I’ve been a fan of the BBC’s radio drama for a long time, but my enthusiasm has grown hugely in recent years. The output is diverse, and its quality outstanding. At the time of writing Radio 4 is broadcasting Dangerous Visions – a series of adaptations of classic science fiction works, including Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man from Brian Sibley, Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, adapted by Jonathan Holloway, and a 15-minute piece by Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Lauren Beukes1. Over the past few days I’ve also listened to several Afternoon Plays via the BBC’s iPlayer service, as well as dramatisations of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya by Christopher Hampton, and Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge by Mike Walker.
Radio 4’s Afternoon Play is a bit like Forrest Gump’s box o’ chocolates: unsurprisingly they’re often dramatic, but they can also be funny, unusual, and often moving. Sometimes the productions are straight-through dramas, such as Referee by Nick Perry, the story of corruption in the beautiful game, or Justin Hopper’s Dog Days – the poignant tale of a father and son relationship set against the backdrop of independent greyhound racing. Others, such as Paul Cornell’s Something in the Water, use flashbacks or other interesting techniques to move the story along or give insight into character motivation and history.
One such play – the first to really make me sit up and think I want to write this stuff2 – is Déja Vu by French writer and actress Alexis Zegerman. Produced by the BBC in conjunction with the French Arté Radio, this play – which you can still listen to here! – uses some unusual, atmospheric sound effects and features a French linguaphone with issues. Pitched as a love story (although I’m not sure it is), Déja Vu also tackles issues of prejudice and race, and there’s a fascinating awkwardness between the lines of the characters’ relationship. I love the quirkiness in the way this play tells its story.
Linguaphone: My heart might explode. (whispers) All over this room.
“There’s nothing to spy except spiders”
I’ve become a particular fan of Katie Hims’ work. Hims’ plays often have an historical setting or connection. There’s a simplicity and disarming emotional connection that makes Hims’ plays immediately accessible and engaging. You know the people in her plays; very often you are the people in her plays.
Lost Property is a beautifully constructed 3-part story covering 70 years, interweaving lives and crossing continents as circumstances affecting evacuees in World War Two have a huge knock-on effect. Listening to the Dead: Four Sons is the story of baker’s wife Clara – a medium who finds herself unravelling as World War One looms: she knows her boys will go off to fight, and sees the fate that awaits them. Even the Prime Minister comes to hear of Clara’s “gift”.
Clara: I wish we had girls.
Narrator: But they didn’t. They didn’t have girls. They had four sons. A goalkeeper, a poet, a heartbreaker and a saint.
Not all Hims’ plays are tear-jerkers, though: Samson and Delilah features a matter-of-fact angel from oop north played by Sean Baker, who bursts into flames in order to return to heaven after informing Tracey – a hairdresser who’s desperate for a baby – that she’s finally going to have one – and all of the infant’s special requirements.
“She smelled of sulphur”
Productions in the Afternoon Play slot are also often humorous, such as Jeff Young’s The Exuberant, a story about rival meteorite hunters seeking a recent arrival. The HighLites: Wash and Blow series by Steve Chambers and Phil Nodding, recently broadcast in the 15-minute slot during Woman’s Hour, is set aboard a 5-day cruise around the fjords. The play takes place in one of the cabins, with the hum of the ship setting the scene, along with occasional announcements over the tannoy by the vessel’s captain, or references to various locations and events elsewhere on board. This really does, if you’ll excuse the pun, highlight (ahem) the importance of dialogue in this medium, with some wonderful wordplay throughout.
Bev: You need to face up to the harsh realities of life instead of burying your head in an ostrich, Nigel. It’s not too late to save your marriage.
Nigel: It’s over, Bev.
Bev: It’s not over ’til the fat baby sings.
“If the story changed, who would they be?”
For me as a writer and a genuine enthusiast of BBC radio drama, it’s exciting that the corporation actively seeks new talent3. Radio 4 recently broadcast 10 new plays under the heading of Original British Dramatists. The stand-out piece for me was The Cloistered Soul by Rachel Connor.
I connected with the The Cloistered Soul on many levels, but the space, gentle pace, acting performances and subtlety of production were all absolutely wonderful. As the story progressed I found myself thinking how has she done that? regarding Connor’s script, given the huge amount of space the dialogue enjoyed without slowing down the story. I’ve downloaded the script to read through when I listen again.
Dramas that delight and surprise
I can’t emphasise how much I love this stuff. The output is varied and challenging and often daring, giving opportunities for writers to really stretch themselves and tell stories in interesting ways. You won’t find anything like this anywhere else. It’s unique to us, and we’re very lucky to have material of this standard available. You can listen when you’re working, driving, walking the dog or ironing, or simply having a lazy morning in bed. Try a few of these plays out, and you might just find yourself converted.