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Features Published 25 September 2014

Radio Days

Welcome to Night Vale and Everyday Time Machines: Caitlin Kenny on recent and forthcoming radio drama highlights.
Caitlin Kenny

It feels cathartic to start this column with a confession: I don’t actually own a radio. So – how much radio drama can you listen to without actually owning a radio? Well, all of it, actually. The internet has been a massive boon to narrative radio, with the BBC iPlayer and downloads making mainstream content more accessible than ever before, and podcasting getting in on the radio drama act with independent online shows like Welcome to Night Vale and Thrilling Adventure Hour. Having their entire back-catalogue available online means that these shows pick up more and more fans over time. As magical as the iPlayer is, that’s one of the main issues with BBC drama content: it almost always disappears after 7 days. The plan is to extend that to 30 days in the near future, but even then there will still be a great disappointment when realising that, after listening to eight episodes of a serial, there’s nowhere one can find the rest of the episodes until they’re repeated at 3 AM on Radio 4Extra in 2019.

This won’t be a barrier to enjoying Radio 4’s current centrepiece, Home Front, which will be available online for one hundred years, assuming the iPlayer doesn’t become a sentient evil overlord in that time. The ongoing WWI drama has the honour of being the largest ever drama serial, and will eventually clock in at almost six hundred episodes across the centenary of the conflict. The series is a (very) slowly-unfolding fictionalised history of life in Britain during the war, with each episode broadcast a hundred years to the day from the history it dramatises. The result is an extremely detailed narrative that includes vignette and plot arc, hitting some very strong emotional notes with individual characters, but manages to evoke the atmosphere of ‘storm clouds over Europe’ with a studious authenticity. The only stumbling block to enjoying the series may be the sheer volume of WWI-related content the BBC is producing over the centenary. I can’t imagine that, by the time 2018 rolls around, there’ll be many listeners left who will still have the patience for another story of plucky Britons surviving the Great War.

One station over, Drama on 3 has the sort of space and audience that allows for radio drama with more weight to it, more philosophy and more meaningful silence. Everyday Time Machines has plenty of all three. Presented as a chaser to the new adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways, by which writer Al Smith was inspired, mysteries created by non-chronological storytelling and slow-burn love triangles feature heavily in both. The slightly mystic negotiation of time and linearity from Time and the Conways is transplanted into far more explicitly scientific ground by Smith, who gives his three central characters physics doctorates and allows them to talk at some length on how the theories of particle physics might relate to human perception of time. Pippa Bennett-Warner’s Samantha, the pointy end of the aforementioned triangle, speaks so mellifluously that we forgive any overly didactic strands of dialogue.

It’s an expansive story that needs a little concentration to stay with, but it’s a very secure conclusion to Radio 3’s slightly hodge-podge Time Season, which has comprised Harrison Birtwhistle’s fatalistic ‘70s orchestral work Triumph of Time, a Sunday feature on the theoretical work by J.W. Dunne that inspired Time and the Conways, and the new version of Time and the Conways itself, starring Harriet Walter and Anna Madeley. I hope anyone who has listened to all the programmes in the season isn’t finding that they’re staring into some kind of existential abyss as a result.

Speaking of staring into the abyss, eccentric cult favourite Welcome to Night Vale continues to be the absolute pinnacle of online audio drama. After over two years, the narrative remains engaging and the range of characters that demand your emotional investment is masterful from a show that relies overwhelmingly on a single-voice format. Creators Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink have filled the show with a perfect blend of American Gothic (pitched somewhere between Edgar Allen Poe and one of the sillier episodes of The X-Files) and modern political sensibilities, demonstrating that foregrounding queer and racially diverse characters is no barrier to success: it’s gripping and emotive and increasingly aurally adventurous, like a big hug from a mythical squid-beast with cool tattoos. The show, which is usually made in its team’s native New York, is taking its show on the road to Europe very soon. Many of the performances are sold out, but there do appear to be handfuls of tickets left for some locations.

Now nights are getting longer leaving the house to listen to a radio show may not be so appealing, and thus peak snuggling-under-a-duvet-with-some-good-audio-drama season approaches. Whilst it is obviously far too early to be seeing Christmas decorations in the shops, we are well within our rights to be excited about the Christmas radio schedule, which is promising very big things. First and foremost on that schedule Good Omens, based on the novel vociferously adored by nerds everywhere. Last week’s announcement revealed that Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s co-written dramatic comedy about an omnishambles of an apocalypse will become a five part series broadcast over the week of this Christmas, and will be directed by Dirk Maggs, whose geeky radio drama CV includes Neverwhere and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The cast includes Mark Heap and Peter Serafinowicz, Sherlock star Louise Brealey and Merlin-in-Merlin Colin Morgan and would probably easily be the most requested programme on iPlayer this Christmas, were it not for the broadcasting of the last ever episode of Cabin Pressure.

John Finnemore’s cozy aeroplane sitcom, famous for casting Benedict Cumberbatch on the very cusp of his extraordinary career-jump, is returning for the final time on Christmas Eve with an extra-length episode, and after breaking the record for number of people applying for tickets to attend the recording, is set to be a highlight of the Christmas calendar. The end of the series might have left a bit of a gap in the comedy schedule, but Finnemore has stated that he has written a series of six stand-alone radio plays for broadcast next year – that’s our 2015 sorted then.

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