2018 Golden Weevil Awards
Believe it or not, I started this at the very beginning of January. It’s a testament to how busy I’ve been that I only seem to be able to get it out five months into 2019! Oh well; better late than never, I guess.
See the caveat from previous years:
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.
In 2018, James Purefoy amazed me very much by the versatility of the roles he’d played, not only that year, but throughout the Radio 4 Extra repertoire. For example, in The RemCo by Jonathan Maitland, he played a charming villain in a perfect contemporary story for our times. Michael Melman, a business impresario who is driving profits skyward for a PR firm, is the subject of a RemCo (remuneration committee). However, he wants an extra £8 million as a retainer on top of his salary, bonus, and stock options. Melman charms his way through the RemCo committee, seducing, bribing, and threatening anyone who stands in his way; the only person who seems to be immune is Judith (played by the also extraordinary Deborah Findlay). You’d be mistaken for thinking Purefoy can only play charismatic villains, but you would be right in thinking he is at his best playing characters who are morally ambiguous. Take, for instance, his astonishing turn as rugby player Arthur Machin in the radio dramatization of This Sporting Life, from 2013. He heads a starry cast that also includes Sheridan Smith and Emily Watson, playing a troubled and troubling young man trying to escape class-bound postwar Britain. Almost unrecognizable, Purefoy was totally convincing as the intense and difficult Machin. The adaptation was directed by Johnny Vegas and Sally Harrison. It’s therefore very heartening to find Purefoy playing a hero, albeit a hero filled with quite a bit of self-loathing, the titular Scarlet Pimpernel (from the very end of 2017) in Jonathan Holloway and Sally Harrison’s terrific adaptation. I started reading The Scarlet Pimpernel novels some two decades ago, and this adaptation was both accurate to the spirit as well as having quite a bit of edgy bite to it. Purefoy is excellent as the foppish Percy Blakeney (achieved through a larger-than-life loutish accent) and the Scarlet Pimpernel, a serious do-gooder. I wouldn’t say no to more adaptations of the Pimpernel stories.
Kathleen Turner was on 2016’s list as well, but I felt her performance in Sara Paretsky’s Killing Orders could not be overlooked (even though the dramatization was originally broadcast in 1991). The early ‘90s mysteries about VI Warshawski are just the epitome of cool. In a complex and gripping story, the performances were great, from the late Maurice Denham to Martin Shaw. However, Kathleen Turner carried the weight of the titular sleuth and did so with great ease and panache. The deeper VI delves into the dealings of the Catholic Church in Chicago, however, the more trouble she gets in. As ever, Warshawski is brave, funny, and classy, and Kathleen Turner just excels at playing her. Wouldn’t it be amazing to revisit VI thirty years later, with feminist icon Turner to play her one more time?
Tom Wilkinson hasn’t done any radio drama lately. However, Radio 4 Extra seemed to be celebrating his 70th birthday last year by replaying some of his greatest hits (by the way, if you’ve ever wondered when watching his many films why his American accents are so good, it’s because he was born in Leeds but lived in Canada). In 1984, he played notorious sleuth Sam Spade in the radio adaptation of The Maltese Falcon. It’s a production that was so hard-boiled, it would have been an egg salad sandwich if you had boiled it any longer. That same year, he played a very different role in Martyn Wade’s stunning biopic of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Young Coleridge. Young Coleridge is an attempt to get inside Coleridge’s head for a day, from when he wakes up the whole household in his house in Keswick with his opium-induced nightmares to when he needs opium that evening to help him sleep. Coleridge is a complex, not entirely self-aware man, and his relationship with his wife Sara is fraught. Care is taken in this story to help the listener understand that Coleridge puts impossible demands upon his wife and holds her to different standards than he does himself; at the same time, you do feel sorry for him, as he’d like to divorce her and marry his soulmate Asra (another Sara). Wilkinson was utterly convincing in this difficult role. I had very mixed feelings about Wasted Years, a detective series by John Harvey from 1995. DI Charlie Resnick is a jazz-loving Nottingham-based investigator in Wasted Years. Instead of being the larger-than-life protagonist as in the two previous dramas, Wilkinson was much more part of ensemble. This was interesting, as this is the role he most frequently has on film, and it is such that he always elevates the material and the character. That said, his performance was much more understated here (understandably so).
