Sunday, December 12, 2010

Best Radio June-Dec 10

Top Radio Plays, June-December 2010

It was quite a strong season for radio, actually—I tried to listen to the Afternoon Play more than I had before, to balance out all the (good but perhaps not as contemporary) offerings from BBC7. (10 of the plays are from that time slot.) Also, you’ll be interested to note that there are more women writers on this list than ever before. Is that because I’m a) listening to more plays by women; b) there are more plays by women available; or c) there are more plays of quality by women available?

Of course, I went mad with BBC7’s Halloween offerings as they were doing more than a day-long spectacle, and I was determined to listen to as many as I could. Overall, I was richly rewarded for that kind of attention!

13. The Cracks (Rob Evans)
This was written in a tight, knowing fashion, and while you could predict the outcome, you didn’t really see where it was going. It was definitely a meditation on the modern age as much as on gay men’s love lives—Mikey leaves Leeds for London on a date with someone he only knows online, and David’s aimless and slightly mad meanderings fit London well enough.

12. Gerontius (Stephen Wyatt)
The accomplished Stephen Wyatt was at it again. This played quite well within the radio environment. It looks at the life and afterlife (ie, ascent into sainthood?) of Cardinal Newman, played by Derek Jacobi. Newman was represented in a disembodied state, dead, in heaven, between canonization and bewilderment. It makes a good point about wrongly polarizing the gay context retrospectively. And Michael Jayston was hella scary as Newman’s demon!

11. The Art of Balance (Rachel Joyce)
A bit stagey and annoying in the first few minutes, but then you couldn’t stop listening to the surreal “fable” about a bitchy career woman (Deborah Findlay), and a troubled, quiet phone volunteer (Niamh Cusack). It made an interesting concept for radio.

10. Humanly Possible (Sarah Daniels)
This was heavily influenced by the documentary camp of radio-making, but the characters were memorable and raised the dilemmas of infant hospital needs in a true-to-life, rather than preachy, fashion. It quite moved me to tears.

9. Staring into the Fridge (Annie McCartney)
Telling, I think, that the role I best like Jimmy Nesbitt in is as a bitchy talking fridge (though I’m a bit disturbed that protagonist Maggie had gone on holiday with an electric appliance!) This was a simple, funny, yet weird story of a newspaper columnist who has to deal with a sniffy boyfriend, two 20-something kids who have returned home, and a fairly dotty best friend. It was topical and appealing . . . and I liked it! Amazing!

8. Cadfael: The Virgin in the Ice (Ellis Peters/Bert Cooles)
It was good that I completely forgot the plot to this book though I’d read it! As with the earlier play (Dead Man’s Ransom), the casting was very strong (both actors playing Ermina and Ives were good) and the structure superbly imagined—I had totally forgotten that Cadfael meets his acknowledged son in this story. I think I actually like the Philip Madoc Cadfael better than the Derek Jacobi one.

7. The Patience of Mr. Job (Justin Butcher)
An excellent and darkly funny reimagining of the Job story, staring Jude Akuwudike and Adjoa Andoh. It didn’t seem contrived, just bleakly realistic. It gives a very cynical portrayal of what happens when sustainable farming comes to Africa, and how the naïve can be duped and the rich (and usually white) can continue to profit while the poor starve. The Chinese prawn farmer was an almost shocking stereotype, but no person (or group) got off lightly. It was all cemented by strong and winning performances.

6. What the Nun Discovered (Harriet O’Carroll)
There was a 2-part series collated to discuss the Church and child abuse in Ireland, and this was the more effective play, I thought. A devoted but far from stupid nun (played by Marcella Riordan), Mary Jo, has been away in Uganda for 25 years. Upon her return she learns first hand the problems in the Irish Catholic Church and deals with moral issues in a fresh and believeable way. She has to reconcile with her younger (atheist) sister, and it was that part of the play that was particularly effective. Ther was even something approaching a happy ending. (Both plays were directed by Eoin o’Callaghan.)

7. Fear on Four: Hand in Glove (Elizabeth Bowen/Elizabeth Troop)
This was really disturbing. You could, really, pin all the horror down to a society of women defined by their relationship to men—if Aunt Alicia’s husband hadn’t shot himself, she wouldn’t be at the mercy of “elder abuse” from her niece Ethel, who in turn wouldn’t be so callous (we assume) if she wasn’t a disenfranchised spinster. Hints of Poe and Faulkner as Ethel got strangled by her aunt’s disembodied gloves. Yeeek.

6. The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde/Nick McCarty)
This was quite a good adaptation despite that it was almost letter-perfect to the novella. I love the novella so it was perhaps inevitable that I would come to the radio adaptation with a positive response. There were no sordid insinuations about Dorian’s misdeeds, etc, and I’m not sure Ian McDiarmid was the right voice for Lord Henry. He’s a great actor and was wonderful as Satan in the epic Paradise Lost from last year--the part just didn’t fit, in my opinion. Nevertheless, the sound design and music (by David Chilton) were so atmospheric--it reminded me of Wuthering Heights below—as to make this quite memorable. Jamie Glover was not especially outstanding as Dorian until the last section, which was a little terrifying.

5. Country Life (Shelagh Delaney)
The sequel was entirely rubbish, but this was quite a happy surprise! It started slow, but became pretty engaging for using only three characters (aunt, Boris, and movie actor father) on a farm during the Hoof & Mouth epidemic of 2001. Thomas Sangster was very likeable as the moody 12-year-old piano prodigy.

4. Maidens’ Trip (Emma Smith/David Ashton)
Based on a nonfiction book, this was a really charming trip back to the 1940s. Three young women set off in a motorboat up the canals of England to do their bit for the war effort in 1942. I was very much reminded of Their Finest Hour and a Half, which isn’t a bad thing at all! Emma (Emily Wachter), Nanette (Emerald O’Hanrahan), and Charity (Georgia Groome) were all great, as was their saucy mentor Tilly and her mysterious brother. The best part was when they rescued a KITTEN!

3. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë/Briony Entby)
This followed the book very closely. David Collings made a superb Lockwood and helped to reinforce the idea that this was a bit of soap and dysfunctional melodrama dressed up by the trappings of its arcane and isolated setting. Amanda Root and John Dutine were excellent as the lovers, up to the challenge of all that dialogue and all that emotion; Edgar was sympathetic and Linton terribly pathetic. The music (by Elena Sertesh) was haunting. They decided to make the guess that Heathcliff was Spanish-speaking when he arrived. Dutine’s performance owed a little to Ralph Fiennes’ (or was it vice versa?), though Amanda Root’s had more in common with the more recent TV adaptation. It could have easily been 3 or 4 episodes instead of 5, but there was very little cutting, which worked well at the beginning, but lessened the impact at the end.

2. Til Jihad Do Us Part (Shai Hussain)
I didn’t expect this to be my cup of tea, but I was very impressed that the male writer achieved a believable female voice—a modern Muslim woman who’s a DJ. It’s a comedy, and in fact very funny. The lead role, played by Rokhsaneh Gwawan-Shahidi, seems very likeable and real, and her suitor, who isn’t what he seems, played by Sagar Arya, was hilarious. Like many recent pieces, it doesn’t vilify arranged marriages, but looks at them in a different way. A bit of Bend It Like Beckham but also a heavy dose of Bollywood romance. I could see it as a film—or a series.

1. Faust (Martin Jenkins)
Superb. Mephistophéles was able to inhabit “our” time and so there were some absolutely spot on jokes (Merthyr Tydfil!!). This was Gatiss’ best performance—suave but much more threatening than Sherlock’s brother! This was the version of Faust that doesn’t end happily like Goethe’s—Gretchen’s life is bad but she does end up in Heaven (at least according to Mephistophéles—we don’t know if he was lying or not). A good edition for Halloween, but more pertinently, just a really cool idea, with the contemporary music and 5 x 15 min segments.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Look, Ma, I'm on Radio!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Retro August 2008

1 August 2008 The Tyger Hunter by Lavinia Murray
Really, really weird day in the life of a 11-year-old William Blake, full of talking dogs and phantasmagoria. It had some really interesting lines, but I would have switched off if I was just listening to the radio.

