Saturday, December 31, 2011

Great Expections Fulfilled

Highlight of a very poor (the worst-ever?) Xmas TV schedule was a brilliant three-part dramatisation of Great Expectations on BBC1.

Writer Sarah Phelps did a drastic prune which has filled newspaper letter columns and blogs everywhere with howls of anguish from those who deify Dickens.

The truth is Dickens is very rarely read word-for-word nowdays. It may very well be that he never was. Some of his meanings and references are simply lost in time; his mawkish sentimentality is simply unfashionable. But the main reason we all skip some passages is that Dickens wrote for weekly serialisation. He had no choice but to persist with characters and themes that seemed like good ideas up front but which didn't catch fire in writing.

I therefore loved what Phelps did with this version. She focused on the central characters - Pip and Estella, Magwitch and Miss Havisham - and allowed only those secondary characters essential to their stories.

The performances were excellent all round - I can't recall a bad one. This is largely because the sparse dialogue allowed the actors to act. The direction and photography were superb. But my top plaudit has to go to Sarah Phelps. Her dramatisation did what BBC dramatisations are supposed to do - it sent me back to the book, which I haven't read since I was an undergrad and which I am now enjoying almost as much as I enjoyed the dramatisation.

And you bet I'm skipping over the grotesques and non-starters.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Parrot and Olivier in America - book review

I have very much enjoyed reading Peter Carey's latest, but then I am a Carey fan, a great enthusiast of the picaresque and currently immersed in the art of printmaking which is a subsidiary theme here. I like the risks Carey takes with timeshifts and, overall, accept that two alternating voices adds to the form. The protagonists aren't equal, though. Parrot is the mystery, whose real name only occasionally appears, whose precise age we never know and who has a whole raft of adventures in Australia which are only peripherally referred to. The book may have achieved greatness if it had all been seen from Parrot's viewpoint but I suspect Carey began with his take on the real-life experiences of de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, and couldn't bring himself to leave it when Parrot came to dominant life. Not quite The History of the Kelly Gang but a fine novel nonetheless.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Would you rather?

Would you rather the BBC didn't transfer its new Graham Norton vehicle for BBC America to the UK? It's yet another parlour game in which celebrities (and to be fair the guests on the first two shows included real celebrities, Stanley Tucci and Cyndi Lauper respectively) answer witty questions with wittily scripted answers and the odd ad lib. You can imagine the domestic equivalent with Micky Flanagan and Gloria Hunniford.
I just wish Norton would bring the edginess back. The guest list for the current series of his chatshow has been so slippers and cardigan I haven't been drawn to watch a single ep. And as for his appearance in that truly hideous Xmas ident---

Monday, November 21, 2011

Troll wins Writer's Guild radio award

Many congratulations to Ed Harris whose original script Troll won the Writers' Guild of Great Britain award for best radio play, announced November 16.
I am less interested in the other categories but was impressed that the award for best television drama series went to Hugo Blick's compelling Shadow Line.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Human Voices - book review

It's a small corner of the WW2 Home Front but one Penelope Fitzgerald knew from personal experience - the Transcription Department of BBC Broadcasting House at the beginning of the London Blitz. Public broadcasting is less than twenty years old yet working for the BBC is seen as essential war work, like joining the Women's Land Army or volunteering for the Auxiliary Fire ervice. With exquisite lightness of touch Fitzgerald contrasts the eccentricities of the BBC's Old ervants with the randomness of life as the bombs starts to fall. 'Human Voices' captivated me from start to finish and I am busily tracking down more of Fitzgerald's work. I'm particularly looking forward to her biography of that distinctly odd Victorian painter, Burne-Jones.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Giant Passes

