Urggh, I’m more than three months late with this . . .
As it’s now been over a year since I started listening to and reviewing radio drama (mostly BBC and mostly from my BBC iPlayer Radio app), I thought it would be useful—if only for myself, and perhaps the odd Google search—to give credit where I thought credit was due. 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.
Juliet Aubrey is on this list primarily because of her excellent and heartfelt performance as Irene in The Forsyte Saga (2016). Like several characters in The Forsytes, Irene’s character is (in my opinion) difficult to completely flesh out only with voice acting, but I think Aubrey really brought Irene alive for me (despite having Gina McKee in my head for the role from the offset). Aubrey is also, however, on the list because of her memorable performance as the mysterious eponymous monster in The Lair of the White Worm (from 2004). She also had a memorable turn in The Dressmaker’s Doll, Mike Walker’s 2003 adaptation of an Agatha Christie story.
Despite the fact that Jessica Raine will always be Verity Lambert to me (having played her so definitively in An Adventure in Space and Time), she had an uphill battle as Fleur Forsyte in The Forsyte Saga. Raine’s early, anonymous narrator (though it was clear that her character must be Fleur), started out as rather too intrusive for me. This was especially irritating in the first episode but slowly became more acceptable as we proceeded through the many hours of this drama. When Raine eventually played Fleur herself rather than the narrator, she was very affecting, more so as time went on her and her relationships with her father, Michael, and Jon were allowed to deepen. It’s a monumental part, and I thought Raine did a particularly good job distinguishing between young Fleur, jaded Fleur, mature Fleur, bitter Fleur, and the narrator. Furthermore, Fleur is not an easy character to sympathize with, let alone like, and by the end, I felt Raine had succeeded with this.
However, the most brilliant acting from The Forsyte Saga must be Joseph Millson’s as Soames. I’m sure I’ve heard Joseph Millson in radio before, though I can’t at the moment find any plays that I previously reviewed. In any case, Soames is quite a part for any actor, because he is many shades of grey, and the audience’s sympathies—at least mine—deepened as the character aged. I even think the performance allowed us to believe that Soames learned something, despite the whole point about the Forsytes being they wouldn’t learn from their mistakes. Soames was the archetypal “man of property” who saw people as objects, most devastatingly his wife, Irene, despite the fact (I believe) he genuinely loved her, as best as he was able. As I said before, Soames is a difficult character to bring to life on radio because of his rich inner life, and the fact he is completely repressed (they got around this with giving him monologues which worked fine, as he was thinking aloud—much like Javert in Boubil & Schönberg’s Les Misérables, who got to sing his inner monologues). I’m still impressed by a short scene in The Forsytes Saga where Soames has to tell his parents that Irene has left him, and for once his mask slips and he breaks down, but is admonished by his mother, “We don’t do that.” Like Jessica Raine’s and Juliet Aubrey’s performances, Millson’s expertly allowed Soames to age (and just with the voice, which is impressive). He was so poignant in The Forsytes Continue; it was enjoyable hearing Soames slowly coming round from being the rather pathetic, dastardly villain of the piece to almost become the hero (standing up for his principles). And of course the touching end of the character in The Forsytes Return.
How David Horovitch isn’t a bigger star than he is baffles belief. I remember the first time I saw him as a performer: first as Isaac of York in Ivanhoe (1996) and soon after as the German doctor in Heat of the Sun. Over the years he has continued to pop up as a character actor, but it wasn’t until this year that I heard him in many memorable radio performances. Indeed, radio allows him to both play the character parts and the lead, as in Stepniak from 2001, based on the true story of a Russian revolutionary who emigrated to Britain, and his incredible performance as Robert Maxwell in The Bargain (2016). These are, indeed, very different roles. He was very humorous as the lawyer Probus in the comedy Burn the Aeneid!, but I was most moved by his performance in Exchanges in Bialystok (from 2003). This play is one of a handful which have reduced me to blubbering.
I’ve actually met Gerard McDermott, when I happened to be in studio during the recording of Life and Fate in 2011. He is very versatile and usually takes on the background parts, dependable but not particularly glamorous. I’m singling him out particularly for two rather different roles. I’ve been a fan of Nick Warburton’s writing for several years, and while Our Late Supper from 2007 was not his best play, it was arresting. McDermott’s understated performance as a builder fit the play perfectly. Furthermore, I fell in love with Katie Hims’ comedy series Bangers and Mash (1999) which stars McDermott as Jimmy, an ex-con turned caterer who may or may not have feelings for his co-worker, Martina the nun. While all the actors in this series gave it real warmth, McDermott was once again understatedly formidable as a plain good guy a little lacking in self-confidence. And his comic timing was perfect. Let’s hear Gerard McDermott in some more starring roles.