I really wish in 2011, when I got to sit in on the read-throughs of Radio 4’s Life and Fate, I had known of Nigel Anthony’s oeuvre what I know now. I would have certainly shaken his hand, as he is clearly one of the best radio drama actors that has ever been. Wonderfully versatile, capable of being utterly creepy or disarmingly sympathetic, and the roles he has played over the years attest to this great range. It seems—although I have no way of confirming this at the moment—that Anthony’s career in BBC radio began in the 1970s. I’ve already raved about his delightfully complex performance in Victor Pemberton’s Dark (1978), and it seems such roles were characteristic for him. In 1977, he played Adam Oxton in JCW Brook’s The Doppleganger. Otherwise ordinary Adam Oxton has had a fraught relationship with his wife Jane for as long as they can remember. Bizarre events are coming together that will turn the Oxtons’ plane of experience from ordinary to totally uncanny. A go-for-broke sci fi/horror story, the wonderful intrigue and weirdness were heightened by a spooky score by Paddy Kingsland, high production values, and of course the performances. Totally different, however, is Anthony’s performance in last year’s Moonraker, an adaptation by Archie Scotney of the classic Ian Fleming novel. Usually Bond leaves me very cold, but I was impressed by this adaptation. Toby Stephens was very charming as the titular spy and Samuel West no less accomplished as the baddie. Anthony, however, was unrecognizable as crazed German caricature/henchman, Krebs. A stylish thriller directed by Martin Jarvis. However, Anthony outdid himself in Jo Anderson’s The Understudy, probably his most consummate performance since Dark. He was absolute stunning as John Stanger, a middle-aged actor edging into old age who is convinced against his better judgement by his agent to take a role as an understudy to a large part which is being filled by an actor who has mainly done TV since his student theatre days. At the same time, he’s been working on a one-man show for some time (and any self-respecting ghost historian will recognize its subject as doomed Victorian actor William Terris). As if all this wasn’t complicated enough, Stanger starts getting followed at night by strange figures and gets strange messages on the answerphone, all seeming to point to the fact that the events that conspired to end Terris’ life are coming after him, too. It’s a wonderfully eerie production. I hope we hear many more things from Nigel Anthony.
Somewhat unusually, I only know David Threlfall as Killick in Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), despite his long film career (and widespread recognition for Shameless). I was thus surprised and impressed with his performance as Spike Milligan in Ian Billings’ Spike and the Elfin Oak. April 2018 marked Spike Milligan’s centenary. Threlfall was an inspired choice as he played Milligan absolutely to a tee. This must surely be a BBC Audio Drama Award-worthy performance. And, once again, it’s a story that’s super-radiogenic. How else could people be made to believe a story in which Spike Milligan talks to elves and fairies at the base of an oak in Kensington Gardens and then campaigns for their restoration, for it all to be destroyed by a pair of drunks? Plus, if you want a hint of the youthful Threlfall in another comic role, last year you could also check him out in Bill Tidy and John Junkin’s The Fosdyke Saga from 1983. A bald-faced parody of The Forsyte Saga, except set in Salford (!), this epic comedy also starred a young Miriam Margoyles. Thirteen episodes long, it follows the story of the penniless Fosdykes who come to own a tripe factory monopoly until the First World War sends one son, Albert, to the front as a flying ace, while the other, Tom (Threlfall), becomes a POW.
While I got to hear Eve Myles reprising her role as Gwen in a series of Torchwood dramas from 2011, I was most impressed by her performance in 19 Weeks by Emily Steele. I wept as I listened to this drama, something I didn’t in the least expect to happen. I’ve always supported a woman’s right to choose and have been scornful of the way media (almost always) shows women who have abortions regretting them, or being pulled back from them at the last moment. Emily Steele, in this very intimate and rather warts-and-all drama (which is highly radiogenic) is a journalist in her thirties with one son already, Frank. Her pregnancy with her second child is murderous, with her being incredibly sick all the time. Chris, her husband, a silent character whose dialogue is reported via Emily (an interesting device) is caring, always trying to help Emily during her pregnancy. Living in Australia, they do lots of tests, some of which they have to pay for, as they eventually find out that the child is likely going to have developmental problems, just like Emily’s uncle. Emily is determined not to end up like her grandmother, who suffered, bringing up a developmentally disabled child. It’s late (19 weeks) when the tests point in all likelihood to this possibility, and Emily describes the painful and long process of the termination, maturely, with vulnerability, and a great deal of honesty. I was crying not because Emily decided to have the abortion, but I was just sad about the whole story, the pain and suffering so many of the characters went through. Eve Myles did an excellent job. I hope she gets the opportunity to do more radio drama.
Even though Julie Enfield Investigates- Murder West One was made almost twenty years ago, that doesn’t mean I can’t praise the performance from Imelda Staunton as the titular detective. There are at least three series of these crime dramas by Nick Fisher, and each focuses on a different London locale. While the first episode, “A Cure for Death” starts out relatively light-hearted, all of these stories have a hard edge (after all, they usually revolved around murder). I don’t know for what narrative reason we needed the first five minutes of “A Cure For Death” taken up by Julie having to sing karaoke at a party (other than a quip at the very end); on the other hand, it was no hardship at all to hear Imelda Staunton belt out “I Will Survive.” “The Art of the Matter” was probably my favorite in the series, including within it an amusing subplot featuring Julie’s elderly dad (played by Geoffrey Matthews), and putting Julie, as ever, in extreme peril when caught up in the machinations of “the perfect crime” in a swanky modern art gallery. Although “Five Star Killing” was slightly less interesting or clever than others in the series, nevertheless, there was something touching about Julie Enfield feeling quite flattered by the attentions of serial (yet sincere and very Gallic) womanizer Jean-Pierre Renaud and seeming quite disappointed when he turned out to be implicated in the crime (unlike other female detectives on radio, Julie has never had a romantic relationship, at least as far as I know). In this story, an exclusive hotel, the residence of a French diplomat, is implicated when a dead body is found in the street outside. “Soho Espresso” was intricate but also rather wry and high-spirited. I have to say, Inspector Javert singing the reprise to “Stars” is the very last thing I’d ever hear at the opening of this final episode in the Julie Enfield series. Yet, that’s what was happening as Julie, an overenthusiastic Dad, and DS Lawrence Matthews catch Les Mis in Soho. As is much more frequently the case with Radio 4 women detectives than men, Julie Enfield has to balance her career with caring responsibilities, and Imelda Staunton is perfectly suited to portraying the brilliant detective as well as the exasperated daughter. Staunton’s best radio performance will probably always be, for me, that of the terrified mother in JCW Brook’s The Snowman Killing, so it’s nice to hear her do a little comedy in the midst of all that seriousness.