7 August 2008 Left at Marrakech by Richard Stevens
Fast-moving period piece with strong performances outweighing wavering American accents. American pilots, bravery, a British broad, and a highly moral stiff upper lip RAF pilot.

9 August 2008 Dover and the Unkindest Cut by Joyce Porter
Hard-boiled, hilarious look at dismemberment in a Welsh village--spot on characterization, and the Chief Constable of the town sounded just like Nigel! It was a stretch over a whole hour, though!

16 August 2008 The Balloonists by Craig Stephens
Confusing, not sure if the parallel story of actual ascent and theatrical representation worked. Good characters, fun stuff, very Mesmerist-like.

21 August 2008 Sex for Volunteers by Laura Marney & David Ramos Fernandes
Somewhat silly story about First Aiders and a lingerie shop owner in Scotland. The two sisters started out interesting but it kind of limped to its conclusion with a happy ending I'm not sure it earned.

22 August 2008 Gold's Fool by Paul B Davies
Some easy narrative devices but it all hinged on the implacable personality of Elizabethan privateer Frobisher, played with gusto. A bit affected period-wise but some very funny dialogue from the Queen.

22 August 2008 Fridays When It Rains by Nick Warburton
Creepy in the extreme with some excellent mood music. The suspense and the dialogue were perfectly pitched, and Clive Swift was terrifying. The end didn't make sense entirely, but overall this is one of the best radio thrillers I've ever heard. Set entirely on a steam train in 1964, 1910, and today.

28 August 2008 This Cold August Light by Jerome Vincent
Disappointing story with such a promising idea. Too diffuse, too heavy-handed--it should have been about Poe in London in 1816 OR Turner in a storm in 1816 OR Polidori and Shelley in Geneva in 1816, not all of that woven clumsily into Poe in the 1840s being cantankerous. The child actor apparently coouldn't act and have an American accent at the same time. And Poe was Southern, not neutral mid-Atlantic!

listening to now . . .

Elephant & Castle by Robin Baker --Radio 4

The Great Swim by Gavin Mortimer/Anita Sullivan --Radio 4

Monday, August 23, 2010

listening to now . . .

The Christopher Marlowe Mysteries: The Curious Case of the Curs'd Quayside--Radio 4
Silas Marnerb--BBC7
The Reef--BBC7

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Retro- July 2008

I have been making a log of radio plays I've listened to in the UK since July 2008. I thought it might be fun to reproduce my notes chronologically (also since the paper is deteriorating and it would be good to have an online record as well).

22 July 2008 When Greed Becomes Fear: Safe as Houses by DJ Britton
starring Rory Kinnear, Liz White & Nadine Marshall
dir. by Pam Marshall
Up to the minute drama, housing crunch, quite complex and fast-moving, lots of info.

25 July 2008 In the Secret Place
dir. by Claire Grove
Woman marries suspected murderer in prison, is shocked when he is let out; powerfully written and genuinely frightening, though the end was confusing

30 July 2008 Bad Faith by Peter Jukes
Police chaplain gone bad. Interesting, good acting, gritty, with Lister-esque ending, but a bit scattered and hard to understand

Thursday, August 5, 2010

listening to now . . .

Gerontius by Stephen Wyatt, Radio 4
A Chaos of Wealth and Want by Penny Gold, BBC7
The Art of Balance, by Rachel Joyce, Radio 4
Boom Boom by Emily Steel, Radio 4
The Orchestra by Rosie Boulton, Radio 4
A Bridge to the Stars by Henning Mankell/John Retellack, BBC7
The Battle of Plassey presented by Leslie Forbes, BBC7
Terremoto by Catrin Clarke, Radio 4
Humanly Possible by Sarah Daniels, Radio 4
Higher: Partners by Joyce Bryant, Radio 4
The Gibson by Chris Bedford, BBC7

Sunday, July 4, 2010

listening to now . . .

Unearthing Mysteries:
The Lost Map of London
The Amber Room
The Drinking Cult
The Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria
The Red Lady of Paviland
presented by Aubrey Manning
produced by Pam Rutherford & Sue Brown

Monday, June 28, 2010

Best Radio January--June 2010

Top Ten Radio Plays, January-June 2010

I’m listening to BBC7 way too much and therefore have neglected the new Afternoon Plays. I will endeavour to do less of that.

10. Blake’s 7: The Early Years, Eye of the Machine
(Ben Aaronovitch)
I know about a thimble-full about Avon, but it wasn’t necessary to know more to appreciate this play. The cast was very small, but somehow you never realized that, and the 30 mins just flew by. It was a strong production that kept up momentum. I thought the girl activist sounded familiar but didn’t realize til the credits that she was played by Keeley Hawes! (Colin Salmon played Avon as, I recall, he did in the plays released in 2008.) Oh, and the music was by Alistair Lock!

9. Apostle of Light: Louis Braille (John Pilkington)
This was a conventional but well-done play, and it must be said, radio is an excellent medium for a story about the blind. I had no idea Braille had encountered such opposition initially or that he died, painfully, at such a young age. Adam Goldley as Braille was very good.

8. Listen to the Words (Ed Hime)
Quite edgy. Really used the sound medium to its fullest advantage. It was gripping and felt really natural, too. A girl spiralling out of control at Uni, depressive and then using religion as a raft . . . and taking it way too far. The boy with empathy problems recording her phone calls and the more or less decent rapper boyfriend. One of the few contemporary plays I’ve found memorable.

7. The Scarifyers: The Devil of Denge Marsh (Paul Morris)
Nicholas Courtney is just so damned appealing as Lionheart, and Terry Molloy totally plays against type as Professor Dunning. The story itself was rather silly- a bit sillier than the previous Scarifyers I heard- including Ma Tyler as a mermaid, believe it or not. Aliester Crowley plays an important and rather amusing role.

6. The Snow Queen (Hans Christian Andersen/Beverley Doherty)
Gorgeous music and sound design, presumably why this is a perennial favorite and seems to be oft-requested on Radio 7. It’s a long and complex fairy tale whose images were ingrained on my brain when I was little and watched the Faerie Tale Theatre version; nonetheless, the radio version’s atmosphere is undeniable. Diana Rigg is suitably icy as the Snow Queen, and Gerda and Kay, the childhood friends who eventually grow up and fall in love, are sooo cute. There’s also a strange interlude with Babar the Reindeer and the Robber Girl, and a very amusing Crow.

5. The Pallisers (Anthony Trollope/Martyn Wade)
This was a massive, sprawling undertaking that was almost as much to listen to as it was to produce (well, I conjecture). But those who stuck by were rewarded by a Forsytes-like experience (not surprising considering many of the main actors featured in this as well). Ben Miles was very good as Plantagenet Palliser, at first presented as a rather dull would-be statesman seeking the hand of the spirited but slightly flighty Glencora (Sophie Thompson). Juliet Stevenson was memorable as Lady Laura in love with Phineas Finn. David Troughton provided narration as Trollope, which worked quite well in such a lumbering story full of characters (well, it is adapted from 6 novels!). Though Greg Wise’s part wasn’t particularly large, it was memorable and similar to the one he played in Sense and Sensibility! Ambitious project.

4. John Milton’s Paradise Lost
This was a massive series, over forty parts (15 mins each). Adam and Eve (Linus Roache and Federay Holmes) were heartfelt and tried their best to breahe life into the archetypal roles. I’m sure Ian McDiarmid relished playing Satan, easily the most interesting role. The Son (Robert Glenister) was also quite good. The scene that really stood out for me was Sin, Death, and Satan at the Gate- how twisted and so telling, exactly what Milton waned us to despite about sin. The Poet (Dennis Quilley) came off as a bit portentous, but the sheer size of the production really underlines Milton’s achievement.

3. The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton/Arthur Ransome)
I can’t imagine Daniel Day-Lewis played Newland Archer better than Andrew Wincott here- superb performance, superb adaptation. 30 mins x 6 was absolutely inspired breakdown. This wasn’t a fast-paced novel so the play moved along just fine at this pace. I’m inspired to read the novel now. Not a bad American accent in the lot- Susanne Bertish and Catherine Harris as Ellen and May, respectively, are also worth singling out.

