Top Fifteen Radio Plays, July-December 2008
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Top Fifteen Radio Plays
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I don’t think I knew really what a radio play was when I decided to take the course as part of my creative writing MA spring 2007. Nevertheless, I quickly learned that I loved the medium, and some people at least thought I had an affinity for writing for it. Whether that’s true or not, I can’t stop the radio plays from coming from my keyboard. While I’m here in Britain I’m making a concerted effort to listen to as many radio plays as possible, and now that I have a laptop, an internet connection, and iPlayer, it’s very easy to do that.
I won’t pretend that I don’t have preferences as far as radio plays are concerned. I do tend to listen to historical plays, but I try for a variety. I have been keeping track of what I listen to in order to notice trends, pick out good writers, directors, and actors, also so I can write lists like these! Know your enemy, or know your market, however you prefer to see it. I also just enjoy radio, though radio plays do require a certain level of concentration (which is perhaps why no one else my age seems to listen to them). If you consider how many new plays Radio 4 alone seems to generate, the fact I listened to 60 between mid-July and mid-December is not as impressive as it originally sounds. It was, however, very difficult to pick favorites, which is why I cheated and went with 15!
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. Caligari0-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).
And finally ...
I feel I have to mention Doctor Who: Chimes of Midnight (Rob Shearman) and The Phantom of the Opera (Gaston Leroux/Barnaby Edwards). I started listening to them on BBC7 but won’t be able to finish them because I’m going to the US for Christmas. I was so impressed by the adaptation of POTO that I bought it and will be listening to it in its entirety on the flight (stay tuned). I am very tempted to buy Chimes of Midnight because it is amazing, and I can’t stand not knowing the ending.
Thank God for radio drama!