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Reviews of radio and audio programmes around the world

Fact and Fiction in BBC Radio Drama- Radio and Audio Review 30th May 2011

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The newly refurbished Broadcasting House in Portland Place, London in 2006. Photo: Tim Crook

In the riches offered up in BBC audio drama over the last week there are powerful and poignant dramatisations of factual history and reality.

They include Mike Walker’s Sunk, David Baddiel’s Superinjunctions and Julia Hollander’s The Kingsnorth Six.

The Kingsnorth Six was an afternoon play (24 May 2011) made the BBC Radio Play download of the week (27 May 2011) and is based on the cause célèbre criminal trial of climate change activists. Their legally creative defence to climbing the coal-fired Kingsnorth Power Station in Kent in 2007 that allegedly caused £30,000 of criminal damage was put forward on the basis that they were acting for a ‘lawful purpose’ in preventing damage to the environment. The trial resulted in not guilty verdicts. The majority of the jury were convinced that they were indeed trying to save the world.

There is no doubt that this was a political play scripted by Julia Hollander, an author and journalist well known for her powerful memoir “When the Bough Breaks” about the realities of being a young mother of a child with cerebral palsy. Indeed it has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

Hollander skilfully interpolated the mountain climbing struggle and dangers of scaling the power station’s central chimney in the autumn of 2007 with the equally emotionally gruelling battle in court to avoid conviction and imprisonment in 2008. Given the fact that this production, like the others, was a studio based audio simulation, the performances, direction and sound design were very convincing.

I wondered if the acoustic of contemporary courtrooms had become more ‘room-like’ because I cannot say I felt that the legal arguments and cross-examination sounded like they were taking place in court, but perhaps my criticism is due to the fact I am of a generation more used to the ambience of Agatha Christie’s “Witness For The Prosecution.”

The director Fiona Kelcher fashioned excellent performances out of her cast so that they represented essentially middle-class professionals putting their lives and liberty on the line for a cause they strongly believed in. Judge and lawyers did not sound like caricatures.

Mike Walker is, according the BBC, “one of the UK’s leading radio dramatists and is also a feature and documentary writer and published author.” It is so nice of the corporation to take the trouble of showing such respect and appreciation to their authors. And Mr Walker certainly has the aura of prolific output. In recent weeks BBC Radio Four Extra has presented what seems like a festival of his plays.

His expertise on dramatising the early English kings, known as the Plantagenets, is being expressed in a rerun of his first series of three one hour plays on BBC Radio Four Extra, “What is a man?” “Lionheart”, and “John by the Grace of God.”

On BBC Radio Four, the Classic Serial is rolling out three further one hour plays in a second Plantagenet series starting with “Edward 1” first broadcast 29th May with a repeat next Saturday and a good two weeks of listen again opportunities.

But this review is going to give some attention to Sunk, (Saturday 28 May) his excellent dramatisation of the story behind the 1943 Nazi propaganda film, Titanic, which was up until then, the most expensive German film ever. It is said to be the first sound film of the disaster, commissioned by the notorious club-footed Dr. Josef Goebbels with a view to discrediting British and American capitalists. There are many ironies to this true story; not all of them contained in this outstanding one-hour production made at BBC Belfast.

It is not widely known that the BBC itself censored a plan to make a radio dramatisation of the disaster before the Second World War and in 1947 the BBC in Northern Ireland came under intense pressure to pull a play called “Sensations” about the sinking. The huge expense of the German production and many of the sub-plots and characterisations were present in James Cameron’s ultimately successful 1997 cinematic adventure.

The British production of the disaster, A Night to Remember in 1958, actually used sequences from the Nazi film so good were the effects and re-enactment of the events on the German cruise ship SS Cap Arcona in the Baltic.

And to pile ironies upon ironies, Goebbels eventually decided to ban it from distribution in the later years of the Second World War because the realistic depiction of civilian deaths resonated too closely with the casualties being created from allied carpet bombing.

It was banned from British and US post war distribution because of its virulently anti-capitalist propaganda agenda, though enthusiastically shown in Soviet occupied East Germany.

Poster for 1943 Nazi funded film on the disaster of the Titanic

Mike Walker’s script is agonisingly subtle in the way he turns the events into an allegory for the corruption and ‘sinking’ of the Third Reich itself.

He makes his central character the screenplay co-author Walter Zerlett-Olfenius and the plot engages the ongoing tensions, conflicts and betrayals in his friendship and professional collaboration with the film’s director and co-writer Herbert Selpin.

The true facts are contested. Why did Zerlett-Olfenius report Selpin to the Gestapo? Was Selpin executed or did he hang himself within 24 hours of his arrest? Mike Walker plumbs the depths of ego, jealousy, ambition, fear and human betrayal of friendship to fashion his dramatic explanation.

He brings onto the sound stage a delightfully menacing characterisation of Goebbels, played with relish by Jason Watkins, and the legendary actress Sybille Schmitz played with a spirit of smouldering decadence and narcissism by Lucy Cohu and heard to say “I’ve had a lot of hot sex,” on one occasion.

Schmitz, of course, became a German cultural icon as a result of R. W. Fassbinder’s adaptation of her unhappy life into his famous film Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss, some 27 years after her Titanic performance.

The Producer/Director, Gemma McMullan, sensibly avoided cod German accents and successfully evoked Nazi Berlin and the Baltic in a studio-based production.

Richard Laing as Zerlett-Olfenius, and Blake Ritson as Herbert Selpin captured the vulnerability and tragic corruption of being the more powerless pawns in the Nazi nightmare. One little quibble- their voices were somewhat similar, but then in a way they were brothers, and one would effectively murder the other like the biblical Cain and Abel. And Zerlett-Olfenius’s narration helped distinguish Walter from Bert.

“Sunk” is a rewarding listen and everyone involved in this production deserves the highest professional acclaim. It ended with the chilling explanation that the SS Cap Arcona, the film’s floating set, went down shortly after Goebbels had poisoned all his children and committed suicide with his wife. It was sunk by allied rocket planes who mistook the thousands of concentration camp passengers for troops and the drowning of 4,000 lives was greater in number than the 1,500 victims of Titanic.

“Superinjunctions” by David Baddiel, Saturday 28 May and Sunday 29 May, is probably the best of BBC Radio Four’s recent season of dramas on the week’s news “From Fact to Fiction.” It was an exquisitely witty and wicked satire on lawyers, judges, celebrities, journalists and politicians. The writing, direction, performance and sound design were as brilliantly hyper-intensive as the absurdity of a hyper-injunction. In barely 13 minutes this very, very clever team, directed by James Robinson, mocked and mocked and hit their targets with that insouciant and surly superiority perpetuated by the British Cambridge Footlights comedic tradition.

There is just something missing. This nugget of audio-dramatic Private Eye will, no doubt, be virally flicked as MP3 attachment from iPod to iPhone in the la la land of the super-political, cultural and media elite. You can hear media lawyers guffawing.

But who is really grasping the fact that freedom of expression in Britain is, for most people, dead in the water?  The play does not address that audience; those who will never own a gated inner London maisonette in Islington, never get a double first at Cambridge or Oxford, or enjoy the luxury of a second home in the country beyond the vista of a McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken drive thru. For the banning of the truth by English court orders extends far beyond the tit and nit so amusingly referred to in Baddiel’s outstanding playlet.

Audio of Review by Tim Crook

The 1943 Nazi film “Titanic” appears to be uploaded and available on YouTube broken up into 10 minute sequences. The first part is linked below.

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