Lee Ross, I’m afraid, will always be to me Kenny from Steven Moffat’s Press Gang (probably a role he would not associate with his best work, but personally I think it’s Moffat’s best work). It was a pleasant surprise to start hearing him on radio, with performances in The Moon Flask (2014) and The Rage (2016), both of those interestingly as rough East End types. However, it’s his long-term role as Mickey Bliss in Tommies (which I just started listening to in 2016) that really blew me away. Another actor has since replaced him in the role, and I’m sure he’ll be good, but it’s a little like when Bill Johnstone replaced Orson Welles in The Shadow. Tommies is beautifully conceived by the brilliant Jonathan Ruffell, and Mickey Bliss has been the heart and soul of the storyline. The role is a demanding one, including everything from some particularly good radio kissing (trust me, it’s hard to do), to squelching quite believably in chalky mud and fighting for his life after a land mine has blown up, to burning up the airwaves with Pippa Nixon as the unstable Céléstine de Tullio. Fantastic role and fantastic actor.
Again, the first Nigel Anthony performance I ever knowingly heard was in Life and Fate where he plays the cautious scientist Sokolov, the counterpoint to Kenneth Branagh’s irrepressible Viktor Shtrum. More recently, I got to hear him in some of his earlier roles, such as an appealing Stephen Maturin to Michael Troughton’s Captain Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander (despite the fact the first radio Maturin I heard was Richard Dillane’s tremendous performance from HMS Surprise); and a small but important part in 2011’s Carmilla. The really stand-out performance, however, is from 1978 (!) in Victor Pemberton’s incredible Dark. I was blown away by what must be a very young Anthony playing at least three characters in that drama, all by modulating his voice. Great stuff.
I first saw the urbane Anton Lesser as Mr Merdle in Little Dorrit (2008), a mini-series that had a profound effect on me. He has done a lot of radio work, but, again, often as supporting characters. This last year, I got to hear him in a variety of parts that really impressed me. The Sound of Fury from 1994 was a biopic of Billy Fury starring a very young-sounding Lesser, and the performance was superb. Some twenty years later, he was still on top form as Henry Irving in the searing Vampyre Man—a difficult part to play, much less imbue with sympathy.
I have to admit, of all the actors in BlackAdder, the one I may have regarded least was Tim McInnerney. Imagine my surprise at the phenomenal radio performances he has contributed. Everything from an arrogant, talentless hack writer (in All the Dark Corners: The Desk from 2011) to the title role in Moeran’s Last Symphony (2010), the somber composer JM Moeran. Habakkuk of Ice by Steve Walker from 2001 must be one of the strangest plays I’ve heard, but McInnerney as a misanthropic genius was incandescent. Hearing Voices, however, by Jim McAleavey is one of the best plays I’ve ever heard, and much of this hinges on McInnerney’s very convincing performance as an ageing copper who is diagnosed as schizophrenic.
She may have only ever played this one role on radio, but it’s enough to put her in my all-time fave books. Kathleen Turner’s voice is legendary anyway—she of Jessica Rabbit fame—and as VI Warshawksi in Deadlock by Sara Paretsky, adapted by Michelene Wandor from 1993, she was spectacular. While Turner may have bombed in the onscreen version of VI Warshawski, she fit the radio role to a t as a bolshy Polish-American detective from Chicago of the early 1990s. This adaptation of book was meticulous and fast-paced, and Turner’s distinctive voice took you along for every twist and turn in the tale.
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.
Cherry Cookson has directed a lot of good dramas (and, to be fair, some mediocre ones, too). The good ones range from Blue Veils and Golden Sands from 2009, a nuanced biopic of Doctor Who theme tune arranger Delia Derbyshire; to John Pilkington’s Apostle of Light: Louis Braille from 2010; to the aforementioned Moeran’s Last Symphony, Burn the Aeneid!, and Stepniak; to the crazy-scary Wishing Well starring Rosemary Leach from 1991; to the dreamy biography of Baden-Powell played by Ian McKellen from 2004, Be Prepared; to the creepy Baby It’s Cold Outside from 1995. I’d like to single out Listening to Time by Judith Somerville from 2010. This had a non-linear timeline which was nevertheless absolutely compelling, and the music and was haunting and unusual. It also includes what is, in my opinion, David Troughton’s best radio performance to date, as a Ukrainian trying to make peace with his past and the death of his brother.
I met the very talented and friendly Eoin O’Callaghan in 2007 while he was directing a Mark Lawson play, Expand This. I have since heard him direct many a quality piece. Last year, Holy Father (coincidentally also by Mark Lawson) really blew me away. In 2015, he directed the superb From Fact to Fiction: Waiting List, a play I felt fairly reflected the experiences of patients, doctors, and doctors’ families in the NHS. He’s worked frequently with Hugh Costello on plays such as the gritty Smoke and Daggers from 2009. In 2010, almost back to back, he directed two very different plays, Staring into the Fridge (which will always stay with me as the play which starred Jimmy Nesbitt as a bitchy fridge) and What the Nun Discovered, part of a two-part series written to discuss the Church and child abuse in Ireland. I always know I’m in for a treat when I listen to a radio play directed by Eoin O’Callaghan.
