Mart’s Radio Highlight of the Week – Graeae’s Midwich Cuckoos

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Graeae’s Midwich Cuckoos is a fresh take on a science fiction classic: the English village of the title has a “day out”, following which all the women of child-bearing age mysteriously become pregnant, with the resulting infants developing at an unnatural rate and demonstrating mysterious powers.

She makes me do things.
Do things?
With her eyes.

The script and acting are wonderful, with subtle sound design adding a distinctly sinister atmosphere. Tyrone Huggins who plays Zellerby has a delicious voice, which is perfectly complimented by that of Alexandra Mathie who plays Janet. And if like us you’re a Corrie fan, you may recognise Molly, played by Cherylee Houston.

Graeae is apparently a disabled-led theatre company. On one hand this is a fundamental part of this production and key to its character, but on the other it’s wholly irrelevant: like Radio 4’s recent production of The ChrysalidsGraeae’s Midwich Cuckoos is true to the quality and classic British SF feel of Wyndham’s original novel.

I suppose we have lived so long in a garden that we have all but forgotten the common places of survival. If you want to keep alive in the jungle, you must live as the jungle does.

The script for episode one is available to download here.
You can find my other radio-related posts here.

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I’m a writer, editor, and Royal Literary Fund Fellow.
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Mart’s Movie of the Month – Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

When I first heard about this film on The Jonathan Ross Show I was a bit meh. I mean, it’s a romance innit. But Mrs S was keen, so off we went. Now, having seen it this afternoon, I can safely say Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is everything a movie should be: great story, great script, really great acting, looks great, sounds great. Just… great. And not a dry eye in the house.

So that’s five stars from Mart. And I can tell you that’s as rare as four 10s on Strictly, because I, ladies and gentlemen, am a tough crowd. And not only that, five stars for a romance innit!

Go and catch Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool on the big screen while you can, because it’s a quality piece of British cinema with spectacular performances from all involved. Meanwhile, here’s a link to the official trailer.

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I’m a writer, editor, and Royal Literary Fund Fellow.
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Mart’s Radio Highlight of the Week – A Badge, by Tony Pitts

When I learned another play by Tony Pitts was due for broadcast I knew it would be a belter. His previous plays Pact and Monster were incredible: the former, the darkest radio play I’ve ever heard; the latter, a skilful examination of the secrets lurking behind so many ordinary front doors.

Written in Pitts’ unique, powerful style, and with remarkable acting performances from all concerned, A Badge chronicles a young mother’s journey as she discovers that one of her sons is autistic, and how coming to terms with this, and the prejudice she encounters along the way, shape her entire life.

I can never cut the strings. Never. All his life he needs me. I have to do it. I’m his mum. Michael’ll leave one day. Make his own way. Might come back if he needs me and I’ll put my mum badge back on. But I can’t take off my mum badge with Daniel. I can never do that with him.

A Badge is an essential, moving, and indeed educational production for anyone interested in quality drama, regardless of whether you’re personally affected by the subject matter.

You can find my other radio-related posts here.

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I’m a writer, editor, and Royal Literary Fund Fellow.
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GF Newman’s The Corrupted

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been catching up with series three of GF Newman’s The Corrupted, a superlative drama recently broadcast on BBC Radio 4. If you’re looking for an audio equivalent of gritty TV drama to listen to on your commute or when cooking (one of my favourite times to listen), then you should give this a try.

Continuing the story of the Oldman family, this series of The Corrupted is set in 1970s gangland London, all bent coppers, geezers and grasses, stitch-ups, slags and dodgy deals. Including news and celebrities of the day, The Corrupted skilfully merges fact and fiction in an absorbing 10-episode story arc, with superb writing, acting and production. (Episode 1 also includes the most spectacularly performed orgasm I’ve ever heard on radio. I went quite red in the face!)

GF Newman’s The Corrupted is another great example of why I love audio drama. At the time of writing episode 1 is available via BBC iPlayer for another five days, so download and enjoy the series now.

Click here for a blog by GF Newman on the BBC Writersroom website.
Click here to visit GF Newman’s website.
Read my other radio drama posts.


I’m a writer, editor, and Royal Literary Fund Fellow.
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Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack

I’ve just finished re-reading Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack. Set in New York at an unspecified date, Random Acts… is the story of 12-year old Lola Hart’s experiences as her family’s situation takes a downturn, against a backdrop of political and economic turmoil.

We see Lola’s development through entries in her diary, which she names Anne. The difficulties faced by anyone of her age are compounded by her family’s changing circumstances and the deterioration of the world she knows. When we join Lola’s story it is her birthday. She is a happy, contented child, with insight into the adult world she will soon begin to join.

