Libertarianspirit's Blog

Reviews of radio and audio programmes around the world

Lenny Henry’s radio play, Bullitt audio-noir and an ASBO for Rumpole: Radio and Audio Review 6th June 2011

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Culture in Jamaica. Image: Jamaica Tourism

The dramaturg Lenny Henry has had a terrific scriptwriting debut with the production and broadcast of his first radio play, Corrinne Come Back and Gone, the afternoon play (Monday 30th May 2011) and the Radio Play Download of the week (Friday 3rd June 2011).

I have given Mr Henry the title of dramaturg because of his impressive and wide-ranging experience in professional drama. Not only is he an accomplished originator, scriptwriter and performer of comedic drama, in recent years he has widened his portfolio of expression and expertise. In serious drama he has successfully taken on Othello and Paul Robeson in stage and radio. He presents intelligent documentaries and in his mature years has embarked on the road of scholarship with first and second degrees at the Open University and Royal Holloway, University of London.

Lenny writes with confidence and pathos and his central character Corrinne Jackson captures the imagination and sympathy of the listener from the very first seconds of an immersive and accelerating opening:

She gets a letter from her daughter inviting her to return to Jamaica after twenty years. Her husband is dead. Twenty years earlier she fled to the UK leaving her children behind. Now there’s a chance to set things right.

His radio play challenges the romantic ‘Back a Yard’ mythology in British Caribbean folklore. His central character Corrinne fled humiliating and demeaning domestic violence as much as poverty. The male gender gets a pretty rough representation, though poignantly Corrinne’s daughters Bridie, Ruth and Simone articulate the emotion of grief as well as resentment of their father’s failings.

Confetti dancers in Jamaica. Image: Jamaica Tourism

Corrinne gets a phlegmatic reception from her daughters and her reconnections to their adult personas are far from the romantic dream. In the midst of hurt and apprehension, she recognises when they begin to call her mama. But Ruth is thirty stone and bingeing in prison on Chinese takeaways after dabbling in hard and soft drugs crime, Simone is living with her same-sex partner and effectively hiding in an Island society that would rather stone lesbianism than give it the dignity of social equality, and Bridie’s marriage and family life is blighted by the wife-beating ugliness that drove Corrinne to Wolverhampton twenty years before.

Clare Grove, a veteran and award-winning BBC staff director/producer, cast and directed magnificently. Although this was, I think, a studio based production, I felt as though I was in Jamaica. The story had a short scene filmic style pace that was exhilarating and compelling.

Claire Benedict as Corrinne, Nadine Marshall as Bridie, Clare Perkins as Ruth, and Petra Letang as Simone gave excellent performances bringing out the depth of their characters as well as the rich vocalisation of Lenny’s writing.

Rick's Café in Jamaica. Image by Matthew Blake

Bridie’s husband makes the fatal mistake of raising his hand and striking out at his mother-in-law when challenged. So when Corrinne returns to the British Black country, she has more than Caribbean tourist trinkets to return home with.

I wondered whether we needed another 12 minutes of script to give space to Ruth’s rehabilitation as proprietor of her own Chinese takeaway and Simone’s resettlement with her partner in Canada.

Lenny’s play would have been more than welcome then in the Friday Play spot; somewhat controversially axed last year…Or has it really gone?

I ask the question because repeats keep popping up. And when they do, it is most welcome. Recently we had the gut wrenchingly powerful RIP Boy by Sean McCay and on Friday 3rd June we had a repeat of the production of Bullitt by BBC North. It was first broadcast in the Saturday play slot in 2009.

Yes Bullitt is a dramatisation of the novel by Robert L Pike whose plot and story-line was transported from East Coast to West Coast by Hollywood for the unforgettable Steve McQueen movie released in 1968.

Film poster for Steve McQueen film of Bullitt 1968. Designed by Michel Landi

No such liberties were taken by Adrian Bean’s dramatisation that in my opinion was wonderfully faithful to the original novel. We are in New York in 1963:

Lieutenant Clancy, head throbbing from days without sleep, is assigned to protect an important Mafia witness Johnny Rossi. But when he’s found dead, Clancy has only a matter of hours to find the killer before his enemy Assistant District Attorney Chalmers finds out.

If the director Pauline Harris is to get a prize for her excellent production, and car chases are her thing, the BBC should hire a stunt driver, stick a sound recordist with a Soundfield Surround microphone into a Ferrari and give her the most thrilling and exciting car chase experience of her life.

