BBC Radio Drama- a powerful force for story telling, audio literature and sound performance
The BBC’s weekly output in radio drama is a magnificent creative and cultural achievement unrivalled by any other country in the world. Its significance and contribution to the arts are priceless. The challenge any week is to listen to all of the riches and gifts being broadcast online and on Radios 4, 3 and 4 Extra.
In the field of scale and innovation BBC Radio has offered four important production, broadcasting and online podcasting projects in recent months that have engaged with multi-media and deserve discussion.
The most engaging and successful was the dramatisation by Mike Walker and Jonathan Myerson over eight hours of ’Life and Fate’ by Vasily Grossman. Thirteen episodes were broadcast from 18th to 25th September 2011 on Radio 4. It was an epic masterpiece introducing Grossman as another Chekhov, Tolstoy and Pasternak.
The direction by Alison Hindell and Jonquil Panting was magisterial and the performances by a quite brilliant cast that included Kenneth Branagh, David Tennant, Greta Scacchi, Harriet Walter, Janet Suzman, Samuel West, John Sessions and Sara Kestelman unforgettable, I thought among the outstanding of 2011.
‘Life and Fate’ centred around the bloody battle of Stalingrad, charted the fate of both a nation and a family in the turmoil of war. And its content explored the human agonies and philosophical nihilism of Soviet totalitarianism. The BBC clearly enjoyed rolling the promotional line: ‘Completed in 1960, the novel was deemed so dangerous by the KGB that the book itself was arrested.’
BBC Radio 4 scheduled this extraordinarily complex and wonderful production over 13 slots across its various dramatic genres and more importantly made every episode available for download. This means that I can happily listen to this significant event in radio drama history again and again.
Whilst it is somewhat churlish to elevate one person’s performance over any other, I thought it was certainly among the finest I had ever heard from Kenneth Branagh. He is not short of awards in his excellent career, but he certainly deserved a special radio drama gong for ‘Life and Fate.’
The BBC invested much creativity and synoptic multimedia collaboration for the ‘Life and Fate’ project including a charming graphic setting out the characters and their familial relationships. Writing and direction were so strong I didn’ t need it, but what marvellous thoughtfulness in making it available for listeners.
Branagh didn’t get a gong at the BBC’s inaugural Audio Drama Awards kick-started in January this year, but the genius in establishing this as an annual event to celebrate audio drama of all kinds (even independently produced and transmitted on non-BBC platforms) is more than welcome.
The BBC did support radio drama writing awards a decade or two past. They were called the Giles Cooper awards, named after one of this country’s great sound playwrights, with the winning scripts published by Methuen. The clot or clots responsible for deleting them are not worth remembering or even mentioning. But if they are reading this posting, I hope they experience a wave of nausea and shame.
I had no quibbles with the winning productions and artists because marking high quality performance in a first past the post ritual is incredibly subjective, and somewhat absurd after talent bubbles above a certain threshold. David Tennant’s performances in radio plays last year were so good he could have taken Best Actor for any one of them including the part of Commissar Nikolai Krymov in ‘Life and Fate.’
Certainly the Innovation Award to the suitably random production of B S Johnson’s 1969 novel ‘The Unfortunates’, adapted by Graham White, produced by Mary Peate for Radio 3 was more than well-deserved. It is about time the BBC repeated it or left it and all of its other marvellous productions permanently online. But then the cost in artists’ royalties would probably put a premium on the BBC license fee.
And the days when certain people at the BBC were unnecessarily disparaging and discouraging of any other audio drama created elsewhere in Britain, particularly on independent commercial radio, seem to have passed.
The category of Best Online Only Drama had 2 nominations from outside the democratic socialist republic of Broadcasting House:
‘Rock’ by Tim Fountain Producer: Iain Mackness, Made in Manchester for The Independent Online. (Winner)
‘Wild Hackney’ Producer: Francesca Panetta and Russell Finch for Hackney Podcast.
‘Rock’ adapted the critically acclaimed stage play of the same name [About Rock Hudson] for audio online and I suppose you could call that a form of wired radio. It was ‘transmitted’ by the Independent newspaper. This was certainly full-on and full length audio drama (46 minutes) for the web. I thought ‘Wild Hackney’ by Francesca Panetta’s innovative and highly creative community podcast site was more experimental with the audio drama form mixing documentary, soundscape and traditional audio dramatic narration.