2. Waves Breaking on the Shore (Michael Eaton and Neil Brand)
I think it’s safe to say that a trend in radio drama at the moment is for capturing the music hall experience with actual song (if not dance)- see the world service production The Entertainer with Bill Nighy for more confirmation. Overall this was one of the best new radio plays I’ve heard in a long time. It’s not hard to transfer music hall atmosphere to radio- the characters in this story were funny, distinctive, but certainly of their time. Manny Cohen and Danny Cohan established both their act and their lives within the play in the first ten minutes during their “music hall act.” The dialogue managed to be expositional in creative ways as they decided to move from the music hall to early sound pictures and become entrepreneurs in the attempt, all against the backdrop of East End unrest. The metafictional techniques with the silent and then sound films were really effective. The Yiddish uncle was a bit OTT. There was the air of Ragtime with the social problems being addressed in the drama.

1. Clarissa: The History of a Young Lady (Samuel Richardson/Hattie Naylor)
It must have been difficult to adapt a novel of this length with so many characters and a sensibility and set of morals so different from our own. Richard Armitage was outstanding, demonstrating his range when Lovelace “played” a West Country farmer, when drunk, violent, cajoling, and dying. As a schemer and seducer he was somewhere on the scale between Satan in Paradise Lost and the Joker (The Dark Knight)— unable to feel any empathy for others and so arrogant as to always believe himself in the right. A sexy psychopath- the worst kind! Dorcas (Sophie Thompson) was wonderfully played; the rape scene at the end of part three was heartbreaking. It took all of Zoe Waites’ range, as well, to play Clarissa, to make her be lovable and heartfelt. A very very good production overall.

I should also mention:

The Chimes by Charles Dickens/John Clifford with a memorable performance from Ron Cook as Trotty Veck.

The Darker Side of the Border, Scottish horror stories adapted by Marty Ross, from Conan Doyle (“crap, this was scary”), Stevenson, and Hogg.

The History of the Burns Supper/Auld Lang Syne were nonfiction music programs that made me cry.

Who & Me by Barry Letts was the Doctor Who producer reading from his autobiography, and these were very entertaining 15-minute segments.

By that token, Notes from a Small Island, adapted by Bill Bryson and read by Carey Shale, were very funny but added lewd bits and took out some of my favorite parts from the book.

Doctor Who Radio Plays

Orbis (Alan Barnes & Nick Briggs)
I enjoyed this- it was very outré, shall we say, but McGann and Smith, as usual, carried it for me.
The Beast of Orlok (Barnaby Edwards)
The first part was all about setting up the atmosphere, Frankenstein in miniature and using Peter Guinness’ distinctive voice once more, but the rather more surprising conclusion and almost all of the action took place in the second part.
Scapegoat (Pat Mills)
This was nearly the opposite in terms of plotting and pacing- all of the elements were put in place in the first half, with goat-headed aliens played with a sense of humor; the TARDIS turning into a merry-go-round in Nazi-occupied Paris; Lucie on stage in a grim guignol theatre at least as dark as the one in Cabaret. However, the second part didn’t make much sense, and though the Doctor was having a good time outwitting the Nazi buffoons, there wasn’t much suspense.
Companion Chronicles: Ringpullworld

listening to now . . .

Unearthing Mysteries: Glozel

listening to now . . .

R D Wingfield's The Cellar

listening to now . . .

Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights

Monday, June 21, 2010

listening to now . . .

Pilgrim: 'Gainst All Disaster by Sebastian Baczkiewicz
Radio 4

listening to now . . .

Country Life by Shelagh Delaney
Radio 4

listening to now . . .

The Fifteen Minute Musical 1x1: Brothers in Arms
by Dave Cohen, David Quantick & Richie Webb

listening to now . . .

Thistlewood by Stewart Conn

Monday, June 14, 2010

listening to now . . .

Ghost Stories of MR James
Canon Alberic's Scrapbook
Lost Hearts

listening to now . . .

The Entertainer by John Osborne

Sunday, June 13, 2010

listening to now . . .

An Hour with Jon Pertwee

listening to now . . .

Doctor Who: Scapegoat


listening to now . . .

The Legend of Robin Hood

Top Ten Radio Plays, June-December 2009

from December 2009

10. The Beaux’ Stratagem (George Farquar)
A Restoration stage play about husbands and wives adapted, surprisingly, for radio. It was very silly but translated well as it was speeches, singing, and would NOT have benefited from a laugh track. The actors were having the times of their lives hamming it up- Boniface the innkeeper and his ale, for example. And I liked all the usual cracks about church, Frenchmen, the country, etc. It certainly had the flavor of Marriage of Figaro or Cosí fan Tutte if not all of the charm. At least the woman got her divorce at the end!

9. Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers (Rob Grant & Doug Naylor)
Speaking of Red Dwarf, imagine my delight when I found this new instalment of the comedy on BBC7. It’s a multi-parter and I’m kind of cheating because I’ve just heard the first instalment, but so far it’s been very enjoyable. While technically it’s Chris Barrie (Rimmer) reading from the new book of the same name, his ability to do voices, plus the appropriate sound effects, make it almost a full-cast play. (His Dave Lister is quite miraculous!) I’m amazed at how well Red Dwarf translates to radio, but it’s all down the clever, cynical, silly writing.

8. Bleak Expectations (Mark Evans)
I listened to all but one of the third series of this Dickens spoof, and I have to say I found it quite addictive the more formulaic it became. It starred Tom Allen as the young Pip Bin, Anthony Head as his nemesis Mr Gently Benevolent, James Bachman as Pip Bin’s sidekick Harry Biscuit, and Geoffrey Whitehead as Wackwallop. Harry Biscuit’s inventions that never worked (“I need more swans!”) as well as his catchphrase “Harrumble!” pleased me to no end, as did Pip Bin being tortured by “cheeseboarding,” as did the dreadful puns (“the town of Coke and its suburb, Diet Coke”). Perhaps my favorite was A Sort of Fine Life De-Niced Completely, in which Mr Benevolent was disguised with a West Country accent and catapulted a metaphor-spinning urchin into a balloon.

7. Cadfael: Dead Man’s Ransom (Ellis Peters/Burt Cootes)
Narrated by Michael Kitchen, this play should wipe from your mind the version with Derek Jacobi and bring you closer to Cadfael’s Welsh roots. Philip Madoc was superb as the Benedictine sleuth. I often find narration in radio plays obtrusive, but this was fine. It had some great period music, and split into five parts seemed just about right— the cliffhangers, with one exception, were quite meaty.

6. Night Talker (Danny John-Jules)
No, I did not realize this was written by the Cat from Red Dwarf until just now when I thought the name sounded familiar. All thoughts of celebrity aside, this was a delightful gem broadcast on BBC7 in the days leading up to Halloween (among many very well-done thematic plays for the spookiest time of the year). For a 20-minute play this was superb. Night DJ Andy Stone is a jerk, putting his listeners and co-workers down, but in the course of a few minutes we learn he lost his twin brother, his birthday is Halloween, he hasn’t seen his parents in years, and he’s in love with his producer! Was it spooks in the studio? Sort of in the vein of Frank from last year--♥

5. Blue Veils and Golden Sands (Martin Wade)
Martin Wade seems to be showing up as often in the last few months as Nick Warburton did last year. That’s okay, he’s a competent writer and really shone in this unusual and, to a Doctor Who fan, highly interesting bio-drama. DW fans may already recognize the title. The subject is Delia Derbyshire, the lady who, in the 1960s, took Ron Grainer’s composition for the Doctor Who theme and used then-cutting edge Radiophonic Workshop techniques to render it. She wasn’t given credit for her contribution until much later, and to be honest, though I admired that a woman had made such a big contribution to DW in the ‘60s (like Verity Lambert), I didn’t know a thing about her. I had no idea that a) she went to Cambridge; b) that she financed it by selling presents people had given her; c) that she was a chronic alcoholic and socially inept; d) that she was brilliant and just wanted to be recognized; e) that she was totally bonkers! If these facts intrigue you, listen to this very moving, eye opening, and winningly acted (Sophie Thompson was great as Delia) play.

