Features Published 30 December 2014

Christmas Carols and Good Omens

Caitlin Benedict on this year's festive radio highlights, including a Neil Gaiman & Terry Prachett adaptation.
Caitlin Benedict

One of the reasons I think I have an affinity for radio is that if I’m on a bus and I stop looking at the road for .75 of a second I will straight up vomit all over myself. Most people grow out of that kind of motion sickness in childhood, yet here I am, twenty five, an avid reader, furiously glaring (whilst keeping my eyes straight forward) at my partner happily reading a book whilst our vessel twists and turns through a squiggly London road. In my adolescence we’d drive out of the city at Christmas, my parents trying to distract me from the very real threat of spew + inertia by letting me load the car CD player with Stephen Fry’s iconic reading of the Harry Potter books. His hot-buttered-rum voice would tell of Hagrid dragging pine trees through the snow as we drove through forty-degree haze and clouds of bushfire smoke, and I would think “some day I shall live in ENGLAND where Christmas is PROPER and SNOWY”.

Looking out the window of this London bus at relentless drizzle through the condensation, it’s clear I was a bit overoptimistic about England’s status as a festive winter paradise. Still, as I cling queasily to my every TfL seat throughout the holiday season, I know I can keep my phone radio tuned to Radio 4 to weather the literal and figurative storms. Most of the Christmas schedule errs on the side of cosy and uncontroversial, and I think that’s certainly allowed when 2014 has been such a strong year for complex, critical and often dark programmes from both Drama and Comedy.

That is not to say that there isn’t some darkness and bite in the coming weeks – the centerpiece of Christmas week is a satirical comic drama about the apocalypse – but I’d like to start with an obscenely enthusiastic recommendation for A Christmas Carol, a new and inventive adaptation from writer/composer/polymath Neil Brand, directed by David Hunter. Airing first on Radio 4 and then again on New Year’s Day on Radio 3, it’s an extremely ambitious and atmospheric play with music, showcasing the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers as well as members of the BBC’s Radio Drama Company. The new integrated score, by Brand, is so impressively executed in rhythm with the dialogue and emotional pace of the well-trodden tale that at the end of the recording the audience collectively avoided one anothers’ eyes whilst a hundred sneaky grown up tears were rubbed away. Quite aside from the unironically lush orchestral-choral score, Robert Powell leads the cast with a superbly sardonic Scrooge, with Sophie Thompson providing an extremely creepy Ghost of Christmas Past, and the Radio Drama Company’s pocket rocket Bettrys Jones squeaking through Tiny Tim at near terminal levels of adorable.

Also from Neil Brand and David Hunter, Big Broadcast returns for two new stories starring Samantha Spiro and Sam Dale as the studio manager and announcer of a 1930s Chicago radio station. I shan’t say much more about it as I worked on it (and it contains my very exciting debut radio performance as Background Drummer 3), but both episodes are a proper laugh and the musical finales performed by Jane Whittenshaw and Ian Conningham in the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day episodes respectively are pitch-perfect.

Beyond the Jolly Holiday oeuvre, this week also offers three new – distinctly un-Christmassy – short plays in Drama on 3, produced in partnership with London- based new writing company Paines Plough, celebrating their 40th anniversary in 2014. The three plays cover grief, romance, cuddling therapy, the folly of capitalism and the rise of hyper-intelligent manipulative monkeys – so it’s a mixed bag. Other audience members and I failed to agree on which of the plays was strongest, and I do wonder if the lack of underlying thread between the three will prove a disengaging factor for the radio audience, despite the fact that each script has its own accomplishments, ably brought to life by a single ensemble led by Clare Corbett and Karl Johnson. The three plays were recorded in front of an audience in the Radio Theatre in November, and will be broadcast in succession on Radio 3 at 10pm on Sunday the 21st of December – listen out for the delightfully visceral sound of a human body being ripped apart, provided by the destruction of a rather juicy melon by FX superstar Alison Craig on the stage of the Radio Theatre. That’s in the one about hyper-intelligent monkeys.

I’ve mentioned the Radio 4 adaptation of Good Omens before (yes I know several times) but there has been an extraordinary amount of preview material produced in anticipation of the programme. If you were likely to dork out over it before, the addition of a specially-recorded introduction from Neil Gaiman, a tremendous series of illustrations (from comic illustrators Sean Phillips, Isabel Greenberg, James Harvey and Rebecca Mock), and a clip featuring extremely sweet and poorly acted cameos from both Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, will drive you to distraction. A radio adaptation of such a beloved text is an immensely satisfying way of giving it new life: radio is a medium through which such a fantastical story can be told in a way that stimulates the listener’s imagination without having to contend with fast-ageing CGI or horrifying design decisions (see also: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Pixels, dir. C. Columbus 2002; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Mum Jeans, dir. Alfonso Cuarón 2004).

So that’s my arsenal of new listening for the rest of the year. Sorry for talking about vomit so much.

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