Saturday, July 4, 2020
Given the unprecedented circumstances during Quarter 2 (April, May, June) of this year, in which I only heard 10 radio/audio dramas (for context, I heard 25 during the same quarter in 2019), I will not be doing Quarter 2 reviews. Instead, I will combine Quarter 2 and 3 (and if necessary, Quarter 4). So check back on this space in three months' time.
Wednesday, April 15, 2020
018 Mystery – Old
Venus in Copper is an adaptation by Mary Cutler of Lindsey Davis’ Marcus Didius Falco mysteries, set in ancient Rome. With 6 x 30 minute episodes, the adaptation structure allows us to go into a lot of detail about ancient Rome. The music is minimal but effective, and like most modern mysteries set in ancient Rome, the slang is modern while remaining historically accurate (I think), with characters exclaiming, “Jupiter!” or “sacred Juno” when the modern equivalent would be “Jesus!” or “goodness gracious” or something like that. Anyway, it was well-plotted, well-acted, and Falco a loveable rogue. Anton Lesser gets to demonstrate a fair amount of range here, with many sotto voce asides. The redundancy/first person narration does make him feel slightly like a noir gumshoe, but they don’t overuse this tonally, even if the plot has to do with real estate schemes, insurance fraud, and femme fatales. Falco, recently bailed out of jail by his mother, is looking for a new place to live. His girlfriend, posh senator’s daughter Helena (Ann Madeley), has had a miscarriage, and their future is uncertain. He wants her to come live with him; she’s unsure. He meets dodgy estate agent Cossus (Laurence Sanders), who gets him a crumbling, nearly empty tenement. He’s been hired by Pollia (Julia Hills), one of three freed slaves who now share a household, to protect Hortensius Novus (Jez Thomas) from being murdered for his money, they think, by complex, seductive, quick-witted Severina Zoitica (Bella Merlin). As Falco investigates, he finds out that three of Severina’s previous three husbands have died. No one has been able to pin any of the deaths on her, but they all look suspicious—and she has experience with poison. When she tries to seduce Falco, in true femme fatale style, it’s never clear whether it’s a scam or she has real feelings for him. It’s the involvement of high-level crook Appius Priscillus that nearly gets Falco killed. There are some nice minor characters, such as a mesmerizing snake-dancer (Chipo Chung) and Tyche the astrologer. There’s an amusing sub-plot with Falco being gifted an enormous turbot for services to the Emperor, and Titus Caesar (Jonathan Keeble) coming by personally to the dinner party, where he flirts with Helena. Falco’s not ‘avin’ it! It was directed by Peter Leslie Wild and originally broadcast in 2006.
013 Adaptation – Old
Lucinda Brayford by Martin Boyd (adapted by Elspeth Sandys) is an Australian novel of which I had never heard (although that’s unsurprising given my woeful lack of knowledge about Australian literature). It ended up being an immensely wrenching drama with shades of Sister Carrie in its query about what is life actually for (if anything)? The cast is, understandably, first-rate. Lucinda (Juliet Aubrey) is a young Australian heiress whose mother, Julie (Angela Pleasance), is obsessed with marrying into the English aristocracy. Lucinda’s father, Fred (James Laurenson), owns a network of stations and is therefore rich, though rather common. He disdains Lucinda’s slightly older suitor, Tony (Matt Day), as a “poodle fancier” because he is into interior decorating and design. It doesn’t escape the listener’s notice that Lucinda’s life would have been much better if she’d married Tony in the first place. Instead, she has her head turned when her mother takes her on a trip to England (I confess I felt some empathy with her there), where she meets the Brayford family, landed but penniless gentry. Lucinda seems to be making quite the match when she marries Hugo Brayford when he is on duty with his regiment in Australia. Hugo is very much emblematic of the nineteenth century and acts like a nineteenth century gentleman: he wants his trophy wife (in a very minor way he does care for Lucinda, but that’s as far as it goes), he wants his heir, and he wants his wife’s money. Lucinda is charmed by him and doesn’t realize the problematic nature of the match until it’s too late. The family she marries into is generally better than Hugo: his enigmatic, artistic, probably gay older brother Paul (Paul Rhys), Hugo’s bourgeois step-mother Marian (Penelope Wilton), the self-effacing Arthur (Michael Cochrane). She also falls in quite quickly with Hugo’s best friend Pat (Mark Straker). What ultimately makes this narrative different from thousands in the nineteenth century is the fact it’s set on the cusp of the First World War. Jonathan Firth, who (perhaps unfortunately for him) almost always seems to play weedy, seedy aristocrats (except for when he played Prince Albert, against type), gets to subvert this type slightly, because of what happens to Hugo in the War. Meanwhile, Lucinda’s younger brother—the very Australian Bill (Nick Boulton)—is devastated when she leaves Australia and never comes to visit (this is her husband’s wife, not hers). Written in 1946, this novel seems to rail against Victorianism and modernism in equal measure and seems to hold Victorian antecedents of the Brayfords and the Vanes responsible. Juliet Aubrey is very sympathetic as Lucinda, much as she was as wronged wife Irene Forsyte in the radio adaptation of The Forsyte Saga a few years ago. Lucinda Brayford also starred Miranda Barber, Joann McCallum, Stephen Hogan, Robert Hastie, Helen Longworth, Alex Tregear, Niddi Del Fatti, Pax Baldwin, Hugh Dickson, and Eleanor Bron. It was directed by Janet Whittaker and originally broadcast in 2005.