4. The Voyage of the Demeter (Robert Forrest)
I listened to this on Halloween in the dark, which was a bad move. I didn’t realize until the very end that this was basically fan fiction for Dracula, but at that point I didn’t care. It was scary, scary stuff. Marine voyages can be claustrophobic at the best of times, but all the actors ramped up their performances to give us the sounds of madness, of becoming unhinged, and Dracula himself was sophisticated and very scary. It was sufficiently free-standing to enjoy, but it helped if you knew that Dracula came from Romania (according to Stoker of course!) in boxes of earth aboard a Russian ship called the Demeter . . . A nice bookend for the adaptation of Dracula I heard on BBC7 in February.

3. The Penny Dreadfuls Present: Guy Fawkes (David Reed, Humphrey Ker, Thom Tuck)
I am not entirely clear how staged versions of radio plays recorded in front of a live audience work, but this one seemed to. It’s a version (half comedy, half history) of an event which all British children are taught at school- but, being an American, I only knew rudiments beyond what was explained to me in V for Vendetta. This set the record straight. Its humor was goofy, Horrible Histories-style. It was also intelligent and went very in depth into the characters and motivations. Percy’s studied dullness, Waad’s pantomime villainy mixed with thoughtful insight bounced wonderfully off Guy Fawkes’ zeal.

2. A Dangerous Thing (John Sessions)
I’m not sure what the dangerous thing is that’s referred to in the title. John Sessions was first known to me as the voice of Tom Baker in Dead Ringers and later it came to my knowledge that he had auditioned for the part of the Eighth Doctor. While I’m annoyed that such topics as this play can only come to radio with a heavyweight like him behind them (or maybe it’s sour grapes), I was heartened upon hearing this piece because it’s very similar to the style and subjects upon which I love to write. It’s a retrospective on the friendship between little Alexander Pope (John Sessions) and satiric Jonathan Swift (Timothy Spall). It combines John Adams with City of Vice with old skool historical writing— but that’s allowed because Pope and Swift can get away punning and prima-donna-ing. I love when you find a play that you strongly suspected would be your cup of tea, and it is.

1. Chimes of Midnight (Rob Shearman)
Just over a year ago, I heard the first two episodes of this Eighth Doctor/Charley story and knew it was going to be as good as they said it was. My only complaint is that it gets a bit talky in the third episode, but other than that it’s an almost flawless example of audio writing done well. It does have a seasonal theme (“Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Mrs Batterly’s plum pudding”), which perhaps invokes Dickens (the play could certainly be said to have things in common with “Blink,” “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” “Kinda,” “Paradise Lost,” “Age of Steel,” “The End of the World,” etc). The opening could easily be clunky in the hands of a lesser writer, but the fact Charley and the Doctor materialize in darkness is great for audio listeners and forces them, as well as Charley, to use all of the five senses. It sets up a wonderfully intriguing mystery in an Edwardian house where time is behaving in all sorts of strange ways. Then there are the murders, all of them grotesque and surreal. Who is Edward Grove? Even if you think you have it figured out, you won’t guess the Frankenstein-like twist. The ending is so poignant and moving, tied up in Charley’s past and her love of the Doctor- it was perfect for the team that is India Fisher and Paul McGann. “We chose life.”

I should also mention:

I listened to quite a few of the BBC7 repeats of the second series of Mark Gatiss’ Man in Black, some of which were very weird indeed (there was a disturbing one where a man was about to get married and he was pursued by the phantom of his future self who’d become a drunken murderer due to the marriage; though perhaps the most memorable was Crawley being invaded by zombies).

I also listened to quite a few of Dickens Confidential by Mike Walker. I really liked the premise of these, but found some of the writing to be pat and too cutesy by half. It’s Dickens as a newspaper writer with his novelistic career just taking off. Recurring characters include budding reporters Agnes (posh, subjugated, and possibly eyed by Dickens) and Daniel (northern, bumbling, well-meaning). My favorite of the plays was Why Are We in Afghanistan? Dickens in these plays is a dreadful misogynist and class-ist as well as obsessed with social justice- probably as near to a balanced portrait of Dickens as we’re likely to get. I enjoyed the cynical tone about how the Crimea started. I also liked the bomb-on-balloon (only on radio- surprisingly the conventions like “look, we’re descending” were not irritating).

The Female Ghost, all directed by Marian Ann Carey, was a trio of very strong adaptations of ghost stories written by women with a distinctly feminine twist, just in time for Halloween. My favorite was “The Cold Embrace” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon; Jonathan Firth was perfectly cast as a selfish German artist who abandons his fiancée who subsequently drowns herself. The final scene is at the Paris Opera Shrovetide Ball, which of course I loved. “Man-Sized Marble” was unnerving; two poor but happy artists in their little cottage, the superstitious local woman, the Irish rationalist doctor . . . and two stone villains who come out of their tombs to kill them! “Afterward” was just one of many plays that featured Americans; not surprisingly as it was written by Edith Wharton.

I heard three of The Newly Discovered Casebook of Sherlock Holmes by Anthony Her, a silly spoof much in the vein of Bleak Expectations, though perhaps even more outrageous, with Roy Hudd as Holmes and Geoffrey Holland as Watson. Holmes being described as a “toffee-nosed ponce” never ceased to amuse me, as did his constant bitch-fests with Mrs Hudson. The stories included Tweeny Sod and his pornographic lantern shows and the slightly offensive tale of a Chinese botanist/drug dealer/laundrette. The best joke was easily when Watson asked the name of the music hall singer, “Ellie Mentry, my dear Watson.” Also it had a real knack for sly winks at the listener: “By God there’s an orchestra in here with us!”

It’s very seldom I listen to readings of books as serialized on radio, but I stuck with The Canterville Ghost as read by Alistair McGowan because I’d wanted to read the book for a long time. It was well-realized, funny, and sad. I loved how the theme music communicated all the moods perfectly. Also again the plucky, rational, vulgar Americans tearing down British superstition!

I’m ashamed to say I listened to the first three episodes of Chain Gang and then stopped and never wrote in with a storyline, despite the suitably sci fi direction in which things were headed (it was written by Shearman, after all!).

Doctor Who Radio Plays

Phobos (Eddie Robson)
This had some things in common with Max Warp- extreme sports on the moons of Mars while a monster that feeds on pleasure/fear makes the Doctor feel as guilty about his martyrdom as Davros did in “Journey’s End.” McGann rocked my socks but Sheridan Smith was curiously subdued.

Immortal Beloved (Jonathan Clements)
This wasn’t as ridiculous as it first seemed, and Zeus was actually extremely well-acted and well-written. The concept was all about cloning and re-zapping your mind into your younger clone’s body- very far out there and full of weird sci fi contexts, wrapped in a shell of ancient Greek mythology, and some very fresh-faced (voiced?) young actors. McGann very talky but reliable as ever.

No More Lies (Paul Sutton)
A very unusual one in both setting and structure- genuinely moving and some lovely banter between the Doctor and Lucie. The posh party setting was fun and the music lyrical- for once the back and forth structure was not particularly grating.

The Angel of Scutari (Paul Sutton)
Tolstoy and Ace as an impressive double act, the Doctor escaping with the help of a golden spoon, a hug that saves the day, a shameful secret revealed, and the phrase “I’ll explain later” used! The plot in Angel of Scutari is necessarily complicated because of the timeline issue, and though I can’t explain it in a way that makes sense, it does.

Human Resources
Best cliffhanger ever heard on Doctor Who audio. McGann was wonderful pretending to be management in a cookie-cutter company- the satire was biting but a little too cutesy in places. One of the company management staff was absolutely appalling- and so true to life!

Sisters of the Flame (Nick Briggs)
There’s no sign of Ohica, but the Sisters of Karn are trying to make a comeback. Lucie made an unlikely pairing with Rosto, appealingly (for a giant centipede) played by Alexander Siddig.

Top Fifteen Radio Plays, January-June 2009

My opinion only ... from June 2009

. . . It [was] an amazing six months for radio. There was the Science Fiction Season in February/March, a cross-channel initiative with plenty of great plays, including an adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and a clever adaptation of The Time Machine.

