How quickly time passes—I’d just finished the Quarter 1 Review, and now it’s time to give the Quarter 2. As ever, an embarrassment of riches.
001 Historical Drama – New
2016 was the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth, and there were plenty of plays to mark the occasion. The 15 Minute Drama for a week was Charlotte Brontë in Babylon, based on the short amount of time the novelist spent in London, as opposed to at her home in gloomy Haworth, Yorkshire. I know more than the average person about the Brontës, though I can’t claim to be an expert, and much of the information contained in the drama was new to me. I liked that it presented a rounded portrait of Charlotte, the most outward-facing of the sisters, detailing both her virtues and faults. Tonally, this was very bright, belying the eventual tragedy in a way that was very suitable to the play’s depiction of Charlotte. At first I was quite annoyed by the broad Yorkshire accent she had (well, it wasn’t that broad but it wasn’t subtle either), but eventually I decided it was a stylistic choice, to show that her personality was connected to her foreign-ness (her northern-ness in London) and vice versa. Charlotte got furious when William Thackeray kept calling her Jane Eyre, but despite this, she showed real pride throughout her London episodes, much like Jane Eyre, and just wouldn’t let things go, for peace’s sake. Her young, handsome, rich, and marriageable publisher, Mr Smith, is in a difficult position dramatically: is he a fool? Is he pure mercenary? At least as depicted here, he wasn’t knowingly exploiting Charlotte, but his society expectations of what she expected in return for “fun” were very far removed from poor Charlotte’s. Not that she ever lets anyone (including her confidante Ellen) see how much she would have liked to have married him. Mrs Smith is also played sympathetically, considering the fact she forces her son to squeeze Charlotte out of a marriage proposal is ultimately what throws Charlotte into the path of Mr Bell Nicholls who is ultimately the cause of her death! I can empathize with Charlotte and her reactions to the way her work is treated. As the story grew darker and darker, I realized that I had been enjoying it more than I thought.
The rest of this quarter was dominated by Tommies, and strictly speaking the episodes I heard were from last year. Nevertheless, I’ve put them in the “New” category as they are closely related to episodes being broadcast this year. I kept up very regularly with the first few seasons of Home Front but just ran out of time and didn’t have time for Tommies, either. The first episode I heard was from 2015, by Nick Warburton, and I found it very hard-going at first. I was almost going to give up. Yet, after the first half hour, something clicked, and ever since, I’ve been following Tommies with great enthusiasm. I think it’s a great dramatic project and a program of high quality. Like Home Front, Tommies is predicated on following events exactly 100 years ago. Tommies is necessarily based at the actual front and follows interconnected characters based on meticulous research by series co-producer Jonathan Ruffell. Indeed, some of the best episodes are by Ruffell.
The Tommies: 4 November 1915 episode is by Ruffell and was my favorite episode of Tommies from Quarter 2, partly because it was extremely well-done, but partly because I knew absolutely nothing about this theatre of war (Mesopotamia). I have admired what I’ve heard of Tommies so far because it has focused quite a bit on the Anglo-Indian troops; heretofore, most media on WWI has not stressed their contribution, and these plays are admirably filling that gap. Ahmadullah (Danny Rahim) and Zarbab (Avin Shah) are from the Signals Corps of Lahore, and are stuck out in Mesopotamia with their English sergeant Sidney (Nicholas Mercie). Overconfidence causes their boat on the Tigris to break down, and they go on a very dangerous mission into the desert interior, trying to deliver signal equipment to the British forces who are being attacked by Arabs. I immediately understood and sympathized with the various characters, who were both unique and identifiable. While dangerously close to death from dehydration, Ahmadullah confronts his mother and father, and his anguish was palpable. Perhaps it even kept him alive. 4 November 1915 also starred Ramak Putani, Suda Butcha, Kolvin Dagir, David Hounslow, and David Acton. It takes a little while to get used to Indira Varma as the Commentator, but her neutral and yet accessible voice binds the whole thing together. It was directed by David Hunter.
Another winner from the series co-creator, Tommies: 11 November 1915 plunged me headlong into the story of the main protagonist of the series, Mickey Bliss (Lee Ross), who (long before I started listening to the series) rose from humble origins in the Lahore Division and is now an officer. He’s already experienced friction among the other officers due to his different perspective, so he’s very much a 21st century kind of hero. Furthermore, his involvement with the Signal Corps relates directly to the development of radio as a mass communication device, which makes Tommies quite meta-textual. Despite feeling like I had missed crucial backstory, I felt like this was a powerful piece and quite different from your usual Remembrance Day fiction. Mickey here is surprised by the crusty old officer “Ting-a-ling” Bell who actually helps him get the Signal Corps more status at the expense of his own career. At the same time, Céléstine de Tullio (Pippa Nixon)—evidently they have been on-again, off-again lovers for fifteen years—walks back into his life, drunk on rum and telling him to “blot his notebook” (whatever that means?!) and get invalided out so they can become Serbian freedom fighters (or something). There is some very good radio kissing between the two (very difficult to do) but they end up separating, as Céléstine loves the war too much. She tells Mickey she tortured men in Russia. She seems mentally unstable, but what a part for an actress to play—the scene between them both was incandescent. It’s hard to know what the future holds for them, however. Lee Ross is a very underappreciated actor, so while it’s been nice to hear him popping up in radio drama in the last few years, he really deserves a role like Mickey Bliss and plays it superbly.