Charlotte Riches is Salford-based and a great director. Here I highlight four very different dramas she directed, from 2017 and 2018 and two heard on Radio 4 Extra in 2018. Take Me to Redcar by Sarah McDonald Hughes from 2013 was part of the “Take Me to . . .” series which highlighted distinctive British towns. (Indeed, I had never even heard of Redcar before I heard this drama—it’s in North Yorkshire, by the way.) It was a powerful, well-written, and beautifully recorded drama and gave a great sense of place. Fiona (Therese Meade) is taking her boyfriend Danny (John Cattral) to her hometown of Redcar to meet her parents. Danny is very cool and cynical, about to drop out of university due to problems at home. When Fiona and Danny arrive in Redcar, they are astonished to find it deserted, all the shops boarded up. Where is everyone? This was sensitively and boldly written; a great drama for radio. Earlier, in 2011, the imitable Don Webb adapted Alan Garner’s young adult fantasy novel Elidor for radio, which Riches directed. While I found the adaptation itself less than completely successful, it had spectacular music by Ian Williams and great performances from its child stars. More recently, Riches directed the charming and amusing comedy Sophie’s Lights. Sophie (Ophelia Luffibunde), a Jewish girl who goes to a mixed school but attends special Jewish school on the weekend, annoys her teacher by believing in Santa Claus. Sophie’s father, Alan (William Ashe), convinces Sophie that Santa doesn’t exist, gets thrown out by his wife, and ends up at Midnight Mass and gets helpful advice from the officiating priest. Adam Usden’s playful drama doesn’t discount the existence of Santa after all. The year 2018 was excellent for spooky dramas around Halloween, and as such Riches directed an excellent dramatization by Toby Hadoke of Nigel Kneale’s TV script from 1963, The Road. Set in the 1760s, its power is in the opposing temperaments of its characters, Gideon Cobb (Mark Gatiss) and Sir Hassall (Adrian Scarborough). Hassall tries to use scientific methods like electricity to detect ghosts; Cobb scoffs at him. Perhaps the most interesting character is Jethro, Cobb’s black servant, very well-portrayed by Colin McFarlane. Naturally, there’s a twist to this seemingly circumscribed period drama, which left a real sense of unease even after the drama was finished.
James Robinson is based in Cardiff and has been directing excellent dramas for a good five years or so. Like Charlotte Riches, he directed one of the “Take Me to . . .” series, this time Take Me to Hafod Owen by Meic Povey in 2013. It’s to his credit that I didn’t recognize Richard Elfyn in the lead role as Ellis, a middle-aged man returning under a cloud to his childhood house in Hafod Owen, in Welsh-speaking mountainous mid-Wales. His home now a pub, predictably run by an insensitive Englishwoman. In Hafod Owen, Ellis meets his old flame Gwyneth (Christine Bottomley) and old frenemy Davie (Iwan Hugh Dafyd). Ellis is deeply embroiled in problems from his past, for example his unresolved relationship with Gwyneth, and the fact that Davie’s father sacked Ellis’ father which caused them to move away. This is a nicely produced play with excellent music and some memorable scenes, including Ellis and Davie scrabbling around in a cave in the mountains in a thunderstorm. Take Me to Hafod Owen used the unforgiving landscape to dredge up hard human truths, which was also the case for the epic, mysterious, and compelling Aonach Hourn by James Payne, from 2014. This was an amazing and really quite memorable 15 Minute Drama hinging in part on the performance of Mark Bonnar as Cormick. In isolated Scotland one night in December, an avalanche from Aonach Hourn descends on the town of Rosscoile, killing dozens of school children. Eight years later, pairs of husbands and wives (bereaved parents) are dealing with the tragedy in their own ways. After his wife’s suicide, Cormick goes missing. On the mountain, he finds a girl in a coma, who appears to be his lost daughter, Flora. As the drama goes on, it’s difficult to know what is reality and what is fantasy. Finally, it isn’t easy to impress an American with adaptations of American works, but Adrian Bean’s 2014 adaptation of Alan Le May’s classic Western The Searchers went above and beyond. I always thought that pre-1970s Westerns were black-and-white morality tales with cringeworthy depictions of Native Americans. Not so with this incredibly authentic, nuanced, tragic drama. I was blown away by the performances; while most of the time, BBC radio drama delivers good (if not excellent) American dialect performances, these were a cut above. Some of the usual suspects were there—great to hear the phenomenal William Hope as Amos Edwards as well as Kerry Shayle as Aaron Matheson—but very impressed to hear Alun Raglan and a string of actors I’d never heard of really deliver flawless Western American accents. Here, James Robinson has directed very exciting, and overall, top-notch radio drama.