15.Cavity (Sean Grundy) NOT my typical fare! The characters were all nasty, self-centered, insane people, but for all that, somewhat realistic— and very funny! It was the surrealistic tale of an affair that goes horribly wrong- when interrupted, the other woman hides in the wall cavity- and never leaves! I’m sure it wouldn’t stand up to much scrutiny, but there is a certain line of logic. The funniest part, however, was the announcer warning us there was “sexual content- and the music of James Blunt.”

14.Dracula (Bram Stoker/Nick Myerson) This six-part epic is from 1991 and I caught it on BBC7, but I thought it was a superb adaptation of one of my favorite novels. The music was by Malcolm Clarke, who in my opinion is responsible for some of the Doctor Who soundtrack travesties (“Sea Devils,” anyone?) but who did a phenomenally atmospheric job here. Frederick Jaegar, also from Doctor Who, plays a scary Count- no sensual sex symbol but full of nascent horror. Well-paced, scary, visceral (and gory), letting the strength of the male characters and Mina speak for themselves. It really highlighted the subversive elements, making Jonathan the weakling and Mina level-headed, Lucy’s death with its echoes of gang rape, and Dracula’s almost homosexual assaults on the male characters (not to mention the vampiresses seducing Jonathan!). Bernard Holly as Van Helsing was also excellent.

13. Regency Buck (Georgette Heyer/Neville Teller) Despite the fact that most of the cast, except Simon Shepherd as the bad rake Lord Worth, played it soo over the top with fruity accents, I enjoyed this straightforward adaptation of something in the Regency tradition. It was more Mrs Radcliffe than Jane Austen with the dastardly plots, and Lord Worth had more in common with Wickham than Darcy in that he kissed his ward Judith with disgraceful impudence- still, I liked it.

12. The Invasion: Arab Chronicles of the First Crusade (Jonathan Myerson) Not to be confused with the Doctor Who story of the same title! I thought this was a wee bit too long; a better stopping point might have been actual capture of Antioch. Overall, though, it was superb. The Muslims and Christians in Antioch were pawns in a game between implacable and frankly bonkers Pharengs/Franks/Crusaders and the Byzantines and Emirs who had no idea what they were dealing with- obviously, since no one the like of the Crusaders had ever shown up before. This paints a perfect picture of the misery (and completely unprovoked, from the Eastern peoples’ point of view) the West brought in the Crusades, which we still tend to think of as a thing of glory that at least broadened horizons while for the Muslims it was the start of the conflict that continues today. The play succeeds because it focuses on two families- one Muslim, one Christian- in Antioch who are torn apart because of the conflict.

11. The Woman in Black (Susan Hill/John Strickland) Robert Glenister seems to be as ubiquitous on radio as Philip is on TV, but he’s a great voice actor so I’m not complaining! This was genuinely scary and suspenseful as the best radio horror is. The first two parts were thoroughly mysterious, and I really liked the frame story. I almost cried when Spider the dog was almost sucked into quicksand. The conclusion was a bit of anti-climax, though at least the poor tormented man found some closure. The music brought me back to the mid-‘80s PBS broadcasting for kids, but not in a bad way!

10. Homesick (Anita Sullivan) I’m really pissed off that I liked this so much, because I hated Anita Sullivan’s pieces from last autumn (and looks like she will be writing one for Torchwood). However, I can’t ignore the fact that this was moving and stayed with me long after it was over. The alien (played by a sonically-enhanced Mark Heap) and Nicole (played by ubiquitous Maxine Peake), the really bitchy vet whose fascination with the protagonist Jeff (Paul Ritter) seems to be purely because he had an alien in his ear, seemed the only fully formed characters, the rest mere stereotypes. Still, a rather moving play, despite bringing to mind Paul and Harry’s builder sketch.

9. Blake’s 7: Rebel (Ben Aaronovitch) You can accuse me of favoritism- after all, I’ve interviewed Ben for TTZ and Alistair Lock did the music for this and all the Blake’s 7 new plays- but the truth is, I didn’t know anything about Blake’s 7 before I heard this play, and I thought it was fantastic. (India Fisher, also of Doctor Who fame, played the company tool.) The sound quality was clearly professional, as are the voice artists, and it has a very snappy, Doctor Who-ish quality to it— though also is quite unique (obviously). Strong characters, pacing, and story! I will be tuning into the rest when they’re on BBC7.

8. The State of the Art (Iain M Banks/Paul Cornell) Another one that’s full of Doctor Who luminaries! Of all the offerings in the Sci Fi season, this is the one I genuinely enjoyed the most. The three main actors- Antony Sher as the Ship, Nina Sosnyana (sp?) as a female alien disgusted and marginally fascinated by Earth culture, and Paterson Joseph as the male alien she loves who leaves it all behind to experience what it is to be human (hmm, does that sound like Cornell to anyone?)- were superb. They did a very, er, down-to-earth job with parts that could be flights of fancy. It was funny and bittersweet.

7. The Siege of Krishnapur (J G Farrell/Shelagh Stephenson) I’m always favorably disposed to plays with Alex Jennings in them (and he’s in a lot) but this was also directed by the brilliant Eoin O’Callaghan (I met both of them in 2007). As a Classic Serial it’s taken from the book, which is a fictionalized account of the incident in the Indian Mutiny. I thought all the characters were engaging and yet very much of their time. The doctor who gave himself cholera just to prove a point; the bumbling, inexperienced young iconoclast; the English-educated Indian prince taken prisoner; and Hopkins the Collector (Jennings) who warned everyone about the possibility of a mutiny- he managed to see them through the siege when they very nearly starved. It reminded me by turns of Ghosts of India and Gwalia in Khasia (!).

6. More Old Peter’s Russian Tales (D J Britton) I’m cheating slightly as this was actually on over the Christmas holidays in 2008, but I only heard it when David lent me the CD! Clever, engaging, sweet, and atmospheric. Everyone involved seemed to be putting their all into it. Old Peter is a Russian grandfather who takes care of his granddaughter and grandson in an isolated hut and tells them stories to keep them occupied during the long winter nights. My favorite tale was Martha and her bridegroom Frost, but the fisherman and his wife, the bickering friends, the baby Babyaga, and Ivan the Ninny were all excellent. They managed to find good kid actors too!

5. Alone Together (Neil McKai) There was a really good play, too, about Dannie Abse and his wife (based on his book The Presence) but this one, about R S Thomas and his family, slightly trumped it. This was over an hour, but it didn’t feel particularly long; it was well-structured and extremely well-cast and acted. For a story like R S Thomas’ you sort of need all the sides of the equation- the suffering, dubious, modern son, the creative, quiet wife, and the tormented, arrogant, naïve Thomas himself (played wonderfully by Jonathan Pryce), plus the landscape and the people. Welsh speakers and English speakers, rural, gentrified- everything in his poetry, his autobiography The Echoes Return Slowly, and his son’s biography. Nice pacing, overall a strong achievement.

4. Mendelssohn Weekend Midsummer Night’s Dream (William Shakespeare/Tim Carroll) I know, it was just an adaptation of the play (and recorded live from the staged version) but I loved it. The play is one of my favorites, and the acting was all superb. I’m sure the staging was very clever and comic, the line between audience and players blurred to the very utmost. The best part, though, was actually hearing Mendelssohn’s score imbedded in the action as it was always meant to be heard.

3. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (Terry Pratchett) The first and probably the only time I’ll have the opportunity to hear David Tennant play a blind, speaking rat ! This revolved around a magically-endowed speaking cat (Harry Myers), his “dumb-looking kid” Keith (Tom George), and their band of speaking rats. Keith was a pied piper piping out rats in a scam whose time was almost up when he, Maurice, and the rats find a sinister plot that would make vegetarian Robert Holmes proud. Maurice shines, both as acted and as written, while Keith and his future wife— a sort of girl detective named Melisia- also share in the glory. Tennant was actually quite affecting as the dreamy Dangerous Beans, as were all the rats, really. I laughed out loud several times. The Rat King was deeply frightening and disturbing!

