One sphere that podcasts have so far not much penetrated is drama. Audible.co.uk is itching to develop its own brand but so far has limited itself to producing audiobooks read by a galaxy of stars. Recording plays is expensive, requires an understanding of studio techniques and a cast of actors who have learnt how to play to the microphone, not an auditorium. Only the BBC has as yet the necessary experience and resources, with its own repertory company and team of spot-effects experts and sound designers. We can only hope that stunts like The Biggest Weekend — the BBC’s attempt to put on a Glastonbury experience for the masses, with Radio 3 on bank holiday night turned over to tunes from Strictly Come Dancing and Nigel Kennedy playing Vivaldi — won’t deprive drama of its necessary funding.
This week on Radio 4 it was possible to hear Ian McKellen, Joanna Lumley and Alfred Molina at full throttle in a specially commissioned drama series by Michael Frayn. Not to mention five short stories from William Trevor, the Irish writer who measures out meaning with the lightest touch, read by Niamh Cusack, Hattie Morahan and Dermot Crowley. Also worth catching up with on iPlayer was a cleverly realised translation of a Charles Dickens novel to the current Syrian conflict. A Tale of Two Cities: Aleppo and London (directed by Polly Thomas) has been dramatised in three parts by Ayeesha Menon, who first adapted for Radio 4 the novel on which Slumdog Millionaire is based and also created The Mumbai Chuzzlewits. Now she has translated lines from Dickens — ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ and ‘revenge and retribution take a long time. It’s just the way it is’ — and applied them to the situation in Syria over the past seven years since the violence began with students daubing graffiti on the walls of the university in Daraa.
Menon begins her drama in London and the trial of Dr Shwan Dahkurdi for supposedly supporting a terrorist organisation. He’s defended by Sid, a boozy, coke-fuelled but brilliant barrister who’s a great friend of Lina, a Syrian journalist who’s been living in London for years since her father was imprisoned, and Lina’s boss at the television station, Jarvis. Meanwhile in Aleppo, Taghreed is struggling to survive as the city is destroyed around her while her neighbours’ children are caught in the crossfire. It’s all a bit confusing at first until the pace settles down and we can identify more easily who’s who, but at three hours there’s plenty of time to sink into the atmosphere and allow yourself to be swept along by what’s happening. And there’s no need to know Dickens’s novel to follow the plot.
It was shocking at times to catch the connections between the fictional world and real events in Syria. It was drama but at times could just as easily have been reportage. The soundscape, too, is spot-on; not too obtrusive and always characterful. A door slams but sounds like gunshot.
That same clean sound can be heard in Michael Frayn’s Pocket Playhouse, directed by the venerable Martin Jarvis. Our team of star players find themselves in a series of pop-up scenes with no obvious connection except that they all take the possibilities of radio drama to fantastic extremes. McKellen and Lumley are given licence to play Mr and Mrs God, Lumley butting in constantly as Mr God tries to tell the story of creation in delicious marital disharmony. Lisa Dillon and Edward Bennett become Mr and Mrs Andrews in Gainsborough’s portrait, looking out at the members of the public who have come to stare at them hanging on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery. ‘These people are so three-dimensional,’ complains Mrs Andrews. ‘You and I don’t bulge out backwards and forwards in space in that ridiculous way.’
Next, and without warning, we’re listening to Alfred Molina, a packaging manufacturer with a problem. The products he is supposed to safeguard from invasion by the public are being broken into; no more are people breaking their teeth or rushing to A&E with a stabbed thumb after struggling to open a packet of prawn and pine-nut cappelletti. It’s all in the listening.
Last week’s Book at Bedtime drew me in even though I did not much care for the book. But the reader Tanya Moodie made The Female Persuasion so compelling a listen I found myself carrying the radio from the bathroom into the bedroom so as not to miss a second. This week it’s the writing that has kept me glued to the loudspeaker. William Trevor instantly draws a character who becomes imprinted on the mind, unforgettable not for talents exceptional, or deeds remarkable, but for that slice of feeling, of human tenderness. Each night took us to a different place, inside another life. The piano teacher who senses genius for the first time in one of her pupils, the picture restorer who has lost his memory but remains content to bring Giotto’s angels back to life, the young woman who meets again the man who taught her as an impressionable teenager. Can they now begin again and have the life they might have had?