I had heard a lot about the 2012 adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo as adapted by Sebastian Baczkiewicz and directed by Jeremy Mortimer and Sasha Yevtushenko; it was mentioned, very briefly, in my PhD about radio and audio drama. However, somewhat surprisingly, given how much radio drama I was listening to in 2012, I had never heard it before. It was a significantly long Classic Serial (in terms of hours), which I can only suppose reflects the length and complexity of the book. It’s a well-crafted, less-than-traditional adaptation, as you would expect by veteran radio writer Baczkiewicz. There’s a narrator, the grown-up Haydée (Jane Lapotaire), but there is a really nice effect in this adaptation where the lines of dialogue from unfolding scenes are intercut with her narration. This aids the sometimes non-chronological way the plot unfolds. However, the real strength is in the acting, which is all top-notch. Toby Jones infrequently gets to play heroes, and is somewhat typecast as the craven Danglars, one of the conspirators who transform innocent, heroic sailor Edmond Dantes into the ruthless, calculating hand of vengeance, the Count of Monte Cristo. Danglars, a sailor on the same ship as Dantes, conspires with Fernand (Zubin Varla), who is in love with Dantes’ fiancée Mercédès (Josette Simon), to get Dantes sent to the Chateau d’If (the Alcatraz of early nineteenth century France) on trumped up charges of Bonapartist insurrection, where Dantes is expected to rot and die. He survives, however, with his cell-mate Abbé Faria (Richard Johnson), a rather forbidding man who coaches Dantes in how to get his vengeance. The moment for escape finally arrives (rather like a similar incident, it must be said, in The Man in the Iron Mask). Dantes finds the Abbé’s hidden cavern of jewels on the nondescript rock of Monte Cristo, in the process making friends for life with Jacopo (Joe Sims), who mistakes him for a Maltese sailor (and rather endearingly calls him “Maltese” throughout the rest of the drama). The jewels make Dantes rich, and so he transforms himself into the Count of Monte Cristo while first masquerading as various men of the cloth to find out how and why he was imprisoned. This takes him to Caderousse (Ben Crowe), a seeming practice run for Victor Hugo’s Thénardier, an innkeeper who ultimately strangles his wife over a precious jewel. Decades later, the well-established Monte Cristo is ready to strike at his enemies (and reward his friends, the Morrells). Fernand has become a decorated general, but Monte Cristo exposes his treachery and greed. Mercédès, who married Fernand after waiting a long time for Dantes to return, is spared along with her son; she alone seems to be the only character who recognizes Dantes even though he has close contact with all these people he knew previously. Guess all that time in the Chateau d’If took a lot out of him. Maybe he needed better moisturizer. Anyway, this also introduces the character of Haydée, the daughter of a Turkish ally who was sold into slavery through Fernand’s actions. She seems to be in love with the much older Dantes, but that never seems to come to anything. Monte Cristo has to play a longer game with Danglars and Gérard de Villefort, the crown prosecutor who put him away. De Villefort is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting characters in the story, extremely flawed but perhaps the most self-aware of those Monte Cristo revenges himself upon. He is played by the extremely able Paul Rhys providing perhaps the most emotionally satisfying performance of the drama. Monte Cristo subtly tortures de Villefort and Danglars’ wife, Hermine (Stephanie Racine), with their shared secret. Meanwhile, Heloise de Villefort (Kate Fleetwood)—no paragon of virtue herself—has been trying to disinherit her step-daughter Valentine (Lizzy Watts). It only remains to be said that Iain Glen delivers a tour-de-force performance as the titular character, with a voice so clear it has stayed in my head for weeks afterwards. The Count of Monte Cristo also starred Robert Blythe, Karl Johnson, Will Howard, Paul Stonehouse, Adam Nagaitis and Eleanor Crooks.
Tuesday, April 14, 2020
012 Contemporary Comedy – Old
30 Eggs is a story that felt completely authentic, and while not without ugliness and betrayal, was also surprisingly charming. Modeste (Jude Akuwudike) is a blind man working the streets of a Rwandan town for money to get by, a living he shares with orphan Innocent (Milanne Gordon), who walks people through the rain using an umbrella. Modeste chides Innocent for spending his savings on fizzy drinks and movies, all the time explaining his deep desire to return to his hometown of Kiyumbe. When a chance windfall allows Modeste to plan their departure, Innocent accidentally spends all the money on 30 eggs. Thus begins their epic cross-country trip, using the eggs to barter their passage and sometimes losing them along the way. Innocent, while a childish, selfish boy at times, is filled with wild-eyed wonder (he becomes obsessed with King Kong). Likewise, Modeste is certainly not all he seems. Jude Akuwudike is wonderful, as usual, as Modeste, but Milanne Gordon steals the show as a totally cheeky, delightful Innocent. 30 Eggs was written by Eoin O’Connor, produced by Gemma McMullan, and was originally broadcast in 2015.