and that he is calling from inside his coffin. Some very good performances and an audacious piece of radio. A Soldier’s Debt from 1999 is an early-ish Nick Warburton play, and I must say to me it didn’t at all resemble his normal fare. With some notable performances from Amanda Root and Burt Caesar, it was memorable and interesting, set at an African British Council where four people’s fates converge on a record of a performance of Macbeth. Dessert Island Discs from 1998 was an interesting idea in which guests on Desert Island Discs who upset then-host Sue Lawley were exiled to the island, their mounting lies attacking them until they ‘fessed up. More current dramas include the 2017 adaptation of The Mysteries of Udolpho by Hattie Naylor, much-abbreviated. The veils and waxworks were all sublimated in this version; the threat of physical (and particularly, sexual) violence was instead made very real. Avens also directed the accompanying adaptation of Northanger Abbey, also adapted by Naylor, which I enjoyed very much.
I’ve been listening to Bruce Young-directed plays since I came to the UK, including oodles of dramas I’ve really enjoyed: HMS Surprise and Desolation Island (superb adaptations of superb Patrick O’Brian novels) and Olalla (a fascinating Gothic tale from R.L. Stevenson) to name a few. In 2017 he really demonstrated his versatility as a director with two quite different productions. After Independence by May Sumbwanyambe was co-directed by George Terby. It was the adaptation of a challenging stage play, and probably Peter Guinness’ best performance that I’ve heard to date. White Zimbabweans, Guy (Guinness), Kathleen (Sandra Duncan), and Chibo (Beatrice Robinny) are being given a deal by the new government in the 1990s to sell their farm. Guy makes courageous arguments against Mr Charles (Stefan Adekwila), the government man who has come to take the land from him, despite suffering from cancer. I found The Tragic History of My Nose by Alistair Jessiman less satisfying, yet still thought-provoking. Nikolai Gogol (Robert Jack) is dead—and he’s not quite sure how he got there. He recalls the events that led to his death by starvation. On a religious crusade to glorify God through his writing, and yet loathe to abandon his literary predecessors Pushkin and Homer, Gogol tries to emulate the severe Father Matthew (Crawford Logan). At the same time, he is fixated on Joseph (Daniel Boyd), a young actor whose attentions may be false or may be true—it’s hard to tell for sure. A humorous, slow simmer of a drama, with some good voices.
Salford-based Gary Brown packed a wollop in 2017 with multiple and diverse dramas. Inventing Scotland by Mike Harris took a little while to get into, but it was an entertaining comedy about how Sir Walter Scott and his son-in-law conspired to give a false but patriotic blanc-mange of Scottish history and culture to visiting future George IV. Everyone was kitted out in fake tartan while the Prince was only interested in fleshy women and drinking (though he and Sir Walter Scott did have a bawling session regarding their fraught relationships with their fathers, respectively). The son-in-law was quite a character, hanging on to the whole thing in order to get his own novel published (and promptly forgotten by the world at large) and betraying an old nationalist friend unto his death in order to do this. The off-the-wall tone took a little getting used to, but I thought it was well-written and acted in a great spirit of fun. China Girl by Tom Fry, originally from 2012, was deceptively moving for me. In it, a slightly older couple (Sophie Thompson and Richard Lumsten) have been let down by IVF treatment (a common thread on Radio 4!) and decide to adopt from China. More than Hattie Naylor’s Little Cinderellas from 2003, this play exposes the seedy underbelly of the whole adoption process: the couple have to make a “donation” in order to get their baby and they find that her mental and physical health may be much less salubrious than they were led to believe when they fail to bond with the baby. They also obsess too much over her cultural heritage, but by the dawn of the year 2000, everything seems to be working out okay. I found MetaphorMoses by Gary Ogin to be quite funny! The story was about Matthew (Ashley Margolis), a closet Jew who is marrying non-Jewish Ellie (Verity Henry). When he purposely eats some pork, he gets indigestion, and then gets taken over by the personality of his ancestor Moishe, a very angry Jew who accidentally ate pork while in exile in Siberia. It takes the help of the rabbi (David Fleeshman) and a neurotic shrink (Lloyd Peters) to help the family figure this out, however. Most effective for me, however, was Boots on the Ground by Don Webb from 2013, starring the criminally underrated Lee Ingleby. This was an excellent play that kept me guessing, with a truly ambiguous central character. I’m struggling to summarize the story. A military side project testing facility is eager to finish its latest sets of tests with good data so that the main scientists can go off to plummy jobs in California, based on the strength of their research. Their put-upon research assistant, single mother Joni (Gillian Kearney), feels underrated. Marks (Ingleby), a very good soldier, comes in as part of the tests—but with an ulterior agenda. He is searching for his vanished friend—or is he? Well-made and very intelligent drama.