I would not have envied anybody having to shortlist or select the best adaptation and the nominees were scripts and productions I much admired:
Producer: Eoin O’Callaghan, BBC Northern Ireland Radio 4;
Producer: John Dryden, Goldhawk Productions Radio 4;
Producers: David Hunter, Gemma Jenkins and Jeremy Mortimer, BBC Radio Drama Radio 4
‘Alone in Berlin’ by Hans Fallada was first published in Germany in 1947 and I suppose it was British xenophobia and jingoistic prejudice in wanting to continue to frame all Germans as ‘Achtung Nazis’ that kept it from our English speaking reach and consciousness for so long. We should have heeded the words of Primo Levi who declared that the novel is “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis.”
The fiction is drawn from reality and I presume it was inspired by the extraordinary courage of The White Rose (die Weiße Rose) non-violent, intellectual resistance group of students from the University of Munich and their philosophy professor. The death by guillotine of the young activist brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl and their comrades haunts German history and Lillian Garrett-Groag’s play, The White Rose that premiered at the Old Globe Theatre, San Diego, California in 1991 was a worthy theatrical commemoration of the story.
And so we come onto Charles Dickens whose birthday bicentenary BBC Radio have inevitably gone over the top on. Well I don’t mind. On BBC Radio 4 Extra I have lapped up Dickens BBC dramatisations galore: Nicholas Nickleby, Our Mutual Friend, Great Expectations, Barnaby Rudge, Hard Times, Old Curiosity Shop etc, etc etc.
BBC R4 laid out a new dramatisation of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’- perhaps appropriate in the wake of revolutions over Arabia, and like with ‘Life and Fate’ 5 episodes became available for podcast downloading.
‘A Tale of Two Cities’ is in fact one of the more difficult novels to adapt. This is because it is saturated with caricature in the minor characters, top heavy with political ideology, and has Charles Dickens himself, as the author narrator, dancing and waving his hands about in nearly every scene. I know this because I dramatised it myself for LBC, London and NPR USA in 1989, though I got a flea’s plop of credit for it in this country. Sue Arnold of the Observer gave me a metaphorical turnip, and the BBC brigade articulated contempt and hatred.
It might well be apparent that I have not exactly recovered from the humiliation, but I am glad to say I think I am mature enough not to return the bad favours. What I liked about the BBC R4 dramatisation 2012, adaptation by Mike Walker, and direction by Jeremy Mortimer and Jessica Dromgoole was that it held down the melodrama and thus gave us more humanity than bluster in the story.
Nowadays you get producers’ blogs with some productions (that’s open door policy for you) so the students and practitioners of audio drama get a lot more for their license fee than the sound of the production. And Jessica Dromgoole is truly inspirational in the work she does at BBC Radio Drama.
Robert Lindsay performed Charles Dickens, who was properly placed in the narration and action, and directed and played subtly- something of a miracle when you consider the size and glow of the Dickensian ego.
Dickens was more Edmund Burke than Thomas Paine when it came to
revolutions. He was a moral Chartist rather than a physical one. This means you can’t shake off the political and bourgeois sentimentality in the story spiralled into high Heaven with the characterisation of Sydney Carton who for me will always be Dirk Bogarde, but was nobility itself in the performance of Paul Ready.
I also admired the writing, performance and direction of the great female fight scene between Miss Pross and Therese Defarge. The anger and the violence were internalised in subtext and more tragic. Well done Alison Steadman and Tracy Wiles.
BBC R4 also gave us Ayeesha Menon’s reworking of Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, set and recorded on location in Mumbai, India. Original, curious and brilliant. This was an independent production from Goldhawk and created and produced more like a film.
And this now brings us to the enduring struggle by BBC Radio/Audio drama to reconcile itself with the visual medium. The Charles Dickens fest has generated Dickens in London: A-Not-Overly-Particularly-Taken-Care-of-Boy and Dickens in London: The Sparkler of Albion. These were 2 fifteen-minute dramas and are best explained by the BBC:
‘…part of a cross-platform project which brings together artist film-maker Chris Newby and writer Michael Eaton to form a biographical portrait of Dickens’s life through words, film and Dickensian puppets. (A BBC Radio Drama and Film London Artists’ Moving Image Network co-production in association with Arts Council England.)’
I am sure they cost a few bob. Well they were worth it. Because they worked online, but I am not sure they would in the cinema. The puppetry, film, animation and documentary and creative photography contrapuntally paralleled the audio.
Though for the life of me I have never been able to understand why radio drama sound always sounds like radio drama sound when creatively interpenetrated with film. Perhaps that’s the point.
Did I watch through the films for the entire duration? No. I had to go back again and again. Why? Because my Blackberry flashed with an email message. Kenny Dalglish was on Liverpool TV. And I had a craving for a packet of Maltesers.
