Radio drama

Hearing Percy Bysshe Shelley read aloud was a revelation

Last week I heard the actor Julian Sands give a virtuoso performance of work by Percy Bysshe Shelley to mark the bicentenary of the radical poet’s death this month. A couple of days later, I listened to a bit more Shelley, this time on the radio, and this time in the voice of Benjamin Zephaniah. Hearing his verses read aloud is so much more intimate than reading them silently. You may be sitting in a crowd, but as Shelley’s words fall into your ears, it’s possible to feel that you’re having a private audience with him. Reading the same poems in an empty room can be comparatively distancing. Zephaniah said

It’s amazing how little insight Paul McCartney has into the Beatles’ genius

The Paul people are out in force these days. A New Yorker profile, a book and a new documentary have put the Beatles, and particularly Paul, back in the papers. Not that they, or he, ever left. I should admit a bias. I have the same first name as John, and being a man of straightforward loyalties I took him as my favourite early on. Even now I find him the most interesting of the four: vain, sardonic, nasty, boyish, thoughtful, wounded; bright-eyed and pugilistic and blessed with an undermining cleverness that left him bored by whatever he came across. The even-tempered Paul just doesn’t entrance me in quite the

The joy of Radio 4 Extra

The best thing on the radio last week was, without question, Kind Hearts and Coronets. You may have missed it because it was on Radio 4 Extra, the poor, forgotten relation of the BBC’s main channels, which many regard as merely a Radio 4+1 for yesterday’s replays, when it is in fact home to the drama and comedy archive. Like the BBC4 TV channel, which is sadly ceasing commissioning, it hosts the sort of intelligent programmes people really enjoy, to the consternation of those who dismiss them as ‘old’. Fittingly, for Radio 4 Extra, Kind Hearts is all about a poor, forgotten relation who strives to reclaim his place within

Adapting Wodehouse for the radio is a challenge – but the BBC has succeeded brilliantly

Everyone knows a Lord Emsworth. Mine lives south of the river and wears caterpillars in his hair and wine on his shirt and has just occasionally written for this magazine. That doesn’t much narrow it down. When you look at him, you understand a little better why P. G. Wodehouse is topping the lists of authors to read during lockdown. It’s not just that the books are funny. With an Emsworth or a Bertie Wooster you’re guaranteed that idling and dithering will land you somewhere. Even if it is in the soup. Adapted for Radio 4 this fortnight, Leave it to Psmith, the second in Wodehouse’s Blandings series, sees the

Ill-disciplined and self-indulgent: The Guilty Feminist podcast reviewed

With theatres shut, radio must lighten the darkness. The Guilty Feminist is a wildly popular podcast performed by Deborah Frances-White and guests. In the episode of 23 March, the presenter hoped the superbug would cure our mania for business trips to ‘Philadelphia for a meeting about key performance indicators… Don’t fly to see people you hate. Fly to see people you love.’ She was probably unwise to dabble in medical predictions. ‘I hope Boris catches coronavirus so badly he needs to be sequestered on a desert island with no loo roll.’ Her co-presenter, Sindhu Vee, mocked her children’s frailties and her own. One of her young daughters announced her intention

The Polish electronic music revolution of the 1950s

It was created in November 1957, a year before the BBC’s fabled Radiophonic Workshop, and was far more influential in shaping the development of electronic music, yet the Polish Radio Experimental Studio (PRES) is now virtually unknown even in Poland. Radio 3’s feature on Sunday night, Poles Apart (produced by Andrew Carter), made the case for its significance, taking us back to those early days of analogue bleeps, bongs, blurps and squelches. Robert Worby and the eerily electronic undercurrent to the programme gave us a completely new perspective on what else was going on in Poland in the 1960s besides the trouble at the Gdansk shipyards and the suppression of

Without Joe Grundy The Archers feels lost

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

Foreign exchange | 28 March 2019

As the ravens circle around Broadcasting House in London’s West End, presaging difficult times ahead for BBC Radio, with less money to play with at a time of increased competition from its commercial rivals, a very different kind of listening experience was on offer last week in an upstairs room above a café in Canterbury. The UK International Radio Drama Festival is in its fifth year, gathering dramas from across Europe and beyond for a week of intense and unusual audio, transmitted in 18 different languages. Thirty or so of us sat around as the plays were broadcast through a number of old-fashioned radio sets, listening to monologues, musicals, character

Points of view | 28 February 2019

Is it me or are we now faced (or perhaps I should say fazed?) much more often by stories in the news that test our moral and ethical principles to the limit, forcing us to question ourselves and what we think to such an extent that it becomes impossible to be sure of what is right? I can never understand the high-minded righteousness and full-blown convictions of the panellists on Radio 4’s Moral Maze, who each week are given a topical issue and who then spend 45 minutes tossing it about, testing the pros and cons and questioning a group of often baffled witnesses who are invited on to the