Kirsty Williams is based in Scotland (I’m noticing a theme here; each region has a consummate drama director in-house). All three of these dramas were from 2018. I loved Virtually Me by Ali Taylor, starring Gabriel Quigley as the nameless narrator, “Me.” “Me” is a single mom trying to deal with work and her two twin children and sullen teenager Angus. Having her nightly glass of wine, she posts an ad for someone to invent her second self. Christopher Walken—not his real name—comes to the rescue, having developed an AI prototype, Me 2, who is connected to Me’s brain and memories. Naturally, Me 2 is better than Me at everything, and unleashing her on childcare and work is a bad idea. When she starts an affair with the divorced father of Me’s children, Me puts her foot down. An outrageous dark comedy cemented by Quigley’s performance. Providing by James Anthony Pearson is much more serious in tone. A simple radio drama, mainly consisting of the dialogue between two men, Michael (Ryan Fletcher) and Damien (Sandy Grierson), partners who wanted to adopt a child. Despite this, I found it extremely powerful. Michael is the main breadwinner; Damien has a catering business that is struggling to get off the ground. Michael is keen to adopt; Damien isn’t sure he’s going to be a good dad, or even if he wants to be a dad at all. If I had one criticism of this drama, it’s that it ended too soon: we don’t actually get to see Michael and Damien being dads. Now, I had a love-hate relationship with Oliver Emanuel’s The Truth About Hawaii, a 10-part story for the 15 Minute Drama. It felt a bit contrived from time to time, and I really wasn’t convinced the generally upbeat tone was always warranted, considering how serious and depressing a story it actually was. Naturally, I didn’t think Sarah—the little Scottish girl in the near future who scraped her knee, got an infection, and was faced with first amputation and then death because antibiotics no longer work—would actually die, but the whole story was grim. I liked some of the segues into which the story went—Sarah’s mother trying to get antibiotics off a chav who could navigate the Deep Web and the UN Secretary and her hapless PA—but it sometimes felt meandering. I liked the metaphor of Sarah visiting Hawaii while she was in a coma, and the cameos by all sorts of public figures—like Elvis, Alexander Fleming, and others—very radiogenic. It wasn’t until episode 8, which was basically a monologue from Sarah’s mother, that I finally felt that The Truth About Hawaii had actually found its footing. Still, it was interesting and ambitious.
I selected Eoin O’Callaghan two years ago (again, tour of the regions since he sometimes works in Northern Ireland). He’s one of my all-time favorite radio drama directors. I always know I will hear a quality drama when he is directing it. This year, he directed two Mark Lawson-written vehicles (they frequently work together) which were, true to journalist Lawson’s style, topical and provocative. The first was The Deletion Committee which featured quite a starry cast. An unnamed waxworks, a thinly disguised Madame Tussaud’s, is having a board meeting in which it will be decided which figures are deleted and melted down. What is the criteria for deletion? Well, if some #MeToo allegations have been made against the figure in question, down to Germaine Greer for saying insensitive things about trans people. The new member, young, black, and female Gemma (Ferruche Offia), is all for a policy of no tolerance; board member Abigail (Samantha Bond), a trendy older journalist, is mostly in agreement with Gemma but occasionally and secretly would like to agree with her colleague, lawyer Sam (Bill Paterson), who makes every deletion a debate. Sam is no dinosaur, but he brings up thoughtful and relevant questions about guilty until proven innocent, whether Twitter is the correct arena for assigning guilt. Gemma also brings up good points regarding the complicity of society in allowing destructive behavior over the centuries. What are the answers? It’s hard to tell. The Unseen Government was likewise pure Lawson: up-to-the-minute political/journalistic drama from an insider, well-written and well-acted. It occasionally erred too much on the side of didacticism, but I didn’t really care, as I am shamefully uninformed about the current political situation in Northern Ireland. In it, Ali (Amaka Okafor), a Westminster civil servant, is invited to Belfast to observe a role-playing exercise at Queen’s University. It is facilitated by Jean-Christian, a Belgian (such a joy to hear Anton Lesser’s dulcet tones) whose expertise in diplomacy is there to help re-establish a working government, as months have gone by since there has been one. Maire (Michelle Fairley), Ash (Jonathan Harden), and Paul (Lloyd Hutchinson) all seem to be participants in the exercise, but what Ali slowly comes to realize is that this game has real-world consequences.
For Pauline Harris, I have two dramas, one from 2018 and one from 2017. Her adaptation of Lord Byron’s Manfred was quite impressive, starring Joseph Millson as the titular Byronic hero, who spends the bulk of the story in a state of depression, unable to die yet unwilling to live. He lives in isolation in the Alps, trying to force various spirits (including the Witch of the Alps), to bring back to life the only human he ever loved, Astarte. All around, an excellent combination of song, poetry, drama, and music. Becky Prestwich’s Chopping Onions is about as different form Manfred as is possible. It was about three generations of Jewish women. Esther (Christine Cox) was the family matriarch, but after she has a stroke, her daughter Ruth (Maureen Lipman) moves her in. Ruth’s daughter Vanessa (Sarah Smart) is also there with her baby Daniel. Due to the stroke, Esther finds it difficult to make herself understood. Ruth is trying to make chicken soup but her mother is unable to keep out of the kitchen. She tries to prepare Esther for the fact that Vanessa (who married a non-Jew) wants Daniel to be christened. Certainly several generation gaps make communication difficult between all three women. A very moving drama.