February 15

Mama says mine is a night mind. The first time she said that I asked her what she meant and she said ‘Darling you think best in the dark like me.’ I think she’s right. Here I am staying up late tonight so I can write in my new diary. Mama gave it to me for my birthday today. I love to write. Mama and Daddy write but I don’t think they love to write anymore, they just write because they have to.

With money increasingly tight, the family is forced to move to a cheaper, less desirable area of the city. Lola’s middle-class friends abandon her, and her sister Cheryl, whom she nicknames Boob, becomes withdrawn as the stresses take their toll. Her father is forced to take a low-paid, high-pressure job.

As Lola mixes with new people and forges new relationships, her entire life is altered, the transformation she experiences wonderfully conveyed through the language used in her diary. Even the typesetting and punctuation change to reflect Lola’s shifting life. By summer, she has transformed.

July 5

It’s certified that nobody got through the riot glass clear and sure enough I didn’t Anne. While I sat there a cop ran up wearing his mirror glass riot helmet and holding his club. I did nada but that was unmattered as he went by me he swung hitting me upside my head and running on. I didn’t coma but I pitched and minuteslong I lay sidewalked feeling drippy warm and I wondered if I was prepping to cool permanent. I was careless if I did or not.

With its setting wholly relevant to the current political situation, and the pressures facing teenagers throughout the world, Random Acts of Senseless Violence is a tragedy that should be covered in schools. An essential read for writers, too, Random Acts… is a masterclass in character development and emotion between the lines. A wonderful, sad book, the social calamity of which could be just around the corner for us all – and for many is already a reality.


I’m a writer, editor, and Royal Literary Fund Fellow.
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Out of the Unknown – Essence of Wyndham, Absence of Women

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Last year I was given a copy of the BFI’s Out of the Unknown – a collection of TV plays broadcast by the BBC from 1965 to 1971. The set includes 20 plays and special features, with some episodes also available with audio commentary. Although many episodes were wiped, the BFI has made efforts to restore those of which some aspects remain, through creative use of stills, audio and script samples, which are in themselves interesting.

While the plays were initially science fiction stories, there was from series three a shift to horror and fantasy, partly for reasons of cost. There are many enjoyable and interesting episodes in this varied collection but two were particularly notable: Stranger in the Family and The Machine Stops. Also notable is the male dominance of these productions.

Stranger in the Family
Pick up that knife

Stranger in the Family was an original screenplay by David Campton in a collection otherwise comprising mostly dramatisations of prose work. Broadcast on 18 October 1965, Stranger in the Family has that distinct Wyndhamesque feel I love in SF. Indeed, the theme is particularly reminiscent of Wyndham’s 1955 novel The Chrysalids.

Boy (Richard O’Callaghan) is “a mutant”, with the ability to influence others to act in whatever way he desires simply by telling them what to do, while those he influences remain largely ignorant of, or unwilling to accept, the fact that they are not acting under their own volition. Boy’s difference from the accepted norm is additionally manifest in his lack of fingernails – a visual giveaway that comes in handy – although the image quality means the specific nature of this mutation is not really clear on first reference.

With those possessing such mutations hunted down, Boy’s family has had to move home several times in the past, and fear they may have to do so again as he finds himself attracting unwanted attention. The potential power of Boy’s ability is demonstrated in two wonderfully sinister scenes. I won’t give too many details here, but in the first he pulls back from the brink having effectively made his point, while the second time the act is carried through in a scene I imagine would have been quite shocking to a 1965 British TV audience. That the incident itself occurs off-screen adds to the tension – something modern drama producers might want to consider.

O’Callaghan went on to have a long, varied and apparently on-going career in TV drama – most recently appearing in Casualty in 2014.

The Machine Stops
The mending apparatus is itself in need of mending

The Machine Stops was dramatised by Kenneth Cavander and Clive Donner from a story by E M Forster. Starring Yvonne Mitchell as Vashti, the machine – a device we never actually see other than in the form of a robotic doctor – provides everything required to live in what is apparently a post-apocalyptic or environmental catastrophe scenario, which has forced the population underground. Again, the Wyndham influence is evident.

The population’s existence is controlled and supported by the machine to the extent that they become reliant upon it, uncertain how to function when it ceases to operate, and are thus separated from its security and comfort. Vashti seems to fear the machine yet also worship it, and as the machine deteriorates so does society. Constant internet connectivity, anyone?