Obviously New York City would be preferred. But if there have to be budgetary considerations, Manchester and Salford would do; provided the Greater Manchester Police are willing.

Oh and they should strap Jason Isaacs to the back seat so he could reprise his superb performance as Lieutenant Clancy. Jason knows how to act close microphone insomniac film noir cop getting woken up at three o’clock in the morning. This production was an audio-noir connoisseur’s dream.

New York City Skyline. Image: Jen Davis, New York City Tourism

Anyone with an ear for New York City’s dialects would realise that we had a few gestures to what might be described as film noir pastiche. If they wanted more realism, I would have recommended that director and cast studied a CBS radio documentary from 1956 ‘Cops and Robbers’ where recently retired real cops improvised in a Columbia Workshop documentary.

Cover for 1997 paperback edition published by Bloomsbury

This felt more like 1948 black and white celluloid New York City rather than Californian San Francisco 1968 widescreen technicolour. Perhaps that was the idea.

But I loved what they did with the story. Largely because I am a 52nd Precinct Londoner and when in New York can only afford to stay in Hotel Farnsworths.

Kerry Shale (I’m pretty sure he’s a Canadian from Winnipeg) was amazingly versatile as Ada Chalmers, Barnett, Renick and Johnny Rossi who gets a bullet or two and then the knife in the first fifteen minutes. Ah but John Biggins got a credit for playing Johnny Rossi as well. And there is a good reason why I shouldn’t tell you which Johnny Rossi gets the shotgun shells and knife wound.

The Friday Play has a residue branding of:

The home of thrillers, mysteries, romance and detective stories. A real treat for lovers of a good story well told.

In my opinion my BBC licence fee is being paid to commission drama on a weekly and hourly basis at this time. While I and many more increasingly impoverished middle class folk are giving up holidays, and diminishing disposable income pleasures to keep a roof over our heads, and pay the leccy, I do not see why the BBC should not sacrifice some upper salary remuneration margins to maintain its core cultural raison d’etre, which is drama production in radio, television and film. Some more of the same and more of it please not less.

I always thought of the Friday night play between 9 and 10 p.m. as an opportunity to give an outing for Royal Court style play-making as well as a good thriller and detective story well-told. Good luck to the new BBC Radio Four controller if she can find a way of restoring it in some way.

Rumpole has returned with a two part production of The Anti-Social Behaviour of Horace Rumpole in the Afternoon Play slot (Part 1 Friday 3rd June 2011) Part 2 will get an outing Friday 10th June 2011):

ASBOS may be the pride and joy of new Labour, but they don’t cut much ice with Horace Rumpole; he takes the old fashioned view that if anyone is going to be threatened with a restriction of their libery then some form of meaningful legal procedure ought to be put in place.

Not that Hilda agrees of course, but she’s too busy completing her memoirs and planning a radical new career to dissuade him from taking an interest when one of the Timson children is given an ASBO for playing football in the street. And if that wasn’t enough, Rumpole’s colleagues have voiced some rather prudish objections to the small cigars and glasses of red wine he enjoys in his room in Chambers. They may even slap an ASBO on him, which won’t help his cause of being appointed a QC at long last!

Timothy West and Prunella Scales, a veritable knight and lady of radio drama, are brilliant as Horace and Hilda. This was a lovingly created production by Catherine Bailey for BBC Radio 4 and directed by the equally wonderful Marilyn Imrie. I know all of the Rumpole stories intimately and all of the productions, radio and television as well as the prose. Yes, my dog-eared Penguin paperbacks that I avidly consumed while waiting for dithering juries to return their verdicts are still on the bookshelves. The spirit of John Mortimer

Rumpole's hunting ground

QC, whose real-life advocacy at the Old Bailey, I had the pleasure of reporting on thirty or so years ago, would surely be very proud of this latest radio adaptation.

But these two forty five minute broadcasts are repeats from first transmissions in 2008. Is it not time we had something new from the Rumpole wine bar?

I finish with some by the way recommendations. The BBC’s radio production of all of John Le Carré’s Smiley novels is being rerun on BBC Radio Four Extra, along with the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (the Clive Merrison interpretation) and another run of the opportunity to develop some audio drama scriptwriting skills in the Chain Gang.

And BBC Radio Four has begun a Radio Documentary of the week download. Marvellous. I may no longer be able to afford Sky, but I know I am getting jewels in the radio crowns from Auntie in MP3 download as well as radio realtime.

Sound of Radio Review by Tim Crook


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