2. Witness: Five Plays from the Gospel (Nick Warburton) As my friend Liz said, Nick Warburton can write about a tin of bins and still find the drama in it. I’m cheating here a bit and picking all five plays (when I, er, only listened to three of them) but so what- it’s Nick Warburton! Just in time for the end of Lent/beginning of Easter, his work on the Gospel of Luke is modern but the plays don’t talk down to you. At the same time it’s all firmly grounded in Scripture. The acting is all up to snuff- check out a wonderful Tom Goodman-Hill as a northern Jesus (Galilee is northern Judea, doncha know) and apostles including Peter Firth and Paul Hilton, and Penelope Wilton as the Virgin Mary. It included a brilliant stroke with Pilate being played by (or as?) an American. I know it’s the greatest story ever told, but Warburton really finds inventive and yet naturalistic ways to tell it. Genuinely moving and even subtle.

1. The Scarifyers: For King and Country (Simon Barnard) I absolutely loved this four-part play. Of course, I’m biased because it stars Terry Molloy playing a completely different character than Davros, and Nicholas Courtney playing a completely similar character than the Brigadier. It also had the best Welsh joke EVER. It was just full of laugh out loud sequences. Molloy plays one half of this vaguely paranormal investigative team (circa 1920), a befuddled, timid professor who thinks nothing of having Oliver Cromwell’s head on his dressing table, and Courtney is the more military side of the equation. What a glorious combination, and what good writing. The plot concerns Witch-Finder General Hopkins (from the Civil War) being resurrected by a fraudulent medium. Gabriel Woolf (also of Doctor Who …kneel!) plays the dual roles of resentful Chief Inspector Natterjack and the scarier-than-thou Hopkins. It is a romp, but the first two episodes were intriguing, and the fact that ends with the reanimated skeletons of Prince Rupert and his dog routing Hopkins and Cromwell is hilarious. I know it’s part of a series, so I look forward to hearing the rest!

Other highlights I should mention are Daughters of Venice by Don Taylor, Welcome to the Wasteland by D J Britton, Ioan Gruffud’s performance in Something Fresh (P G Wodehouse/Archie Scottney), Tony’s Little Sister and the Paradox of Monasticism by Caroline and David Stafford, Damian Lewis’ performance in Something Wrong about the Mouth (David Edgar). Most disappointing? Voices from the Grave on BBC7.

Top Fifteen Radio Plays, July-December 2008

My opinion only... (from December 2008)

15. Murder Every Monday (Pamela Branch/Mark Gatiss) I’m really hard on radio comedy. Even if I’ve enjoyed it at the time, I always wonder if it would appeal as much if I heard it as much a second time. Usually I conclude that it wouldn’t, and good radio comedies go on the back burner in my memory. But that isn’t fair, especially when they’re as clever and funny as this adaptation by Mark Gatiss (the first of many Doctor Who luminaries in this list ...). This is fluff, but it’s very English, very Gatiss (“rather!”)-a sort of radio amalgamation of Gosford Park and “The Unicorn and the Wasp.” Mark Gatiss also plays a character, and I must say it was very disconcerting to hear him kissing all these women! There were some very funny jabs at Americans, excellent sound production, and you could tell the actors were having fun hamming it up.

14. Caligari (Amanda Dalton) This was a very ambitious experiment, and even if perhaps it didn’t all come together, it was very memorable. It’s an attempt to shift German Expressionism from the silent film-The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-into radio. I hadn’t seen the film until after I heard the play, so I went out and rented it (this was right around Halloween). Both play and film share an atmosphere of dreamy menace, where nothing is quite what it seems, and both are quite frightening in places (or I should say, disturbing). Caligari himself did not have a speaking role in the play, but Césare, his sideshow somnambulist, was sung by a counter-tenor. This is very interesting in regards to the film, in which Césare did not speak. The play also added a militant soldier-fool (with a northern accent) who was a particularly well-realized character (for passing judgement on World War I).

13. Dover and the Unkindest Cut (Joyce Porter) This was a bit long (I tend to think 45 minutes is the ideal length for a radio play) but very, very funny. It had to do with a detective called to a Welsh village to investigate dismemberment, though it was chiefly told from the detective’s assistant’s perspective. From that perspective, the detective was a fruit loop and so were all the occupants of the village. The Chief Constable was played by Philip Madoc, who you hear a lot on radio, and who sounds just like my former poetry tutor, so that is always disconcerting. I found it lampooned Welshmen and Englishmen in equal measure, and the women in the village-well, they were something else!

12. Frank (Ian McMillan) I really didn’t like this for the first few minutes and was considering turning it off, but I persevered. It was altogether too silly, obsessed with rhubarb-and then the play finally got going and started to make me laugh. The idea of a frustrated Yorkshire rhubarb farmer wanting to get his dole benefits by making his doppelganger do his work is funny enough (and how English!). But the fact that Frankie “the monster” is Scottish and far sexier than Frank his maker is outrageous. I also really liked the ending-very sly. This was the play on Halloween, by the way.

11. Doctor Who: The Zygon Who Fell to Earth (Paul Magrs)I don’t know if it’s cheating to include BBC7 plays, particularly Big Finish, but I’m going to anyway. I was so excited this year to have gotten to hear the Eighth Doctor’s new radio season with Lucie Miller- I heard all of the plays but one. They were all great, but the two on this list were good enough to stand up with the “normal” radio plays. You can always count on Magrs to be whimsical and weird, but I was really touched by this play of his. He writes comedy beautifully. His barely-disguised Zygons are hilarious (though apparently continuity was getting its wires crossed as the Eighth Doctor and Lucie are in the Lake District here in the ‘70s and then the Tenth Doctor and Martha will be there again in 1909 ...). But he also achieves pathos and sympathy for a Zygon who falls in love with a human, and brings a surprising and bittersweet twist. As usual Sheridan Smith as Lucie shines, but McGann takes a bit of a backseat in this one. Oh, and the music’s good.

10. The Art of Conversation (Dylan Thomas) I heard this play’s world premiere at my new workplace, the Dylan Thomas Centre, during the Dylan Thomas Festival in November. It was discovered by Thomas’ latest biographer among some papers in Texas (?!) and was apparently never produced though it was commissioned during a time when Thomas was writing propaganda for the British war effort. It’s a virtuoso piece, but uneasy- I can’t tell if Thomas’ world-weary cynicism in people’s garrulousness is genuine or a mockery. Parts of it are very funny, very witty, and the adaptation and effects are for the most part very good. Philip Madoc plays the narrator, and to acquire Richard Burton’s “To begin at the beginning” apparently cost more than the rest of the play put together.

9. The Late Mr Shakespeare (Robert Nye) While I enjoyed the fact this story was about Shakespeare, what I liked even more about it was its meta-fictional approach. Jim Broadbent is a child actor handpicked by Shakespeare who, at 81, recounts his life in a garret above a whorehouse during the London Fire. The actor Pickleherring makes an engaging narrator, but what’s more, he splits himself into two selves, his younger (played by George Longworth) and his older, and then has these selves play off each other. It culminates in the older Pickleherring playing Shakespeare’s father and the younger playing Queen Elizabeth!

8. Tulips in Winter (Michele Wandor) My two problems with this were that it was too long (a Radio 3 hour-long play, I believe), and the device of the Angel, which was interesting and even hilarious when interacting with Spinoza, but when mouthing oddities came off as a bit pretentious and annoying. Otherwise, though, I really enjoyed this grand story of Spinoza and his excommunication from the Dutch Orthodox Jewish community. It had such an array of 17th century stars—Cromwell, Downing, and an especially excellent Rembrandt, played by Timothy Spall. Gabriel Woolf even lent his distinctive voice. The religious element was always presented directly and forthrightly, which made it seem even more natural as opposed to some sort of historical pastiche. It managed to use simple images and an arresting soundtrack to bring the story to life.

7. Doctor Who: Max Warp (Jonathan Morris) This was my first Eighth Doctor play, and I did not expect to like it, given the setting and general plot. But I loved it. I never thought a play on this subject-parodying space stories as well as Top Gear-could be so funny or so engaging. McGann and Smith were wonderful together. Lucie is a distinct companion. The sound quality is superb, and Morris really knows how to create a full-sounding audio landscape. You didn’t need tons of characters nor any kind of romantic relationship with the Doctor and companion for a great tale, imaginative and fun. James Fleet and Graham Garden were excellent as well.

