There was something really creepy about listening to the ten-minute countryside podcast released last weekend by Radio 4 supposedly transporting us to Marneys Field in Ambridge. Two worlds colliding. The fake countryside of Borsetshire was transfigured — no longer pretending to exist but existing, as if to make us all pretend we believe in it for real. We can hear David in the distance calling in the cows, just like an episode of The Archers. But those birds cheeping furiously; that tractor rushing past. The wind, the thunder, the sudden downpour. They could all have come from a nature documentary.
It was all too weird, trying to make us believe there is a farm called Brookfield and that our daily visits to Ambridge are to a real place, not something conjured up in a studio in Birmingham filled with bicycle pumps, an ironing board and industrial quantities of yoghurt. Even creepier has been the waiting and waiting for Joe (Grundy) to die. We have known about the death of the actor who played him (Edward Kelsey) since April. But Joe has gone on, and on, and on. He’s been mentioned every so often but his utterly distinctive voice no longer heard, turning him into one of those characters who never actually speak, like Bert Fry’s wife and the mystical Titcombes.
Kelsey, who honed Joe from an inconsequential character into an incomparable curmudgeon, must have been turning in his grave to discover his beloved Joe had been silenced in this ignominious way. It’s gone on for so long that I had even been in touch with the press office to check whether I somehow missed the crucial episode in which Joe was allowed to pass over. But no, we’ve been kept waiting, as if the scriptwriters had no idea how to end Joe/Kelsey’s magnificent reign.
At last, though, he has finally been sent to meet his maker (by the long-standing member of the soap-writing team, Adrian Flynn). Few words were needed in the end to explain Joe’s demise. He simply went up to his room after a meeting of the Cider Club, unusually leaving before the last drop had been drunk. Later, Eddie knocks on his door to check he’s OK. ‘Oh Dad. Is that why you slipped away early?’ he says, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the length of time it’s taken for Joe to be put to rest, adding, poignantly, ‘Is it?’
Joe/Kelsey will be such a hard act to follow. There’s just no one else with sufficient character to add the zest that Ambridge is currently lacking. Too many silly storylines; not enough mundane reality.
Last weekend, while laid up with a bug and needing to be entertained, I happened upon Passion Play by that classy, caustic writer Peter Nichols, who died recently aged 92. He wrote the drama for the stage back in 1981 but this repeat (directed by Colin Guthrie) was from the first radio adaptation made in 2008 and starred Nicholas Le Prevost, Joanna David and Emily Bruni. It’s not something you might expect to enjoy while feeling a bit under the weather. Few laughs, no romance, and instead a searing portrait of a marriage in trouble after 25 years. But it was so gripping, the dialogue devastatingly precise, the actors’ timing pitch-perfect.
James and Eleanor have invited Kate to dinner after her husband’s recent death. Eleanor apologises to James, knowing he doesn’t much like her. She also tells James that Kate thinks him desirable, confident enough of her marriage. Before long, though, we are deeply immersed in betrayal, misery and threats of suicide.
On stage Nichols introduced an alter ego for James and Eleanor as a way of revealing what they’re secretly thinking. On radio no extra actors were needed; it was all in the voice, breaking the fourth wall in a way that really wormed its way into the imagination. How gullible were both James and Eleanor; how seductive was Kate. This was creepy in the sense of being insidious as Nichols’s razor-sharp lines etched themselves on the mind.
Sunday night’s feature on Radio 3 also took real advantage of radio’s freedoms; the way you can switch centuries, speak out of character, change the perspective through clever scripting. In Plot 5779: Unearthing Elizabeth Siddall (written and produced by Clare Walker), Siddall, most famously known from that portrait of her as Shakespeare’s Ophelia drowning in a weed-infested pool, is at last given her own voice, no longer simply a muse.
Part fiction, part documentary and featuring the former model Lily Cole as the woman whose beauty inspired the Pre-Raphaelite painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais, it began at Highgate Cemetery where even after death Siddall was compromised. She was buried there, aged just 32, dying of an overdose of laudanum. Seven years later her body was exhumed secretly at the wish of her husband, Gabriel Rossetti, so that he could rescue and then publish a collection of poems that had been buried with her.
Cole relishes this opportunity to speak for Siddall as she tells her side of the story, rising from the grave to remind us that she, too, was an artist and a poet. Not creepy at all; just timely.