Mary Peate is a familiar name at the helm of BBC Radio 4 dramas. In 2018, her credits included In Vino Veritas by Lenny Henry. In this story, Henry plays the Rev Marcus Campbell, a Midlands minister (who isn’t above playing up a Jamaican accent in the pulpit, while his long-suffering wife, June, is Jamaican). Marcus was an alcoholic but was recovered by June. Marcus and Deacon Edwards (Peter Bankolé) are aiming to put their church on the map, raising money to incorporate a café, a market, and a shop. The drama has an at best ambivalent relationship with modern Christian churches as opposed to the original Christian message; a homeless man berates the congregation for mistreating him, given that Jesus always had time for the indigent and wretched. In the midst of preparing for the Sunday service to be recorded and televised on American TV, Marcus accidentally hits a pedestrian. Although he calls an ambulance, he flees the scene. At home, the demon drink is calling. Someone else is calling: Jesus (John Bradley) (like many inner voices, it’s never clear if this is actually Jesus or not). Jesus encourages Marcus to get drunk in order to expose the true messages of Christianity. A darkly comic drama that speaks to contemporary London, much as the sixth series of The Interrogation by Roy Williams does. When first DCI Matthews (Kenneth Cranham) and DS Armitage (Alex Lanipekin) were teamed together, they disliked each other. However, by now the two are like a well-oiled machine. Each episode begins with the monologue from the perpetrator, so once you know the formula, you aren’t necessarily in suspense for a whodunit—it’s why they did it and what, exactly, did they do? Matthews and Armitage give the impression that they would be extremely annoying to actually be interviewed by. It’s interesting to see how they alter this from interviewee to interviewee. Ross was dynamite; the listeners become detectives, too, unravelling a case when a diagonal approach is the only effective one. Williams’ ear for dialogue is second-to-none, making each new character sound authentic. Ross is a young man in prison. He has poured scalding hot water on another prisoner, but Matthews and Armitage discover that it missed its intended victim. There is a similar sleight-of-hand at work in Jack. Jack gets pulled in because apparently he was shoplifting. A lot of time and effort is expended on whether Jack was actually intending to shoplifting or whether he it was a mistake.
I don’t remember ever hearing any dramas directed by Judith Kampfner before, but she proved herself a fine director of some excellent dramas in 2018. Firstly, In the Shadows by Susan Lieberman, easily one of the best new radio dramas I heard in 2018, was very much on the pulse of today’s divisive politics in the US. It was recorded on location in NYC (though it is set in Chicago), focusing on the trials and tribulations of Elena (Elaine Valdez), a teenager with a Mexican background who, among other things, is type 1 diabetic and cannot get to a hospital because her parents fear to be deported. Everywhere they turn, Elena, her family and community are under threat. Very different, but still highly memorable, was Amah in the Bathtub, written as well as directed by Kampfner. Set in Singapore in 1969, Donna (Amy Warren), an American journalist, has come to interview British ex-pats to write a novel about an illicit romance between a British woman and her Chinese chauffeur. However, Donna gets a lot more than she bargained for. She meets Flora (Alexandra Williamson), a northerner who doesn’t fit the typical (southern, upper middle class) profile of ex-pats. Cleverly written and recorded using the device of the tape recorder, it makes a unique setting and story.
The list is long this year.
Nev Fountain has been writing for radio for quite awhile. He indeed found fame through impersonation/comedy series Dead Ringers, and I am highlighting here several pieces of his work connected to Dead Ringers. Firstly, Dead Ringers: An Alien Has Landed, co-written with Tom Jamieson, Tom Coles, Ed Amsden, Sarah Campbell, and Laurence Howarth and directed by Bill Dare. An effective primer to everything in contemporary British life, from Theresa May to Jeremy Corbyn to Michael Gove to Big Brother to Jeremy Kyle, it made me laugh a lot. An alien lands on Earth and seems to be content to stay in the UK. He is adored at first, then he reaches saturation point and the British public turns on him. Series 18 was also very funny, co-written with the same writers as well as James Bugg, Laura Major, and Max Davis and starring Jon Culshaw, Jan Ravens, Lewis MacLeod, Debra Stephenson, and Duncan Wisbey. I especially enjoyed Joan Bakewell’s distillation of Love Island for people who listen to BBC Radio 4, David Davis going back in time to try to prevent the UK from joining the EU, and the totally wrong predictions about England’s chances in the World Cup (hindsight is 50/50). Finally, a seasonal revisit of Son of Santa on Radio 4 Extra late in 2017 (though I heard it in 2018), written by Fountain in 1999. In this story, Santa’s son has an MBA and has come to the North Pole at his father’s invitation. James Fleet is cast against type as the son, Robin, who of course wants to ruin Christmas by making it all year round, to increase profit margins or something like that. Miss Holly Berry (Lynda Bellingham), Santa’s PA, has other ideas. There’s a very funny appearance from the Easter Bunny (Dave Lamb) and his chick (Ronni Ancona), and the Elves (involved in industrial action) are quite funny too. There were some good gags which set the live audience roaring with laughter. It was directed by Maria Esposito.