The BBC and its collaborators have kindly allowed a license for web buccaneers such as myself (haha) to embed both sound films. And you would have had them here if I could have got their embedding codes to work. In any case even if I had, the rights for access only lasted one or two months so the worthy experiment would have ended up as online wormholes which they do not deserve:
BBC Radio is experimenting with 2D, 3D and 5D sound. Another way of describing it would be different spatial fields of Binaural (for headphone listening) It’s difficult to explain, easier to demonstrate, though you need a little patience. The delightful dramatisation of Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful was recorded in the West Country on location and although I think the original novel was written for children, the story carried well for people unfamiliar with the cruel injustices of the Great War. Private Peaceful mythologised the horror and unfairness of executing soldiers for so-called cowardice.
The earlier adaptation of Morpurgo’s ‘War Horse’ for radio was
magnificent. The Saturday Play version of Private Peaceful came with 4 different MP3 file downloads and an explanation of the immersive listening qualities of each from the BBC Audio and Music’s head of technology Rupert Brun.
This followed a charming and effective experiment with the broadcast in surround sound of the King’s College Cambridge Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. There were six different versions to bathe one’s ears and hearing in.
Since I was something of a surround sound pioneer in audio drama in that I was told by Prix Italia in 1996 that I had entered the first surround sound radio drama for the Radio Fiction Prize (Still Stationery by Andrew Smith) and during the middle to late 90s produced all of LBC’s radio plays in Dolby Prologic Surround Sound, I was a succour for the Private Peaceful listening.
Yes, indeed I heard the play (90 minutes) four times. And whilst I do like BBC radio drama, I have to say my attention and patience began to wane. Not least because I was downloading software, fiddling with headphones and falling over surround sound speaker leads and amplifiers.
It was a shame the software from the Fraunhofer web site could not operate for more than 2 weeks. And I still think my HDMI lead is still connected to my brain’s circuit board. But the BBC are very sincere and earnest about this and have evaluated the feedback they had from the Carols’ audio event.
I am very sorry but I have an aversion to form filling so did not contribute any feedback on Private Peaceful- apart from this blog. All I can say is yes, wonderful, rich and enjoyable, but in reality most of my radio drama listening is in the car, from an old mono-speaker, Blackberry with headphones and a tranny. I did get a radio in a fake microphone for Christmas once and this hung and hummed in the shower until the damp did for it.
I loved getting the little test bursts of sound for the left speaker, right speaker, centre speaker, surround left, surround right. It was a bit like going to the opticians and getting puffs of air to test the air pressure in the eye sockets. Hundreds of listeners have taken part in the surveys. It is interesting that in relation to the Carols ’87% agreed that their preferred version sounded spacious.’
I think over the years I have always evaluated how every radio/audio drama production in terms of how ‘spacious’ it sounds, feels, and imagines. But what is meant by ‘spacious’? Essay in 5,000 words or a PhD thesis of 100,000 words please.
By now I hope I have persuaded any reader to this posting that the headline for it has substance. Which brings me on to another matter of importance.
It would be astonishing if every national newspaper, even the so-called tabloids, did not have a dedicated radio reviewer. But it is a bizarre fact that a campaign is being waged and a petition being collected to persuade the Guardian no less to maintain a regular daily radio reviewer.
This is a good time to pay respect and tribute to the veritable monarch and Dame of all radio reviewers, Gillian Reynolds of the Daily Telegraph. Her writing every week is insightful, original and honest.
She speaks her mind and every controller of every BBC and independent radio channel has learned over the years that while she likes people being nice to her, no amount of flattery and shhmoozing is going to assuage her if her ears and imagination are assaulted with audio garbage. This last week she reviewed a muddled documentary on BBC Radio 5 Live about a muddled war ‘Bosnia: the Forgotten Victims’ that revisited the massacre Colonel Bob Stewart, now an MP, witnessed the aftermath of 19 years ago. Gillian concluded:
‘I only hope, between the sports and the phone-in, some 19 year-old may have heard it and taken from it what war is really like.’
Gillian is not just a high culture follower. Any regular listener to some of the increasingly juvenile style (to my old ears anyway) of presentation on BBC Five Live would have had no idea the network bothered with serious documentary.
Her recent review centred on BBC R3 radio drama output- small audiences, exceedingly expensive production budgets. And I am delighted to say she focused on 2 productions that were resonant for me in the sense that I continued to think about what I had heard afterwards.
From the Wire strand, Al Kennedy’s ‘That I Should Rise’- the BBC explained was ’A gripping insight into self-destructiveness and recovery… darkly comic drama about an alcoholic pub musician.’
The cast were incredible in the emotional depths and warmth of human soul that they were able to fathom from the script, and breath through their emotionalised voices: Tim McInnerny, Harriet Walter and Lia Williams really were sheer class.
