Radio cashes in on theatre’s loss

Radio drama is prone to over-signalling regional differences, says Anne McElvoy

On Theatre

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

It’s an ill theatrical wind that blows some good for radio drama, with British acting talent exiled from the stage, stuck at home (or in the case of one actress friend, rehearsing for a much-delayed role in her shed), keen to keep flexing their dramatic muscles and heading for projects on the airwaves.

It’s also the reason why I have moved for a stint from writing about theatre to exploring radio and podcast offerings — beneficiaries of more dedicated attention as we search for breaks in the day and relief from the repetitious fare served up by Netflix algorithms.

It’s an ill theatrical wind that blows some good for radio drama

The live drama drought has led to a flourishing crop of plays and adaptations on Radios 3 and 4 and a fortuitous leap forward for the BBC Sounds app in its fiction output (not before time). It has also helped commissioners break their own “fourth wall” by having drama air first on the networks to perk up interest and then drive us to the more bingeable experience of listening via the Sounds app.

The steeper challenge for commissioners will be in finding the right mix to keep existing radio drama devotees happy while bringing on that elusive new audience, who have wandered off to US offerings from the launch of the podcast crime hit Serial. First Out caught my attention as a story which showcased some of the abiding strengths of “trad” radio plays. Mike (Sam Troughton) is struggling to cope with years of unhappy comparison with his more gifted sibling Jim (Peter Sullivan). Identical twins born to a cabbie family in Essex, they find themselves scratchily united after years of feuding over politics, class and lifestyles by the abrupt death of their parents in a care home from Covid. Jim has become an introspective academic, Mike is a self-made man who prides himself on independence — a thin veneer for resentments which hark back to birth order and the “albatross” of twinhood.

Jim is the neat organiser with controlling tendencies, Mike the touchy one who says things like, “It would have been good to talk first” whenever his brother makes a decision. In some ways it is a very old story — the strains of social mobility as the boys are dispatched to “posh school”, which suits Jim but alienates Mike.

Radio drama often struggles with working-class accents and speech rhythms and is a bit prone to bouts of over-signalling about regional differences (Geordies invariably chippy and never well-off, cockneys chirpy). Writer David Eldridge, who hails from Romford and has set much of his work in urban Essex, largely escapes the caricature. An hour is a long time on radio, however, and chunks of dialogue needed a red pen to weed out a textbook sociology lecture. “You cried when Thatcher resigned, I cheered” is a so-very-BBC example of stagily reaching for the Iron Lady when a point might be made more subtly. Still, you don’t have to have a twin to warm to the tangle of love and insecurity that First Out captured.

Family ghosts come in many shapes and sizes, none more compellingly noisy than The Battersea Poltergeist (BBC Sounds), a stable of horror stories, tabloid news stories and radio commissioners, who feature the smashing critters with remarkable frequency. My theory is that this is the closest progressive sorts can get to relishing fake news and spiritualist hokum.

But if you’re going to indulge in a bout of anti-rationalism, you might as well do it with gusto, and The Battersea Poltergeist doesn’t lack commitment. It’s scripted and fronted by Danny Robins (who, spectral sorts will know, fronts the Haunted podcast) and takes us to the south London home of the Hitchings family who, in 1956, start experiencing — well, you know what, because one poltergeist turns out to be remarkably like another, down to the scrawled messages on walls, nocturnal furniture rearrangement and bouts of teenage-girl levitation.

But if you’re going to indulge in a bout of anti-rationalism, you might as well do it with gusto, and The Battersea Poltergeist doesn’t lack commitmen

Robins is a committed sleuth and storyteller and clearly in love with his subject — so much so that he tells us quite frequently that he is fascinated/amazed/ compelled by the evidence. The cynic in me says that once you have sold a big radio drama series, complete with artwork that looks like Kate Bush album-meets Stephen King horror cover, you had better deliver on believing in the Geists.

Audio handiwork has come on in leaps and bounds in the podcast era and producer/director Simon Barnard gives us a fertile crossover of radio and theatrical skills. Robins finds Shirley, the haunted girl, now in her eighties and still a credible-sounding witness to terrifying events. The Hitchings family of seven decades ago is played by actors, including Toby Jones (who is in practically everything in radio drama at the moment). The production, with creepy sonification and music-scoring, is full-on podcast-style for the 2020s. And yes, I admit grudgingly, it is an unsettling tale: perhaps someone manipulated events and has lied about it or buried the lies, which is the really scary part.

Finally, if you prefer something reassuringly criminal but more soothing, Radio 4’s adaptation of The Thursday Murder Club, Richard Osman’s winsomely funny remake of a Miss Marple-style crime drama set in a Kent retirement community, is a delight. Osman is a game-show originator who unleashed a bidding war for his deft debut novel, set in the prosperous retreat of Cooper’s Chase, where you can tell it’s the third Monday of the month because they serve shepherd’s pie and the Waitrose van brings regular supplies of “red wine and repeat prescriptions”.

Haydn Gwynne (heard not long ago as Lady Thatcher in the adaptation of Charles Moore’s memoir) has a field day with her versatile contralto, channelling Osman’s easy prose into a reliable quartet of characters from retired nurse Joyce, to Elizabeth, a veteran intelligence officer and — for the sake of socio-diversity — a
shouty old trade unionist who names an injured fox “Scargill” and (randomly) an Egyptian psychiatrist, who set out to solve two inter-connected murders linked to a dodgy planning application threatening the local chapel.

It’s a sly, wry saga of homicide and mortally funny social observation. Enjoy it, with a bottle of claret and a pinch of salt.

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