Peter Souter wrote Stream, River, Sea, an unassuming drama that was nevertheless very affecting, a testament both to the writing and to the excellent performances. You know you are always in for a treat when Alex Jennings and Juliet Stevenson are in a drama. Bella (Stevenson) and Hugh (Jennings) meet in the hospital as their respective husband and mother are dying. Bella is deeply in love with her husband who died much too young. Hugh has been caring for his bedridden mother for twenty years. While Hugh’s role becomes someone to help Bella get through her pain, Bella has to help Hugh live his life for the first time. Bella’s daughter Daisy (Lizzy Watts) is a typically acid-mouthed teenage brat, but by the end, they are a content trio. The dark humor of the scene in which Hugh and Bella encounter each other in the crematorium is funny and poignant. It was directed by Gordon House. I hope we hear more from Peter Souter.
Although I’ve written elsewhere about playwright Yolanda Mercy’s drama for Radio 1 Xtra, Quarter Life Crisis, it’s worth highlighting again: A radio drama that appealed to the younger generation, witty, well-written, and felt authentic. It was also a natural fit for Radio 1 Xtra due to its ongoing hip hop soundtrack. Mercy starred as a 25-year-old from London who hasn’t quit grown up yet and is trying to figure out her place in the world. She’s tired of zero-hour contracts but isn’t ready to get married and settle down, like her cousin Titi. She has to deal with the layers of ancestry from her Nigerian family and that she was the only black person in her university class. It was directed by Caroline Raphael. I’d be very surprised if we didn’t hear more from Mercy in the near future.
I’ve been listening to and writing about radio drama for 11 years now, and I’ve been listening to, and generally in awe of, dramas by Nick Warburton all that time. He is clearly a force to be reckoned with. Warburton can write in practically any genre, but he seems to find a natural home in the supernatural and the Gothic. He’s written several stories for the Man in Black, including Making Sacrifices from 1997. Alison (Caroline Strong) is a very annoying girl at St Liz’s school for girls. She’s thinking of leaving before finishing her degree and will leave her turret room to whatever student bootlicks her way into Alison’s good books. At first, Kerry (Sarah Rice) seems a bit thick, jolly hockey sticks, but when Alison leaves her alone to tangle with the groundskeeper, we find out she’s perfectly cognizant of Alison’s cutting, evil ways. She’s willing to put up with Alison’s behavior just as long as she can get the turret room. A naïve, shy girl, Corrinna (Alison Pettit), next shows up, her worm-like demeanour concealing a cool mastermind at work. This was well-written with Warburton’s signature ability to be gripping even with a very small cast. And, look, Ma—no supernatural elements at all! More recently, Warburton demonstrated his ability once again to write beautifully for two characters in Irongate from 2013, directed by Peter Kavanagh. Laura (Emma Fielding) is walking from Kew Bridge to Tower Bridge; she’s on a mission as she’s doing it for her dead husband on his birthday. She is annoyed to be accosted by a man, James Fleet playing his typical bumbling, inoffensive character, who insists on dogging her step. He keeps telling her he understands how she feels. Eventually, she runs away from him, jumping on two buses and ending up at Irongate. She is frightened when she takes the subway, and the man reappears. I can’t say more or I would ruin it, but it’s a splendid piece of work. Warburton has also written off and on for Tommies, and I found the first episode he wrote, 14 October 1914, was—in re-listening to it on Radio 4 Extra—quite arresting. The tension between Mickey Bliss (Lee Ross) and Céléstine di Tullio (Pippa Nixon) was electric. Céléstine also sets the groundwork here for the appalling atrocities she will be part of during the war as well as her emotionless calling as a doctor/medical researcher. All is not quiet on the Western front. It was directed by Jonquil Panting. If Warburton is known for his two-handers and for ghostly stories, his third area of expertise is religious drama, and he provided a really interesting take on the mockumentary with 2018’s Oliver Park. Oliver Park sits well beside his earlier excellent work on Easter, Witness. Oliver Park is presented as a radio documentary which looks back at a fictional event in which a tense atmosphere in a south-eastern coastal town blows apart during marches at Oliver Park, with the murky death of a peaceful protester. You have your disciple figure, your Mary Magdalene figure, your Judas figure, your King Herod figure, and your Caiaphas figure. The Jesus figure barely speaks—obviously, he’s been killed and has done nothing so crass as rise literally from the dead—which is in keeping with convention in religious radio dramas. The Jesus figure’s message of peace and tolerance is a simple one, explicitly linked to refugees, and Sam Dale as the head of a vigilante group of “neighborhood watch” who are in no mood to tolerate refugees or protesters, is absolutely chilling. I understand it was a largely improvised performance, and it sounds very authentic. It was directed by Paul Arnold.