A river runs through it

It sounds like something out of Dickens or a novel by Thackeray, a classic case of high-minded Victorian philanthropy, but the Glasgow Humane Society was actually set up much earlier, in 1790 (just after the revolutionary fervour in France demanded liberty, fraternity, equality), to protect human life in the city and especially on the river Clyde. It still exists and Glasgow claims to be the only city in the world to have a full-time officer dedicated to rescuing people from drowning. Back when it began the river and its banks were hectic with shipbuilding, trade and manufacturing. Now the city is almost ashamed of its river; no big ships, hardly

An eye on the prize

We don’t know whether ‘Aziz H’ listened to radio plays as he grew up in Yemen. In fact we don’t even know his real name, nor what he looks like. He was unable to get the visa that would have allowed him to come to London to receive his prize as one of the winners in this year’s BBC World Service/British Council International Playwriting Competition. His drama, A Broken Heart in a Warzone, is the first he’s written for radio but he seems to know instinctively how to create character through voice alone, atmosphere through simple cues, drama out of juxtaposing situations. ‘As someone who isn’t a writer,’ he told

Shining circles and silver spools

Flies buzzing, strange rustling, crunching sounds, and then the most chilling screech you’ll have heard all week. Vultures were feeding off the carcass of a zebra in Kenya, recorded by Chris Watson. He had been up before dawn, on the look-out for a suitable carcass to attract the scavenging vultures. He was lucky to find one and clipped two microphones to the ribcage, running the cable to his recording vehicle 50 yards away. By break of day the vultures had appeared and were taking their breakfast. Watson believes that recording sound at such close quarters ‘really fires our imaginations in a unique way’. He was not the only contributor to

A world apart | 4 October 2018

The most inspiring voice on radio this week belongs to Hetty Werkendam, or rather to her 15-year-old self as she talked to the BBC correspondent Patrick Gordon Walker in April 1945. He was with the British soldiers who entered the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and witnessed the horrors of that scene: dead bodies in piles with no one to bury them, living people lying beneath them too weak to move, or using them as pillows. Hetty was one of several children interviewed by Gordon Walker, her voice so strong and resolute and light in spirit, in spite of all that she had seen and experienced. Talking now, aged 88, to Mike

Low life | 14 June 2018

Last year the BBC radio drama department received 3,797 scripts from hopeful authors, of which just 33 were recommended to BBC radio drama producers. I came across this sad statistic when I was well into my first attempt to write an hour-long radio drama set in a trench during the first battle of Ypres in 1914. My chances of hearing my poor little play performed on the radio were reduced from slight to negligible when I then read that the BBC will be accepting no more drama scripts until the end of the year; and from negligible to zero when I belatedly looked into The Way to Write Radio Drama,

Women’s work

I don’t know which day Rod Liddle travelled down from the northeast and found nothing but women’s voices cluttering up Radio 4, as he wrote about in last week’s magazine. But his description is not one I recognise. If anything we still hear too much from male commentators, male presenters, male writers, male comedians. In recent years, for instance, the gender-balance of contributors to the Today programme has improved from the 18 per cent of female guests just a decade ago, but there’s still a long way to go before we need to apologise for wanting to hear more from women. Very often they speak truth to power (because not

What drama

One sphere that podcasts have so far not much penetrated is drama. 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

Communal listening | 5 April 2018

To Herne Bay in Kent for the UK International Radio Drama Festival: 50 plays from 17 countries in 15 languages broadcast over five days to the festival audience. It’s an opportunity to find out what radio plays sound like in other countries, but also to experience a different kind of listening. About 25 of us were invited into a suite of rooms furnished with flock wallpaper, floral sofas and armchairs to take us back to the great age of radio listening in the 1950s. A kettle boils in the background; buttered scones on a tiered rack are sitting ready for us to pounce on at the next pause between plays.

Tapestry of war

It feels like a long time since the launch of Home Front on Radio 4 back in June 2014, retracing day-by-day events of 100 years ago as Britain went to war. It is a long time. Yet still the violence in Europe rages on while back home the families of the men and boys in trenches carry on as normal, putting on plays at the local theatre, selling toys, running art classes, working the trams. A new season (number 13, with two more to go before the series ends on 9 November) starts up again on Monday. It may be an everyday story, says its editor, Jessica Dromgoole, but it’s

The spying game

Some of us grew up worrying about reds under the bed, which was perhaps not as foolish as all that if a report on Saturday morning’s Today programme on Radio 4 is to be believed. Amid a cacophony of weird-sounding bleeps and disembodied voices, Gordon Corera, the BBC’s security correspondent (always clear, calm and collected, no matter the brief), told us about the ‘number stations’ that proliferated in the Cold War and are now being brought back to life. Anyone can tune in to them, but only those in the know can understand what they mean, and although the source of the transmissions can be traced it’s impossible to pick

Lessons from Rwanda

What an incredible statement we heard on My Perfect Country. ‘I can walk into a boardroom and forget I am a woman,’ pronounced Isabelle Masozera, a PR executive, on the World Service programme, which this week visited Rwanda to find out what is happening there to make it qualify for ‘my perfect country’ status. Her words hit home because of the BBC’s current difficulties over equal pay and opportunities. It appears that the corporation has been less than speedy or judicious in its response to the revelations last year about the substantial differences in earnings between some of its male and female employees. Badly handled, it led to the bizarre