Andrew Dubber & Belinda Todd
I thought Claybourne, the Kiwi epic from 1998, deserved another round of applause for its sheer scale and ambition. The short format was perfect for an infinite number of cliffhangers, which they exploited brilliantly, and for building character. Claybourne was broadcast on NewsTalkZB in 15-minute chunks, and it was a hard-to-categorize blend of soap opera, sci fi mystery, fantasy, and New Zealand travelogue. All the characters surprised and delighted, from the jazz-listening, latte-drinking mysterious computer engineer Clive; to Janine, ultimately ill-fated thief, not-very-professional nurse, and flirt. I loved learning about Maori customs against the backdrop of the absurd, exploitative corporate retreat/theme park Maori World. It was very well-produced, with a rich sound world filled with keynote sounds which could establish in a flash whether you were in a police station in Cowacowa or being given cement body casts in the foundations of Maori World (I kid you not!). I absolutely did not want the story to end.
Speaking of The Mysteries of Udolpho as I was earlier, a previous version (I’m not sure from what year) was directed by David Blount, a much fuller, elaborated version dramatized by Catherine Czerkawska. It, too, was quite good. However, I single out David Blount for a 1997 dramatization of the novel Rogue Herries by Hugh Walpole, a dramatization I thought was absolutely magical. Set in the 18th century, the Quixotic quest of the main character is mirrored in the personal life of its author, the closeted Walpole, and with that in mind, it’s a very moving story. Francis Herries (Gavin Muir) takes his wife Margaret and their children to his remote homeland in savage Cumbria. Mostly it’s a novel about people’s characters, their perversity and their capacity for change. And indeed, on that front it is quite remarkable. Francis changes from a proud, emotionally stunted husband who emotionally mistreats his wife to a man who understands the true meaning of love after years pining after the much younger, emotionally damaged Mirabell Starr. Overall, a cracking success.
I found this a hard category to write about. I tried to pick writers who wrote something new (to me, at any rate) that really packed a punch. This often ended up being writers of serials or series, but not always.
Roger Danes is adaptor par excellence. He has adapted all three of the BBC Radio adaptations of the Patrick O’Brian novels, Master and Commander, HMS Surprise, and Desolation Island, the latter of which (from 2013) is, I think, the best of all. As I said in previous reviews, I thought Stephen as played by Nigel Anthony (with a strong Irish accent, in Master and Commander, which was directed by Adrian Bean) AND by Richard Dillane both had their virtues. Nevertheless, if forced to choose, I think I would choose Dillane. I’d forgotten how arch Stephen is in this book, which Dillane carried off well, and the pathos was very, very muted. The pacing was excellent, and I was surprised at how well the action sequences worked. Very impressed. And naturally, David Robb is the perfect Jack Aubrey. I admired Danes’ skill in bringing in all the exposition of Stephen’s spying without overloading the narrative. They even found time for Stephen and Jack to play some Mozart on Christmas Day. In 2017, I also heard Danes’ series The Lady Detectives, from 2005, which I thought was excellent overall. Among these adaptations were The Golden Slipper by Anna Green, in which Violet Strange was a New York-based detective, a society girl who very quietly did other work on the side. The structure of the piece was unusual and not chronological, which lent it great weight and emotion when all was finally revealed. Very inspiring and quite touching. The American accents were okay too! I also quite liked The Redhill Sisterhood by Catherine Pirkins. Loveday Brookes was the sleuth in this one, an experienced and unflappable detective, valued by policemen and laymen alike. Young, attractive, and with a mind like a steel trap, she managed to entrap her opponent, who had disguised himself as an admiring fan and journalist, using invisible ink and telegrams, among other “modern” inventions. She managed to clear a group of nuns from false accusation and help round up a gang of house burglars. I was very impressed with her and with the series in general. The Lady Detectives was directed by Patrick Rayner.
Don Webb wrote the fantastic Boots on the Ground, mentioned above, as well as the slightly against-type Witch Water Green from the 1984 Spine Chillers series. A woman (Pam Ferris) with a young baby and a constantly traveling husband moves out to a rural area where her house is called Witch Water Green. She is almost saved by a neighbor but by the end falls neatly into the clutches of a clergyman (the ever-sinister Nigel Anthony) and his co-conspirator, the local (female) doctor. Creepy stuff and well-written.
Carolyn Bonnyman wrote Talking Latin in 2004, and the drama made such a big impression on me I thought it would be remiss not to include her in this section of the awards. Ably directed by David Jackson Young, this was a very slow burn. Karen (Julie Dunkeyson) and her husband Steve have a very dysfunctional relationship. He is glued to his chair in the lounge watching TV all day long. One day, Karen decides just to leave. She takes the car and the clothes on her back. Seven years later, she’s still working for Sal Minelli (yes, it’s a joke they exploit) who runs a fast food fry up shop in Glasgow. Karen refuses to open up to anyone about her past, but she’s become part of the fry up family and visits Sal in hospital. Sal and his wife Francesca (Scots-Italian) are having a ruby wedding anniversary, to which Karen and copper Davie go (in fancy dress as it’s Halloween). Davie has been trying for a long time to get together with the cagey Karen. Just when it looks like they’re going to, Steve shows up. He has gone through a total reversal in his life, now a mature student at university in history and classical languages (hence the title), with a girlfriend and a child on the way. I think why I initially had problems with the play was the extremely Naturalistic dialogue which didn’t seem to say anything, so I kept drifting from it as you would listening to DJ chat show. Yet I thought the writing was very convincing.