It seems a shame to have only discovered Jean Binnie now, via Radio 4 Extra, but better late than never, I guess. Her 1982 drama, Dr Barry, inspired me to read a biography about Dr Barry (née Margaret Bulkley) last year—unlike another historic unconventional woman whose story is trendy at the moment, Barry was a commoner and could not risk exposure whereas Anne Lister, as a wealthy landowner, could better flout custom. The biography I read was published in 2016 and helped throw some light on the many murky aspects of Barry’s life. Such revelations were perhaps not available to Binnie, but this unusual drama was arresting nonetheless. Structured more like a dramatized biopic than a drama as such, with a narrator, it starred Veronica Quilligan in the title role. Rising from poverty in Ireland to graduate from medical school in disguise as a man, it was a disguise that Dr Barry would retain all her life, taking her to far-flung places and causing her to die forgotten and alone, even after decades of faithful service as an innovative doctor and medical administrator. It was fascinating, well-written, and very well-acted. That Dr Barry may have had a relationship with the governor of her South African colony, Somerset, is intriguing; Binnie points out that her existence must have been an incredibly lonely one. In 1989, Binnie wrote a drama about another important female leader in Boudicca’s Victory, which felt very stage play-like, and with a massive cast. It was very serious, alleging that Boudicca’s real enemy was the patriarchy which tried to sponge her out of history from the very beginning (her own Druids manipulating her, her would-be lover Abbay, and Nyman, the man who wanted leadership of the Iceni but was thwarted by the woman he hated but ultimately died defending). Boudicca (Eileen Pollock) is estranged from her daughters, Beya and Mara, after the assaults made upon them by the Romans. It was a truly ensemble piece with singing and audience asides. It was directed by Martin Jenkins.
Sue Limb is a well-established comedy writer, and while I’ve heard bits and pieces of her other historical comedy series before (such as Gloomsbury, the parody of the Bloomsbury Set), the second series of The Wordsmiths of Gorsemere was positively moreish. Originally from 1987, it’s not a joke-a-minute like most (modern-day) Radio 4 comedy series. Instead—while certainly some sections are very absurd and funny—there’s a lot of time for the characters to actually develop, which is a bit weird, since they are comedy characters and their actual growth seems somewhat circumscribed. It’s a very thinly veiled parody of the Romantic poets, centering on William Wordsmith (Geoffrey Whitehead) and his sister Dorothy (Denise Coffey), living in Gorsemere. Dorothy’s blind devotion to her brother borders on the sickening, which is perhaps a less-than-frivolous comment on the fact that the real Dorothy Wordsworth could have been a great talent if she was not relegated to being her brother’s amanuensis. William’s wife Mary is such a non-entity she never gets a word in edgeways, literally, and as such is played by Simon Callow—who is bursting at the seams in his other role as Samuel Tailor Colericke. Naturally, this role is very amusing after having listened to Coleridge played “straight” by Tom Wilkinson in Young Coleridge, which is perhaps what Sue Limb was going for. There are hints that Colericke would marry Dorothy and whisk her away, if not for the barrier of his existing wife and children. Thomas De Quinine (Nickolas Grace) is very amusing, being played as a tiny, short-sighted Mancunian who seduces the Wordsmiths’ housekeeper “Stinking” Iris (the irrepressible Miriam Margolyes). In fact, the Wordsmiths seem to be visited by a succession of regional poets, including Sir Walter Splott (played delightfully by Bill Paterson), John Sheets i.e. John Keats (Nicky Henson), and a car salesman-sounding William Bloke i.e. William Blake (John Shrapnel). One gets the feeling that Dorothy’s life would be vastly improved if she just slept with somebody (Colericke or otherwise), not something I would often say about fictional characters—or indeed, anyone. It was produced by Jonathan James-Moore. It must have been a lot of fun to write.
Finally—way, way too late—I got to hear Pilgrim, the long-running and much-awarded supernatural mystery series masterminded by Backieciewz in 2008. I heard the first and second series, and after being initially somewhat skeptical, I did find them quite entertaining, the character of William Palmer inextricably linked to Paul Hilton, the actor who plays him. Radio 4 clearly knew what they were doing when making this series, cognizant of the great possibilities offered by a long-lived, un-aging protagonist trying to right the wrongs of the supernatural world invading the normal one. Pilgrim, “apparently” cursed by the King of the Elves/Fairies in the 1180s for denying the existence of the Grey Folk, has a liminal and lonely existence in the tradition of immortal outcast figures (like the Wandering Jew), but is less detached from humanity than you might suppose. The first series are mostly adventure-of-the-week type stories, with little to link them, as Pilgrim moves around interacting with various legends of the British Isles, ranging from dragons to tree spirits to werewolves to daemons to his own daughter, Doris, a witch. It’s all acted with the kind of urgency that helps make real its fantastic premise, and the further you go into the series, the more spectacular it gets and suffers little from having no visuals. The next series of Pilgrim, from 2010, was slightly less successful than the first, I thought, though it continued to plumb the depths of folklore, including a drowned church, fairies, and ladies of the well, leading to a suitably dramatic finale that pulls together all the threads of previous stories. Pilgrim is an original and interesting story, and Baczkiewicz’s talent is evident. However, it’s in no way his own radio drama success. More contemporaneously, he continued in the vein of magical realism with Seven Songs for Simon Dixelius, starring Arthur Darvill. Simon Dixelius’ fiancée Chloe leaves him at the altar. In addition to this emotionally unhinging occurrence, he starts hearing and seeing sparkly ladies singing him songs by Smokey Robinson, Soft Cell, Lou Reed, David Bowie, and others. Seven Songs for Simon Dixelius succeeded in being radiogenic, because in what other medium are the small sparkly singing ladies going to be acceptable?
