Top Ten Radio Plays, June-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 (though I keep thinking it’s my former professor Nigel!). 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!).