Rosemary Timperley’s writing had a huge impact on me this year, though she’s been dead for 30 years. A prolific writer of novels (60) and short stories (hundreds), some of the following dramas were written by her, though most were adapted from her existing print works. As a writer of ghost stories, she must rank up there with Robert Westall, though, like him, she certainly had her motifs, and they often hinged on uncanny experiences rather than purely frightening ones. One of the oldest British radio dramas I’ve heard, Christmas Meeting from 1963, was a beautiful and delightful short drama about a middle-aged single woman (Flora Robson) distraught at spending Christmas alone in a bedsit. She isn’t quite alone, however, when she meets a young student (Barry Justice) who is also lodging there. After a time, she realizes he isn’t from her century; in fact, he’s an early 19th century poet, and a ghost. Instead of being frightened, they share a connection, and the young poet/ghost is attracted to the older woman. In 1979, she inaugurated the BBC World Service series Haunted with Little Girl Lost, one of Timperley’s more genuinely sinister turns. The series was directed by Derek Hoddinott. Little Girl Lost was unnerving, with Sally (Jenny Linden) calling in a doctor as her mother-in-law, Mrs Grove (Ruth Dunning), claims to be talking to her late husband. Mrs Grove claims not to be mad but that she can hear her dead husband, who is rude. Mrs Grove doesn’t seem a very nice person, which is not the kind of ghost you want haunting you. Her son, Herbert (John Carson), discovers her dead and confronts his daughter, Janet (Bernadette Windsor), who helped her grandmother commit suicide and then was supposed to follow her, but didn’t quite make it. Walk on the Water was the prototypical Timperley story—Rachel (Anna Cooper) was a child when she went to the seaside with her parents. She was making sand castles when a strange man (Brian Hewlett) came up to her. All they said to each other was “hello.” The man was then said to have committed suicide by walking into the sea. Years later, Rachel married Peter (David Ashford) and went on honeymoon in Venice. Throughout the rest of her life, she kept seeing the man. All he would ever say was “hello.” An ethereal and weird, though not exactly frightening, story. Listen to the Silence included aspects of both Little Girl Lost and Walk on the Water; Mary Smith (Gwen Watford) was adopted, she has no family that she knows of and lodges in a house on her own. She has a job at a bank but no friends. She has been terrified of silence all her life and puts on the radio constantly to avoid it. One day she turns off the radio and hears a voice speaking to her: it’s her grandfather (George Pravda), a Polish sea captain from the late 19th century, who starts telling her all his adventures. There was a second series of Haunted in 1982, far less imaginative and relying on the writers John Keir Cross, Wilkie Collins, and HG Wells (though the Bram Stoker entry and the Ray Bradbury entries are quite good). A third series followed in 1984, more varied in range and fittingly completed by a Rosemary Timperley tale, the bizarre and humorous Channel Crossing. Jack (Nicholas Lyndhurst) gets really annoyed by his dad, the straitlaced, conventional Edward (Peter Sallis). Frances (Patsy Rowlandson), Jack’s mother, also gets annoyed with her husband. Edward gets annoyed with Frances. They are all going on holiday together to France. Before they go, Jack accuses the neighbor of killing his wife during one of their loud brawls. On the crossing to France, Jack is thinking how easy it would be to push his dad, and even his mom, off the boat. Shortly after this, he meets Gregory and Annabelle. Gregory has just pushed the obese Annabelle off the boat, and unbeknownst to him, Annabelle has poisoned his coffee. So they are both now ghosts (!!) floating along the boat. Jack is thus less inclined to kill his parents. I think (?) it was supposed to be a darkly comic look at families’ natural desires to get so angry they want to do away with each other.
Peter Wolf wrote the aforementioned Ghost on the Moor and also Black Queen to King’s Castle from 2002. This was a delicious story of Anne Boleyn’s ghost returning unknowingly to her childhood home of Blickling Hall when she thinks she has woken up the night of her execution in the Tower. She recalls her life, her return from court in France where she is immediately sent to Henry Tudor’s court to fill in where her sister Mary has failed, after having already slept around at the French court (due mainly to her extremely ambitious father, determined to sacrifice his children on ambition’s altar). Henry does eventually take notice of Anne, as she has been placed as Catherine of Aragon’s lady-in-waiting, but Anne is insistent that she will not yield her favors until Henry divorces. Naturally, Anne’s triumph is short-lived after the birth of Elizabeth and a miscarried baby. Her former allies, such as Thomas Cromwell, desert her. She is heartened, however, upon returning to the 20th century as a ghost, that her daughter Elizabeth was queen. Well-written, this hinged on the tremendous performance by Katherine Pogson as Anne. David Troughton was also quite convincing as the self-important Henry. It was also rather spooky!