6. Worktown (Michael Symmonds Roberts) This was an oddity, but I found myself smiling through every second of it. It was a bit like Under Milk Wood for the 21st century, using a photograph of 1930s Bolton as a springboard for an imaginative, surreal story. It earned is rather staid narration style because of the incongruence of its stories. Absurd but never quaint situations including romance in the snake oil trade, a young boy terrified of cock fighting, motor accidents, a man with dogs. And it featured, rather surprisingly, very lively jazz trios from dogs and cows!! (Only on radio.)

5. Torchwood: Lost Souls (Joe Lidster) This was way too much fun. I wasn’t sure how this would pan out- I wasn’t sure if Torchwood would translate to radio well. But it was fab. It’s Lidster, so it’s dark, full of death, and necessarily science-technical. But, because it was radio, exposition and explanation were not out of place when tempered by humor and strong performances. Much of it was uproariously funny-everyone was laughing when Ianto was declared Ambassador for Wales with Jack as his assistant and Gwen as his wife. I was very pleased at the way it dealt with the deaths of Owen and Toshiko. The sound techniques were quite impressive, and parts of it made me shiver. May I say that Freema Agyeman is perhaps a better actress on radio, too?

4. A Tokyo Murder (John Dryden/Miriam Smith) This three-parter (45 minute segments)surprised me utterly. Again, it was not something I expected I would like. The first part described the frustrated murder investigation by the female DI, played by Rachel Ferguson, into a missing British girl who was last seen at a school in Japan. Besides the intrigue at this stage, I was really curious to see if the DI and her Japanese counterpart, played by Takuya Matsumoto, were going to pay attention to the sparks that were flying between them. Alas, we never found out, as the second part went back in time to the girl’s murder, so that the characters we thought we knew in the first part (the girl’s roommate, Japanese boyfriend, American colleague) cleverly revealed themselves. The third part, which let me down slightly, was her parents trying to find her killer. The performances were fantastic, a more successful feat than Lost in Translation on ex-pats in Japan- more cynical, but well-structured, with meaty characters. I looked forward to it for the three days it was on, and the storytelling techniques were disarmingly simple.

3. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Victor Hugo/Alex Bulmer) This is one of my favorite books of all time, and while many have adapted it, I was really knocked out by this version, again in three parts. It’s a Graeae production, which is a disabled-led company, and deaf actor David Bower plays Quasimodo. He is amazing and very moving in the role, managing to pack all the profundity, simplicity, confusion and pathos of the Hugo character in. Esmeralda, played by Romani actress Candis Nergaard, is much stronger than in the book, though still earnestly in love with her precious Phoebus, and also much more tolerant and empathetic than her book counterpart. Kevin Doyle is also superb as Frollo, effortlessly marrying all the facets of his character. It was streamlined, of course-no emerald bag, Gringoire, Court of Miracles, torture scene, etc-but it was sensitively done, surprisingly faithful to the core message and the main Gothic story. Great music and sound production. It made me cry!

2. Fridays When It Rains (Nick Warburton) Overall this is one of the best radio thrillers I have ever heard. I have since figured out that Warburton uses the same motifs a lot, and that somewhat lessens the startling originality, but that’s of little consequence. This was creepy in the extreme with some excellent mood music. Starring only Lyndsey Marshall as the girl and Clive Swift as the man, the suspense and the dialogue were perfectly pitched. Swift was terrifying. I remember sitting in the living room staring out the window gripping my seat because I was on the edge of it! The end didn’t make sense entirely- maybe I needed to listen to it a second time- but there’s no doubt I loved the fact it took place entirely on a steam train in 1910, 1964, and the present day. This is what radio can do!

1. HMS Surprise (Patrick O’Brian/Roger Danes) This should be no surprise. One of my favorite books of all time adapted as a three-part radio play? Yes! It was not easy to divide the book into three parts and keep the tension going, but it was done masterfully. The sound production quality was high class, very evocative. The voices for Aubrey and Maturin took a bit of getting used to, but Stephen in particular was absolutely perfect. (By the time I read The Mauritius Command, I was hearing David Robb rather than Russell Crowe and Richard Dillane rather than Paul Bettany in my mind.) It broke my heart to have the end of the play be Stephen’s pitiable reaction to Diana’s rejection (and by the way, I wasn’t sure about Adjoa Andoh as Diana, but she was great). Audio is, sukrprisingly, perfectly suited for some of O’Brian’s best one-liners. I was also impressed with what they did with Dil (her death was the end to part two). Obviously they had to sex things up a bit, which they did in the form of Jack and an old flame, and I think a bit of Jack/Sophie. Diana and Stephen only got one interrupted kiss, but I don’t mind telling you, it was hot. O’Brian, I think, would be very proud of this excellent, well-rounded adaptation.

Some other highlights of included The Babington Plot (Michael Butt), Prayer Mask (David Pownall), Boscobel (Ian Curteis), Memorials to the Missing (Stephen Wyatt) , Away Day (D J Britton), Dr Freud Will See You Now, Mr. Hitler (Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran), and The Pattern of Painful Adventures (Stephen Wakelam).

Monday, June 7, 2010

listening to now . . .

Doctor Who: The Beast of Orlok by Barnaby Edwards

listening to now . . .

Blake's 7 (The Early Years) The Dust Run by Simon Guerrier

listening to now . . .

Blake's 7 (The Early Years) Blood & Earth by Ben Aaronovitch

listening to now . . .

Blake's 7 (The Early Years) Eye of the Machine by Ben Aaronovitch

Sunday, June 6, 2010

listening to now . . .

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson, read by Carey Shayle

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Waves Breaking on the Shore

...was partially inspired by this great clip from 1903.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

This bloggist

would really like to get her mitts on a Big Finish Doctor Who Companion Chronicles script. Anyone? Anyone?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

listening to now ...

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

listening to now ...

Classic Tales of Horror: My Own True Ghost Story by Rudyard Kipling
The Man in the Bell by WE Aytoun
Narrative of the Ghost of a Hand by JS LeFanu
The Masque of the Red Death by E A Poe

best of the week

Waves Breaking on the Shore by Michael Eaton & Neil Brand
--Afternoon Play, Radio 4

Monday, May 24, 2010


Orbis is an Eighth Doctor audio play starring Lucie Miller as the companion, though it’s the first story after Lucie thought she saw the Doctor killed. It’s a terrible blow to her when she encounters him on the planet of Orbis and he doesn’t recognize her (but then he’s been there for 600 years , apparently, and doesn’t remember bipedal hominids very well).

I’m getting ahead of myself. This play, written by Alan Barnes and Nick Briggs (and script-edited by Alan Barnes and directed by Nick Briggs; as Jamie pointed out, a bit of an oligarchy!) uses the sound medium quite well (much better than Sirens of Time!). There’s no way a battle over the planet Orbis between the jellyfish Kelta and the Molluscari could be seen on TV; it would end up looking like the Bandrills and the Axons. The performers playing jellyfish and molluscs pull out all the stops, which is both a source of humor (Andrew Sachs playing the gender-changing Molluscari ruler who ends the play spawning over everyone!) and pathos—Selta (Laura Solon), a young jellyfish companion of the Doctor with a bit of a crush on him, is played sensitively. The ending carnage is difficult to take in, especially for the Doctor, who felt he had found peace and a home on Orbis.

The play is also hellish for Lucie, who steals the show with lots of good one-liners. The Headhunter (Katarina Olsson), who I last heard in Human Resources, also has a large role (I find her quite annoying, to be honest). The Doctor acts very alien in this play, though in keeping in character he does find delight in simple things like Lucie’s sodden pair of tights (and no, I don’t believe there’s any subtext there—Lucie’s multiple slaps of the Doctor were both amusing and much deserved). Sometimes you have to wonder why companions stay with the Doctor, the way he treats them. I guess in Lucie’s case she didn’t have much choice, what with the manipulations of the Headhunter. So where do they go from here?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

listening to now

John Milton's Paradise Lost
dramatized in 40 parts!!

listening to now ...