Like O’Callaghan’s Boy in Stranger in the Family, Gothard’s performance in The Machine Stops – his first in TV – was also interesting, so I investigated what became of this young actor too. Following a long career in TV and film, including an appearance in the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only, I discovered that Gothard took his own life in 1992.

No children, you said
I’m going to wash up, then I’m going to bake a cake

I can only assume the portrayal of women in Out of the Unknown is a result of the fact that the scripts were adapted by men from stories written by men, with the plays also being produced and directed largely by men. Generally the female characters are weak, subservient, prone to frightened shrieks, manipulation or running away to throw themselves on to a bed in tears.

In Deathday, Lydia, the wife of the protagonist, is having a relationship with someone called David that is “only physical”. When not engaged in this purely physical relationship – in which David “certainly knows what he is doing” – she is either washing up or baking. This is unfortunate in what is an otherwise interesting episode. In To Lay a Ghost a 15-year old girl is raped while walking home from school. Years later, when moving in to a ramshackle old house with the man of her dreams, it transpires that she can only be aroused sexually by the ghost of yet another rapist who haunts the place. The strongest female character is Angie (Geraldine Moffatt) in the incomplete but nonetheless fine episode The Little Black Bag, dramatised by Juilan Bond from a story by C M Kornbluth. Yet while Angie is instrumental in developing a business relationship with Dr Full (Emrys James), she still has to submit to Full’s greater wisdom.

Although Irene Shubik was the producer and story editor for series one and two, not a single script appears to have been written by a woman. Female production roles in Out of the Unknown were mainly in make-up, costume or design – some of the most successful aspects of these productions. In the single episode directed by a woman – Sucker Bait dir. Naomi Capon – it’s ironic that no other female appears in either cast or crew. As for ethnicity, there is one young black actor in Stranger in the Family.

A future from the past
Out of the Unknown is television from a different age. As well as the aforementioned shortcomings in terms of gender and ethnic representation, the pace was slower – much slower – than we would see today. While I like a slower pace there are episodes in which dialogue sometimes seems to ramble on as padding without moving the story along. There are, however, many interesting visual effects and sets, at a time when inexpensive green screen use in TV was still decades away, particularly in the first two science fiction-based series.

While I wish brave and to some extent experimental TV drama like this could be broadcast today, something with the quality and diversity of the BBC radio drama productions I’ve written about previously, perhaps in a late-night slot on one of the mainstream channels, such scheduling is surely consigned to history in the face of reality TV and promotional chat shows. Also gone is the off-screen violence of Stranger in the Family, denying the modern viewer the opportunity to use their imagination – a factor at the heart of good radio drama.

The Out of the Unknown box set is not cheap – I’m glad mine was a gift – and while these plays in many ways feel dated, there are some gems that make the package worthwhile, not only in terms of the stories themselves, but to appreciate the level and variety of ways in which television drama has changed since their production.


I’m a writer, editor, and Royal Literary Fund Fellow.
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Mart’s Radio Drama Digest – PILGRIM SPECIAL

Pilgrim

written by Sebastian Baczkiewicz, directed/produced by Marc Beeby and Jessica Dromgoole

Of all the tales told on these islands, few are as strange as that of William Palmer. Cursed, apparently, on the road to Canterbury in the spring of 1185 for denying the presence of the other world by the king of the grey folk – or Fairy – himself, and compelled to walk from that day to this between the worlds of magic and of men, and subsequently known in all the strange and wonderful lore attributed to the mysterious William Palmer, as Pilgrim.

This week saw the broadcast on BBC Radio 4 of the seventh and final series of Pilgrim – fantasy productions in a contemporary setting with magic and grey folk and all manner of surprises and horrors. I’ve listened to every episode, having been captured by the challenging and innovative nature of these dramas from the outset. While the seven series form a single story arc, in truth you can pick up and enjoy any one of these episodes as a standalone. Expect the unexpected, and be prepared to squirm now and then. I found “the drownings” of series 2 particularly disturbing.

Baczkiewicz has a distinctive dialogue style. Often dark, conversations can also be humorous, with characters’ dialogue interweaving and being misconstrued while the writer skilfully maintains the progression of the story. He also has a lot of fun with names, such as Mr Rabbetsenhats (He’s a rabbits-in-a-hat kind of a magician.), Mrs Wellbeloved and Mr Hibbens (It rhymes with ribbons./I know what it bloody rhymes with!).