Gillian was irritated by the warnings about language, content and the usual verbal paraphernalia of announcements about therapy and advice lines. For goodness sake this is BBC R3 at night. When we talk about adult listening we are not talking about a license to listen to audio-porn.
Having had personal experience of people with alcoholism, I could tell that this play was not ‘playing’ with the subject. There was a dimension of a British ‘Leaving Las Vagas’ where some human sympathy and understanding could be explored in the degradation of alcoholism. As the Telegraph’s critic so rightly said:
‘This was a fine play, grimly funny for being so accurate about the delusions and self-pity of the drunk, honest about what a drinker in the house will do to any kind of family life.’
Gillian also focused on the channel’s Sunday play ‘Sunset’ by Doug Lucie: about ‘a fictional writer who has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature but finds that accepting it will bring a very high price for his family.’ The performances by Julian Glover and Stella Gonet made a play about human ethics intensely interesting in terms of drama and psychology.
And so Gillian’s conclusion, I would venture to suggest is evidence of elegant reviewing, the like of which I would be hard to find in relation to any other genre of literature or culture anywhere else:
‘Plays like this take you to the heart of what is it like to live. Pain, pride, responsibility, guilt all jump on you. Writers like Kennedy and Lucie help you see the pattern, comprehend the meaning. News, even as it becomes history, is harder to bear.’
If radio means anything to you, bookmark or Internet alert her previewing and reviewing, or even better buy the Telegraph. The paper is worth getting for the radio coverage in itself. And you never know how long it is going to last. In my experience the best things in life never do.
The theme of this review posting is that something is crackling about radio drama at the moment and more and more people are recognising it. And if other national newspapers don’t get it, there are plenty of enlightened thinkers, listeners and writers out there who do and they will do independent reviewing.
Laurence Raw is one such diamond and platinum egg. Radio Drama Reviews Online is on the case. He too has listened to and analysed ‘Sunset’ and ‘That I Should Rise’. Laurence’s criticism is very well written. If he can sustain his current level of output, radio dramatists, actors, directors, producers and sound designers are going to find a morale-boosting and culturally appreciative reference point for all their work.
On ‘Sunset’ he observes that the fictional central character Andrei Demidov:
”was quite literally in the “sunset” of his days, with little to show for his efforts apart from his books.’
On ‘That I should Rise’ he opens with a poignant and pithy definition of the plot and characters:
‘Simon (Tim McInnerny) and Jean (Harriet Walter) resemble two unattractive ships that pass in the night.’
Laurence has been checking out the alternative offerings in audio drama online beyond the rich pastures of BBC output. These include a recent review of the output of the Wireless Theatre Company who are now producing what they describe as ‘audio 3D’. It’s marvellous that a play and production such as ‘The Autopsy’ by Gareth Parker can received qualitative critical reviewing.
Laurence’s review of ‘Sweeney Todd and the String of Pearls’ by Yuri Rasovsky brings attention to the work of one of America’s long standing practitioners of the audio drama arts, though it is somewhat tragic that he passed away only a few weeks ago.
In late October Norman Corwin, regarded as the veritable American Shakespeare of radio passed away in Hollywood aged 101. He has always been celebrated as America’s “poet laureate of radio.” I can recommend the DVD interview with Corwin produced in 2006 and any re-listening of any of his work revives the human spirit and touches the poetic heart of radio drama as an art form.
It seems such a pity that Rasovsky’s work remains in the realm of marginalised artisanship on a webcast such as ‘Radio Drama Revival’ rather than distributed and promoted on mainstream networked radio such as NPR, Sirius, Pacifica or CBS.
One of the most remarkable and heart-warming web-sites on the Internet is ‘Radio Plays and Drama.’ It is a quite brilliant resource on the modern history of radio drama and I would argue that it is one of the most important ‘unofficial’ museums of the art-form in the country. Some of the people involved in compiling the content or uploading the material would appear to be Nigel Deacon and Roger Bickerton.
They are trying to track down lost plays i.e. recordings not preserved by the BBC. Their work is truly heroic. And the site has an array of fascinating articles about writers, studio managers, directors and actors in the radio drama field. I think it is unrivalled and truly outstanding.
They have a magnificent page on Radio Drama Producers. The contribution and work of directors and producers in UK independent radio during the 1980s and 1990s should be given some credit and recognition. Perhaps it is time we set up our own online archive directory of all of the output and included 3 minute sound extracts that our contracts allowed for promotion and educational use.
The page on the work of Yuri Yasovsky is most informative in revealing that Yuri directed the only US production of a Giles Cooper play ‘Mathry Beacon’. Mr. Deacon’s correspondence with Yuri, perhaps by email, is reproduced.