Lee Ridley & Katherine Jakeways
Lee Ridley (“Lost Voice Boy”) and veteran comedian Katherine Jakeways wrote what was probably the best new comedy to come out of Radio 4 in 2018, Ability, a fresh and funny romp. Partly autobiographical, it’s the story of Matt, who, like Lee Ridley, has cerebral palsy and cannot speak. He uses a voiced iPad to speak for him, which gives him a Stephen Hawking-like voice, whereas the voice inside his head is Geordie and sounds like Andrew Hayden-Smith. Matt is trying to cope away from his parents’ at a flat he shares with Jess, whom he secretly fancies. He is looked after by first-time carer Bob (Alan Mustafa), a likeable wheeler and dealer, and together they pull of lots of silly, slightly illegal capers.
I suppose I’ll never be able to forget At Home with the Snails, probably the raciest and most satirical radio drama I have ever heard on Radio 4 Extra. It’s well-cast, well-performed, with an earworm of a theme tune (in which high-pitched snails titter and scream at you). According to this sitcom, the village-dwelling southern English middle class consists of gardening-obsessed, amoral, egotistical fathers with no paternal or husbandly feelings who happily exploit their children’s psychological hang-ups for the sake of selling books and their wives for all day-to-day maintenance activities; emotionally stunted, blissfully wrong-headed philistine mothers for whom appearances and useless craft-making are everything; and adult children who are either money-grubbing, conventional, and unfeeling or whose lives stopped when they got a 2:1 at university (shock! horror!) and they spend the rest of their lives rolling around in sheds with snails. Alex (played by the writer himself, Gerard Foster) and his sister Rose (Miranda Hart; yes, that Miranda Hart) couldn’t be more different, but both are the deranged products of their equally deranged parents, the Fishers (Geoffrey Palmer and Angela Thorne).
Hilary Lyon wrote the warm-hearted comedy Secrets and Lattes, originally from 2014 and re-broadcast on Radio 4 Extra. It’s the story of Trisha (Julie Graham), a Scottish-born school art teacher who returns to Edinburgh to start a coffee shop called Café Culture, financed by her strait-laced, financially solvent older sister Clare (played by the writer, Hilary Lyon). They hire an opera-loving Polish chef, Krysztof (Simon Greenall), who is apparently stunning. Krysztof has secret passport troubles and a heart condition. Trisha has a secret, too—she left London after ten years because she had been having an affair with Richard, a married man with kids. Lizzie (Pearl Appleby) is a kleptomaniac who inserts herself as a waitress and general dogsbody. It’s difficult to know whether to ship Krysztof and Trisha, or Krysztof and Clare, or Trisha and Richard . . . it’s complicated. I’m looking forward to series 2.
And we end on a cracker. I have long admired the team of Marty Ross and Bruce Young who have always given horror radio drama a unique twist. In Catch My Breath, they pulled out all the stops in what must be one of the most Gothic radio dramas ever written—indeed, one of the most Gothic texts ever made. For all that, it doesn’t drip with cliché, either, but is quite original and kept me guessing. It’s also very much rooted in Scotland. At five episodes, it’s also one of the longer, more ambitious original serial horror radio dramas from the BBC (no doubt having been commissioned due to the pair’s shining track record). There are hints of Old Time Radio in its protagonists, Kate and Colleen (Claire Knight and Suzanne Donaldson), two convicted criminals who escape police custody only to fall into the hands of would-be rapist truckers, wizened old men, feral hunters, witches living in caves, zombie-like creatures, and that most dangerous creature of all, the seductive, Miltonic anti-hero. Catch My Breath reminded me a bit of a haunted house theme park, in that around each corner there were new, wholly Gothic horrors, which made it unadulterated fun. Adam Strachan (Liam Brennan) appeared to be an eccentric (but strapping, gorgeous-voiced) bachelor who lived in an equally eccentric children’s writer’s home in the wilds of Scotland—however, he was clearly more than meets the eye. I think it’s very difficult to sustain the tension of a horror story, and the team did very well to make the multiple episodes of this drama as taut and well-paced as they did. Brennan as Adam Strachan, the attractive Gothic monster inhabiting the forbidden castle in the woods, was absolutely perfect for this part, radiating at first trustworthiness as he lured in Kate and Colleen, and then beguiling with a voice almost as gorgeous as Orson Welles’. Performances overall were pitched at just the right level to sell this extravaganza. I really didn’t want it to ever end. Originally from 2007; please tell me there’s more.
Okay, well, that’s done (!).