When I arrived back in the UK after being home for the holidays, I had little work and to make those dark winter days go faster, I’d sit and listen to Radio 4, Radio 3, or BBC7 with my cup of tea. I listened to a huge amount of radio between January and March; in the last few months I just haven’t had the time, even with iPlayer. However, it has been 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. (I was so up on this that I talked about it at my interview with the BBC.) I also listened to BBC7 a lot more than I used to, which has brought to my attention many older plays and adaptations.
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 Clark, 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.
Stay turned for my top 10 radio plays of 2008-9 (if you care). Also coming soon: Top 10 TV series on British TV, 2008-9.