The Price of Fear: The Waxwork
Vincent Price's narrated tales of horror and the supernatural --BBC7

Sunday, May 16, 2010

best of the week

Who and Me Barry Letts' autobiography, as read by the author -- BBC7

listening to now ...

Orbis by Alan Barnes & Nicholas Briggs -- BBC7
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas -- BBC7

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Radio Head

W H Smith's will be pleased—their Buy 1, Get 1 Half Price deal ensnared another victim: and the beneficiary of the munificence was me, who received Radio Head by John Osborne, without having done more than read the back blurb and show the book to my boyfriend. The book has inspired mixed feelings in me, but in no way would I wish to give back the experience of having read it. So infrequently are books written about radio that one must applaud any that manage to get published!

And radio is very close to my heart. I realize, upon reading Osborne's book, that it has always been. “Radio is an integral part of our everyday lives. We make appointments with our favorite programmes and become attached ot the familiar, reassuring voices fo the presenters we tune in to every day. Radio binds communities together, is an unvaluable source of entertainment for the elderly, the visually impaired, for those who live alone, for commuters, long distance drivers, places of work. Radio affects everyone.” Though in 2007 I discovered radio drama and writing for radio, eventually doing my MA dissertation in the discipline and developing a love for radio drama that caused me to listen to over 100 plays last year, I'd actually been listening to radio most of my life.

Classical KHFM out of Albuquerque first introduced me to radio presenters (the eclectic and the golden-tongued, with their quirks into the realms of P D Q Bach and Peter Sellers), first hearing a contribution of mine on air (a poem was read out once and I had loads of requests answered), nationally-syndicated programmes (the late, great Dr Karl Haas) and station-made programmes (Classics for Kids). I won tickets to concerts through the station, had letters answered, and one day met the presenters and saw the interior of the studio. I used to tape my favorite classical music off KHFM; ther eare dozens of these cassette tapes sitting around in shoe boxes. Christmas on KHFM was very special indeed, as commercial sponsors donated air time to seasonal music every day in December, and there were no ads on Christmas Day, only recorded greetings from the advertisers to the listenters. One year Kip Allen read the entire Christmas Carol on air.

Sadly, it all came to an end. Dr Karl Haas died, KHFM was turned into a soulless, commercialized Classic FM-style “classical-lite” rip off, all the DJs were fired or left, and everything went to pot.

John Osborne also has an unabashed love of radio, the music more than the spoken word, but the point of his book was for him to explore British radio stations, exclusively listening to one all day. However, Osborne doesn't do this for art's sake, he does it to supplement his dreary, boring temp's life, which frankly is the portion that I could do without. I found him to be an affable fool, and not a very good writer. My opinion of the writing aside, the rest of the book was very enjoyable, consisting of chapters on Virgin Radio, BBC Asian Network, BBC Radio 2, talkSPORT, Resonance 104.4 FM, The Jazz, BBC Radio Humberside, BBC Radio 4, Kiss FM, Classic FM, BBC Radio 3, Capital FM, BBC 6 Music, Radio Broadland, BBC Radio 1, BBC Radio Five Live, and BBC7, as well as interviews with those involved in different aspects of radio.

Osborne found plenty about radio that he didn’t like. He didn’t like Jon Gaunt’s confrontational “Broken Britain” persona on talkSPORT—“I can sense my blood pressure increase, my knuckles whiten, my face redden.” I’m sure it’s personalities like these that contributed to the obnoxious DJ satirized—and redeemed—in Danny Jules’ excellent Halloween-themed play that I heard last year on BBC7. And of course Britain doesn’t have a monopoly in this kind of antagonistic presenter. America is chock full of such people! More surprisingly, Osborne is so becalmed by Classic FM that he has to switch stations midway through the day—he is bored by classical music, and to be fair announces that in the chapter. More baffling to me, however, is his coolness toward BBC7 for some of the same reasons—he feels it’s hit and miss. I’m a huge fan of BBC7, but I guess I can understand why some of the programming would underwhelm him.

There are stations or programmes he liked that he didn’t think he would (BBC Asian Network, for one). He finds Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 curiously agreeable (I empathize with it being something you wouldn’t go out of your way to listen to, but when I used to clean people’s houses I had the radio turned to Radio 4 and Woman’s Hour was frequently on). Osborne’s explorations have made me interested in Resonance FM as well as Just a Minute --and he mentions (though Pandora is better). Because his mother is an Archers addict, he is curiously pleasant about the series; when I automatically start whistling the theme tune, I’m surprised at how few people recognize it. It’s certainly not a young people’s radio show, and perhaps its appeal is quite regional as well—still, I would expect its theme tune to have the same recognition as EastEnders or Coronation Street?

I’m thrilled and pleased for Osborne that by the end of the period Radio Head covers, he has achieved a lifelong ambition to do presenting on a radio station—Future Radio, out of his hometown of Norwich. However, I don’t think this angle of Osborne’s story is handled quite correctly. His yearning for co-worker Poppy, his un-relationship with those who share his data entry-temp world, isn’t rendered compelling enough to be interesting and should either have been developed (with a satisfying ending, if necessary) or left out altogether. On page 66 he laments, on behalf of people in similar situation, his failure to try harder to make his dreams and ambitions a reality. I don’t wish to sound cruel, but judging by the amount of effort he puts into his life as portrayed in Radio Head, it isn’t really surprising he’s ended up “working in an industrial estate in Norwich.” I think he’s adopting this slacker persona in order to dramatize his life and appeal to the widest audience possible, but I don’t think he need have done so. Another example of the timbre of Radio Head not being quite right is at the end of the chapter on Radio Broadland. Listeners have been following a tragic story of an abused woman who wants to return to her abuser. The neutral voice Osborne sometimes adopts works well here, when he’s just reporting a transcript of the programme, but he has to weaken the impact by including a cheap joke at the end. (Oh, and he misspells Doctor Who as Dr Who. I know I’m a true geek since that gets my goat!)

The core of the book was, for me, the interview with the head honchos at Radio Times. Gill Hudson reveals that 55% of UK radio listeners are aged fifty-five or older. That isn’t a surprise, really, but it explains why I have difficulty finding people my own age with whom I can discuss Radio 4 plays. Still, as many have said and I would agree, the Listen Again feature, “digital radio,” has changed accessibility to the genre. The core audience would still rather “book an appointment with a certain show,” but I love being able to scroll through the annals of BBC7 and find whatever I want whenever I want. However, as Hudson points out, “the drawback of picking and choosing your radio programmes . . . is that it denies the possibility of finding programmes by accident.” I must confess, if faced with Afternoon Play choices that are historical and contemporary, I will most likely pick the historical. I don’t actually own a radio, but if I did, I think I would be more inclined to just leave it on Radio 4 and thus benefit from the eclecticism of the programming. Equally, when I worked for several hours on my own from my employer’s home office, I had the digital radio tuned either to Radio 2, Radio 3’s Through the Night, or once or twice to the local station for weather (IMHO the Welsh regional stations are pretty insipid).

In the interview, Gill Hudson and Jane Anderson lament the fact that it’s difficult to put together a radio-based cover for the (aptly named) Radio Times because of lack of visibility—even celebrity presenters can’t compete with TV. I always feel warm and cuddly when I get to the back section of the Radio Times and discover that, somewhere in the world, there is still some coverage given to radio. In 1923 the Radio Times was launched to give the public a guide to their radio, long before TV, and it’s still rather impressive that the Afternoon Play can garner an audience of two million . While the interview doesn’t have in its scope the explosion of podcasts, which as we all know can be made by anyone with recording equipment and a mic, but it does suggest that “I can imagine having a radio station on every street if there was the demand for it. The point is, is it any good? Is there a demand for it?” I like the fact that Jane Anderson says there need to be more women in radio. That means ME! (Ha ha, just kidding.)

As you can tell, Radio Head got me very excited and thinking about radio in different and productive ways. I hope that everyone who read it feels this way, feels like supporting radio by listening, volunteering, writing for it, blogging for it, whatever. I suggest that people who aren’t familiar with what the British radio dial has to offer take a copy of this book and have their own adventure trying the different stations. They might even write a better book about it than John Osborne.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Mission statement

A blog about radio.