I’ve been hearing good Martin Jenkins plays since I started seriously listening to BBC Radio Drama in 2008, among them Memorials to the Missing by Stephen Wyatt (coincidentally also starring Anton Lesser), Gerontius (also by Stephen Wyatt), the infamous Snowman Killing by JC Brooke. And this year, another good play from the Fear on Four series, the haunting and deeply unsettling Dead Men’s Boots. However, I must say his most impressive contribution that I’ve heard was the trilogy Looks Like Rain, Looks Like Rain Again, and Rain on the Just by Jimmie Chinn (from 2000-3). These deceptively simple plays involved extremely small casts and took place over a couple of days. They were extremely well-written and acted, but pacing and believability were key, something only the director could ensure.
David Ian Neville
David Ian Neville is a prolific director/producer and seems to specialize in crime dramas and serials. However, he directs a wide range of dramas, including Exchanges in Bialystok and The Bargain, both of which I’ve already raved about (see above)
I found this a hard category to write about because I wanted to resist recognizing cumulative achievements—mainly because even the most consistent radio drama writers cannot be 100% amazing all the time (at least I’ve found that to be the case, even with writers I’ve thought were overall quite phenomenal). So 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.
November Dead List was one of the first BBC Radio crime series that I listened to and reviewed, and it set the bar high. Series 2 starred Lia Williams as DCI Greaves, a hard-nosed but somewhat humorous, self-deprecating woman. Perry was very skilled in using both radio and TV tropes to anchor the story and then going off into exciting realms. It had good pacing and suspense.
Katie Hims has written a lot for radio, but I single out Bangers and Mash (as I did above) for being a charming comedy series with good characters whom I really cared about. I still wonder what happened to the characters and their complicated love lives.
I like Lenny Henry the actor a lot, but sometimes self-performed pieces by actor-writers have little substance. I can gladly say that wasn’t the case for the series of self-penned short monologues, Rogues’ Gallery, which were funny, clever, and full of personality, allowing Henry to show his range as an actor as well as a writer. My favorite one so far was actually the Christmas special which hasn’t been reviewed yet, but of the first series, I really liked I Never Forget a Face. The speaker was a blind Black Brummie who was having the worst day of his life—he’d just been mugged by a creep who thought nothing of beating up blind people. It was very funny, felt very real, was very radiogenic, and actually had a happy ending. These have been well-received so there will be another series this year.
Wally K Daly
I heard a Wally K Daly play in 2008 (Whistling Wally’s Son), but it’s really the work I’ve heard more recently that has struck me. Specializing mainly in speculative fiction (although I’ve just heard a historical drama by him about Rasputin), Dally’s The Children of Witchwood remains one of the most interesting speculative fiction series I’ve ever heard. A young adult science fiction/mystery/fantasy story with hints of Twilight and Arthur C. Clarke . . . interestingly, directed by Jenny Stephens who wrote Raphael Raphael). I also highly rated Daly’s 2004, a dystopian story with eerie similarities to today, which has been rather influential on my own fiction. In it, the British people legitimately put the Peace Party into power, and they began a radical approach to removing those convicted by crime. It’s frighteningly ingenious—they send everyone from the overflowing prisons “up north” to the exclusion zone where all criminals are stuck within a 50-mile radius to fend for themselves. A purging of cities’ red light districts bring in the petty offenders into the next zone which is a concentric circle around the first one. The third zone is reserved for the criminals’ families and conscientious objectors who refused to be bartagged. As the system is about to be put into place, the play ends ominously.
I’d heard Alistair MacGowan, memorably, read The Canterville Ghost, which I liked despite my general indifference to audio books. However, Field Notes, a comedy about the composer John Field and starring MacGowan, was excellent entertainment. The piece was nicely structured, clever, and you could sympathize with Field (cantankerous, lecherous, drunken sot that he was). Sometimes, biopics on radio lack a certain “oomph” and forward motion to the plot, which was not at all the case here. I think he’s onto something.
Jonathan Harvey & Stephen K Amos
These writers contributed What Does the K Stand For?, a very funny autobiographical series about Amos, growing up Black and gay in 1980s Brixton. Amos’ outrageous Nigerian mother dominates, though Don Gilet puts in an amusing performance as Amos’ father. Amos and his twin sister Stephanie go through strange experiences at school, and Amos contrasts life in the early ‘80s with life today, commenting particularly on celebrity and diversity. I really enjoyed the plays, they made me laugh, and I am looking forward to hearing more.
Palmer wrote two very different stories that I heard this last year, The King’s Coiner, a historical drama about Isaac Newton and a slippery counterfeiter, which was very well-written and engaging. More exotic, perhaps, was the two-part series, Keeping the Wolf Out, a very gritty series set in 1963 Hungary. Although ostensibly a detective series, the cases themselves were secondary to the machinations of the detective, raging against the confines of communist double-speak and corruption and trying to save his own skin, even at the cost of his marriage. I’m sure we’ll hear more good things from Palmer.
I got sucked into Life Lines, a 15 Minute Drama about an emergency dispatcher. Although many dramas try the trope of “found footage” or the whole play going on real time in recordings (i.e., the dispatcher on the phone trying to help callers, or on the phone to her sister the obstetrician, or on the phone to her partner), this one went beyond the device and created memorable characters and some really gripping situations, always with a twist in the tale.