This Thing of Darkness is highly compelling and seriously distressing; it’s hard to keep listening and even harder to stop. It’s a radio drama split over seven episodes, each forty-five minutes in length, about the psychological impact of homicide on its victims and perpetrators. It’s a hard sell in these times of considerable darkness elsewhere, why on earth would you want to listen to that right now? Yet while this is a story of repeating violences, dreadful mistakes and irresolvable grief, it is also, somehow, about hope, a hope which kindles when everything else has vanished.
The series follows Dr Alex Bridges (Lolita Chakrabarti), a forensic psychiatrist assessing and treating perpetrators of homicide within a prison. We listen to her work with prisoners in group therapy, and in her own monologues direct into our ears. She is our guide – our own therapist maybe – through this confusing, upsetting world. The story begins a week after the murder of 19-year-old Jamie, as Alex interviews the victim’s father David (Robin Laing), who is currently in prison awaiting trial. David is certain of his innocence, as is his daughter Hannah (Jessica Hardwick). Meanwhile, his wife Laura (Shauna Macdonald) is grief-stricken, in pieces, and provides a source of continuing frustration for both him and his daughter.
While the intrigue of who did what to whom, and the unveiling of the skeletons in everyone’s closet is interesting, the series really hits its stride when the narrative pushes past the typical scope of whodunnit police-procedural drama. For example, Alex’s group therapy sessions are for the most part entirely tangential to the story’s mystery or drama. Instead of narrative pull, we are given something much more rewarding. Each inmate, over multiple episodes and scenes, gradually comes to terms with their own actions. They retell – and relive – their crimes. In lesser hands these moments could have been cheapened with excessive gore or melodramatic performances, yet the writing and acting are always restrained. We listen, with an intimately privileged access, to a group of men devastated by themselves. Their grief, and perhaps our own capacity to empathise with it, is difficult to stomach, knowing what they’ve done. We can’t believe they’ve done this – and, heartbreakingly, neither can they.
The length and scope of This Thing of Darkness is justified by the seriousness of its subject matter and the depth of its character development. Without wanting to spoil your listening, it’s safe to say that the three core family members of David, Laura and Hannah all undergo tremendous change. The impact of their shared and individual trauma is long-term, and despite our own expectations of where stories should go, is unending. True to life, This Thing of Darkness has no easy answers. Nowhere is this felt more acutely than in the ending to Jamie’s mother’s story arc. In the penultimate episode, Laura’s need to know why her son was murdered is left ignored, deliberately unanswered, by its perpetrator. She never features again. We are denied what would make us comfortable – to know that she’s going to be alright, that she’ll “move on” – and instead have to sit, much like the characters, with reality. She must learn to live with not knowing, being incomplete, having lost – and so must we.
Yet through this dark cloud of grief, pain, remorse and violence, This Thing of Darkness gently shifts our attention to the green shoots of recovery, hope and change. Within the therapy group, inmates recount their crimes and find acceptance, making space for their lives to carry on – even if that’s a life largely behind bars. Within the family, journeys towards healing make tentative first steps, even if their conclusion is not yet in sight. While it would certainly be crass to say This Thing of Darkness has something to say about COVID-19, it’s impossible for it not to be heard in dialogue with what’s happening in the world right now. You could listen to This Thing of Darkness and enjoy it for precisely what it is – an engrossing and enlightening drama; or you may find it comforting, as it takes the long-view on people’s ability to cope, and struggle, through change.
Radio drama is a brilliant medium with a rich history of exciting, engaging and experimental practice. If you’re curious, now is perhaps a great time to experiment with it, as a maker and listener. What I particularly love about it, is the paradox between the lightness with which you can wear it, a single set of headphones say, and its capacity to hit you like a tonne of bricks. I often listened to This Thing of Darkness while my hands and body doing other things, jogging around Queens Park or washing the dishes. You could say I listened to it in the background, yet radio drama can not only invade the present moment but totally overwhelm it. For me, it happened toward the end of episode six. I came to a complete standstill, the tap still running, my hands gripping the edge of the sink. I couldn’t do anything but listen.
All seven episodes of This Thing of Darkness are currently available to stream for free on BBC Sounds.