Kate Chisholm

Czech mates

Solo behind the Iron Curtain (Radio Four), International Radio Playwriting Competition (BBC World Service) 

Czech mates
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Solo behind the Iron Curtain (Radio Four), International Radio Playwriting Competition (BBC World Service) 

‘I was pretty sure I was being followed,’ he said in that unforgettably sleek drawl. We are in Prague at the height of the Cold War in 1968 and Robert Vaughn, aka Mr Napoleon Solo, is under surveillance. Cue blazing trumpets and a Hammer organ. The man from U.N.C.L.E. (there was a time when every teenager in the land could have told you immediately what those initials stood for) is making a second world war film in the Czech capital with his pals from Hollywood, George Segal and Ben Gazzara, just as Dubcek is being told by the Russians to fall back into line or else. Tracy Spottiswoode’s play Solo behind the Iron Curtain (Radio Four, Monday) took us back to that time, and to what really happened to Vaughn and his American co-stars as the tanks entered Wenceslas Square on the night of 20 August.

Their hotel was surrounded and they found themselves trapped inside with their interpreter, a young Slovak girl who prefers to be known as Pepsi. She has been distributing underground pamphlets and tearing down Russian flags. How can they smuggle her out of the city and across Czechoslovakia to the Austrian border? Solo could have taken out his pen and opened ‘Channel D’, but this is for real. The Russians have opened fire on the Czech crowd and Vaughn and his mates are in actual danger. Worse still, Vaughn has to abandon all his notes for the PhD dissertation (in communications, from the University of Southern California) that he has been working on for decades.

It was lucky that this was on radio. Forty years on, Vaughn would have looked unconvincingly different from his swaggering persona in that cult TV series — but, amazingly, he sounds just the same, with all that slick Sixties wit still intact. Without his U.N.C.L.E. gear and Russian sidekick, Ilya Kuryakin, though, Vaughn’s got no gadgetry to help them out of this mess. Poor old Pepsi is told to lie down on the floor of the taxi and not to make a sound, while Solo and co. vainly try to cover her up with a tatty old rug. There’s no way she won’t be discovered by the Russian border guards. But this was such an engaging play, and so atmospherically produced by Kate McAll, that I can forgive Solo (or should I say Vaughn) anything (my favourite anyway was always Kuryakin).

It was also fascinating to be taken back to 1968 and reminded of what did happen not so long ago, and how innocently inventive TV series used to be before CAD, sex and violence. U.N.C.L.E., by the way, stood for United Network Command for Law Enforcement, and was staffed by a Brit (in charge, of course), an American and Russian, who all worked together to combat the immanent enemy Thrush. Where has all that optimism gone?

On the World Service this week and next they are celebrating the winners of this year’s International Radio Playwriting Competition run by the World Service with over 1,200 entries from writers around the globe. On Saturday night we heard the winner of the English as a First Language category, Seeing in the Dark. Gordon Pengilly’s play (directed by Anne Edyvean) was absolutely mesmerising. I listened to it in a darkened room with fireworks popping incessantly outside and was thoroughly spooked.

Clayton (played by Trevor White) has just left jail and is on his way home to his family in midtown Canada, but events hijack his good intentions to brutal effect. He tells us how things went wrong, step by ghastly step. The script was carefully crafted, the words flowing smoothly, rhythmically, hypnotically (Clayton does not waste his time in prison but learns a lot of poetry), and brilliantly acted. It was as if Clayton were whispering in your ear, like the devil tempting you, unnerving you, persuading you that he really was an innocent man, with a beautiful mind, who somehow finds himself at the wrong end of a gun. But in the end I felt a bit cheated. It was all somehow too predictable — young man from abusive family goes wrong, helped by malevolent Fate.

Bolaji Odolfin’s play (broadcast next Saturday as the winner of the English as a Second Language category and directed by Marion Nancarrow, who was also one of the judges alongside Doris Lessing) is very different. Billed as ‘a comic love story’, it translates the classic Romeo and Juliet affair to Nigeria and the thwarted love between Ngosi, an Ibo and a Catholic, and Ibrahim, the son of an imam. Odolfin adds another dimension to her script by suggesting that her characters know that they are in a play and that she is manipulating what happens to them. It’s all so refreshingly funny and inventive, overturning the clichés and transporting us instantly into a different culture, another part of the world. Odolfin, when told she had won, confessed, ‘Writing Nature Calls was so much fun it was almost sinful.’ That’s exactly how it comes across.