While every member of the cast excels, the highlight is undoubtedly Paul Hilton who plays William Palmer himself. A tremendous acting talent, Hilton admirably conveys the lead character’s complexity and torment. There’s no finer example than Palmer’s cameo appearance in Home Front, for which Baczkiewicz is also a core writer. When Jessie asks Will you find your way in the dark? his single word reply of Always. is delivered in such a way that it perfectly encapsulates Palmer’s weariness with the arduous nature of his cursed existence. There’s also a quality to Hilton’s voice that’s perfect for this role, a familiarity, warmth and depth that makes Palmer disarming and convivial, but which can in a moment become menacing.

Every production is unsurprisingly flawless, and the fact that the perfect theme music starts a few minutes into each episode, followed by the eerie legend at the beginning of this post, read by Agnes Bateman, gives Pilgrim a particularly modern feel. Pilgrim has been inspiring to me as a wanna-be writer of radio drama, demonstrating potential demand for the weird and somewhat left-field writing that appeals to me most, and that BBC radio drama is prepared to push boundaries and broadcast uncompromising material. I cannot recommend Pilgrim highly enough for anyone with an interest in quality drama whatever its medium. All seven series are available to buy on CD or download, and a “Pilgrim Special” is in the pipeline.

Enjoy!

Additional content
Pilgrim clips.
Behind-the-scenes photographs.
Additional background.
An interview with Baczkiewicz.
The writer’s involvement in Home Front.

You can find my other radio-related posts here.


I’m a writer, editor, and Royal Literary Fund Fellow.
Find out more, tweet me, or email.

Wake Up and Dream by Ian R MacLeod – review

Wake Up and Dream by Ian R MacLeod is a gripping film noire SF mystery/thriller set in the Hollywood of 1940.

In the movie business the “feelies” have replaced the talkies in the same way that the talkies replaced silent movies. The protagonist of Wake Up and Dream is none other than Clarke Gable. Having been unable to work with the technology used to generate feelie movies – contraptions of glass and wire and valves that capture actors’ emotions, to be conveyed to audiences in special feelie cinemas – Gable has seen his acting career fade. While occasionally recognised by ladies of a certain age, Gable has become a low-end private detective in order to keep the wolf from the door.

Enter April Lamotte, the wife and agent of Daniel Lamotte – one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters. It transpires that Mr Lamotte suffers mental health problems and is currently on retreat. With a contract waiting to be signed on the lucrative deal for the feelie script of the novel’s title, and with an expensive lifestyle to fund, Mrs Lamotte can’t afford to delay. As a result she asks Gable to impersonate Daniel Lamotte for the purposes of signing, claiming that with a little Brylcreem and fake glasses Gable could pass for her husband.

Despite the obvious illegalities associated with the proposal, Gable is struggling financially and agrees to dust off his old acting skills for this unusual role. Having taken on the persona of Daniel Lamotte, however, Gable soon finds himself embroiled in a chain of sinister events, and a mystery rapidly unfolds that seems to permeate the entire Hollywood film industry.

I read Wake Up and Dream in two sittings. Admittedly I was on holiday, but I can assure you that this just doesn’t happen. I can think of only two other books that have held me with such a firm grip from the get-go: Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Stamping Butterflies and Christopher Priest’s The Prestige. Like the latter title, the period setting is to some extent dictated by the technology at the heart of the story, and use of Clarke Gable as the protagonist is a stroke of genius that gives the reader an immediate relationship and familiarity with the novel.

One of the most striking aspects of Wake Up and Dream is its authentic feel. MacLeod has clearly conducted extensive research of the period and utilised much of this information while maintaining the easy flow of reading: there are no info-dumps or dense passages of composition, with the book subtly seducing the reader in the way of many successful thrillers before it.

Issues such as the racism and bigotry as well as the political background of the period are all handled with great skill. The characters are wonderful, too, particularly those in less prominent roles. Take Roger, for example – a street-wise kid who hangs around near the small apartment in the gritty downtown area of Hollywood that Daniel Lamotte uses to write his screenplays. With knowledge well beyond his years, Roger’s brief appearances through the novel are a delight. Similarly, private detective Abe Penn is a marvellous demonstration of economy in character building, skilfully drawn over the course of what amounts to just a few sentences. Then there’s the youthful exuberance and Hollywood ridiculousness of Timmy Townsend – senior production executive at Senserama.

While at least one question is left unanswered at the end of Wake Up and Dream, for me this is MacLeod’s finest work to date. Liberally sprinkled with clues, cliffhangers and cameos, this gripping novel takes this author’s already exceptional writing to another level.

Wake Up and Dream is available from PS Publishing in both hard cover and ebook formats. Buy it.
UPDATE: Wake Up and Dream has won the 2012 Sidewise Award for Alternate History.


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