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Features Published 12 November 2014

Radio Waves

In her second column on radio drama, Caitlin Kenny discusses this autumn's highlights - including celebrations of Dylan Thomas and Tony Hancock, and NPR's Serial.
Caitlin Kenny

The days are getting shorter and the time approaches where the people of Britain trundle home in the premature sunset to switch on their wirelesses whilst warming their bone-chilled fingers on an open fire. Or switch on their laptops and sit, blanket-burritoed, next to the radiator. One of the great things about listening to the radio that is of immense value to me in the bleak midwinter (yes I know we’re not quite there yet but I’m from the tropics) is that it can keep me entertained even when my hands, body, and face are completely covered in duvet.

Whilst we have to wait until December for properly wintery festive programming, Autumn seems to have been the season for anniversaries, and if there’s one thing that BBC Radio knows how to do, it’s celebrating an anniversary with an arsenal of associated programming. On the drama front, this has been an absolute treat: Dylan Thomas’s centenary has seen Radio Wales broadcasting 21st Century Dylan, a series of 5 new plays by Welsh writers, as well as a broadcast of Under Milk Wood, live from the New York stage upon which it was first performed in 1954 with a cast led (and directed) by Michael Sheen. If you are yet to take a trip to Llareggub this production’s cast of beautiful Welsh voices upon that historically resonant stage, is in a rather wonderful way, to begin at the beginning.

In distinctly less poetic spaces, the 50th anniversary of Hancock’s Half Hour has also yielded some good bits and bobs. Repeats of the programme itself are complimented by a selection of almost pitch-perfect reproductions of episodes lost in the radio waves of history: produced by BBC Comedy and dubbed The Missing Hancocks. I’m sure they’re making a lot of old-school radio fans very happy. Coupled with the effort from comedy is a very subtle and contained Afternoon Drama called Hancock’s Ashes, which fleshes out the possibly apocryphal account of Tony Hancock’s ashes, as they were conveyed back to the UK from Australia by Willie Rushton, being afforded their own seat in First Class on the plane. It’s a small story well told by writers Caroline and David Stafford and director Marc Beeby, and Ewan Bailey’s portrayal of Rushton is a nuanced performance as well as a spot on impression.

Drama on 3 continues to house some of my absolute favourite plays with Hide the Moon, which celebrates Richard Strauss’s 150th birthday by revealing just how much of a dick he probably was. Reconstructing a meeting between eighty-year-old Strauss and two German-American journalists after the end of the second World War. The ninety-minute standalone could have been titled Your Fave is Problematic, using a series of densely worded conversations to show Strauss as a deeply flawed human, explicitly asking the audience to consider whether one can or should love the art when the artist is despicable. Strauss, played with an aching fury by David Calder, eloquently expresses sorrow at the destruction of German opera houses and places of culture but seems utterly incapable of talking about the human cost of National Socialism: he is utterly unlikeable, but not quite a Nazi. The climactic argument between Strauss and Klaus Mann (Alun Raglan) is bombastic and cathartic, even if it does seem like a foregone conclusion from the beginning of the piece until the moment it flares up eighty minutes in. Martyn Wade has created an intimate piece that demonstrates how much can be done with a play written in real-time conversation. Careful direction from Marion Nancarrow, leaving enough space in the wordy piece, and having a cast of characters who can be endlessly and believably articulate helps, and the result is a very thoughtful way of challenging too much blindly fond feeling in a very flawed composer’s anniversary year.

A six-part serialisation of The Once and Future King, the most meta retelling of Arthurian legend ever, begins this week on Radio 4. Adapted from T.H. White’s books by Brian Sibley, it’s absolutely delightful to hear such love and energy being foisted upon a story that swings happily between fantastical comedy and emotionally-grounded drama. Paul Ready and David Warner lead the cast well as Arthur and Merlyn respectively, but the real joy is in listening to the cast playing the animal parts – look out for a stellar turn from Bruce Alexander as Archimedes the Owl, and next week from Shaun Mason as the terrifying Pike, King of the Moat. You tend to forgive a little bit of philosophical pontificating from Merlyn when you also get to hear from a hedgehog with a West Country accent.

Online, and about as far away from talking animals as possible, large swathes of the listening population have fallen for Serial, NPR’s spin-off podcast of This American Life. I’m a massive fan of This American Life, but after listening to the first couple of episodes of Serial, I couldn’t help but find it somehow a little…icky. Maybe it’s a cultural difference thing and I’m truly becoming an emotionally repressed Englishwoman but the idea of presenting the story of a true violent crime and a possible miscarriage of justice as an unfolding story with a plot and characters seems at best misguided and at worst exploitative. I trust Ira Glass and I trust Sarah Koenig not to mistreat the real people involved in Serial’s story, but I’m not sure I trust a larger audience, told this story in this way, to give that community the space and respect it requires.

Now it’s time for me to slip back into my woolly chrysalis and while away the days until Christmas with tea and Radio 4 – next time you hear from me the Season shall be upon us and oh boy oh boy, I think it’s going to be a rather exciting one. Until then.

Under Milk Wood (BBC Radio Wales), Hancock’s Ashes (BBC Radio 4), Hide the Moon (BBC Radio 3), The Once and Future King (BBC Radio 4), Serial (National Public Radio Podcast).

Caitlin’s Kenny’s previous Radio Days column.

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