Some terms are overused, but to call Norwin Corwin, who passed this week at the mighty age of 101, a giant is a simple statement of fact. What Ed Murrow was to US wartime radio reportage, Corwin was to the brief flowering of original single radio plays that showed Americans the moral justifcation for joining WW2.
Corwin didn't create the form - Archibald MacLeish wrote The Fall of the City and cited the BBC's March of the '45 as his example. This was the work of the Manchester-based D G (Geoffrey) Bridson and went on to become the model for radio drama throughout the English-speaking world. Bridson's innovation was to forge simple, impactful drama out of simple, impassioned narrative verse in the manner of traditional broadside ballads, with a healthy whiff of 19th century Northern subversive songs.
Bridson and Corwin were virtually the same age and for a time their careers ran in parallel. March of the '45 is almost certainly the most widely-heard radio play of all time, with a total listenership in the hundreds of millions by now. Corwin's We Hold These Truths, commissioned by FDR and aired the day after Pearl Harbor, drew the biggest single audience for a radio play, with something like 63 million Americans listening simultaneously.
Thereafter, Corwin and Bridson collaborated transatlantically. Corwin came to the BBC to write the dramatic feature series An American in Britain, transmitted live to the US in the middle of the British night and rebroadcast domestically later that evening. Corwin and CBS then hosted Bridson's various visits to America where, among other things, Bridson collaborated with Langston Hughes and Alan Lomax on an original all-black radio ballad opera, The Man who went to War (1943).
Corwin fell under suspicion during the postwar rightwing witchhunts and his network treated him shamefully. He returned to prominence with his Oscar-nominated script for Lust for Life, as genuine an attempt at an accurate and artistic biopic as I can think of for the period. He continued creating radio drama for a market that was now non-commercial and increasingly online.
If anyone had a lust for life, it was Norman Corwin, who continued writing and teaching well into a grand old age. I have never read a word of his that I didn't agree with or which failed to give me pleasure. I have listened to hundreds and hundreds of radio plays in my studies, from all countries and all periods from the 1920s to earlier today. But the only one I have loaded onto my phone, so it is never more than a few feet away from me, is one of Corwin's, from An American in Britain. It is the best tribute one radio writer can pay another.
Now will somebody please get it together to issue a representative collection of Corwin's work? If you want a chapter on the Bridson link, I'm your man.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Prix Italia winners

The winners were announced at the end of last month. Best original radio drama: Little Thumb from Italy's Radio 24; the best adaptation was Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, from the novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, from Sweden. The BBC's Wild Ass's Skin was shortlisted in the adaptation category.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

More nominations for best radio play

We are in awards season. The Writers' Guild of GB have issued their shortlists. The full list can be viewed here:
My main interest is always original radio drama and the nominees in that category are:
  • Caesar Price Our Lord by Fin Kennedy
  • Severed Threads by John Dryden
  • Troll by Ed Harris

Winners to be announced November 16.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Best radio drama nominees

Nominations have been announced for the Tinniswood and Imison prizes for British radio drama.
The Tinniswood Award is for the best original radio drama broadcast in 2010. The nominees are: Andrea Earl, The Climb, an Afternoon Play from October in which three disabled people set out to scale Blackpool Tower; Rebecca Lenkiewicz for Sarah and Ken, the story of foster-siblings who fall in love, broadcast in the Drama on 3 strand in July; Nick Warburton for Selling a Glass, a bereavement drama from the Afternoon Play in November; and Stephen Wyatt for Gerontius, an exploration of Cardinal Newman's sexuality, another Afternoon Play, this time from November. It is the Wyatt which I tip for the win.
The Imison Award is for the best original drama by a writer new to radio and is a tremendous boost to new talent. This year's nominees are: Dan Allum's Atching Tan (Afternoon Play, November), a rare example of a play set in the traveller community; Matt Hartley's Pursuit (Afternoon Play, October) in which a police officer investigates an accident he was involved in; Marcia Layne for The Barber and the Ark (Afternoon Play, August), a title which pretty much covers the premise; and Amazing Grace by Michelle Lipton, which was actually a Woman's Hour Serial at the end of July, bodged together as a Friday Play at the end of the week, about a woman seeking her children in Sudan.
For the Imison, my head says Atching Tan, my heart The Barber and the Ark. All four are excellent.
Winners will be announced December 4.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


I have just finished reading Westwood, one of a whole series of Stella Gibbons novels recently republished by the fabulous Vintage Classics.

Gibbons (1902-89) has never been forgotten.  That said, she is remembered for only one novel, one of the greatest first novels ever published and probably the best loved of all literary satires, the wondrous Cold Comfort Farm (1932).

In fact, Gibbons published continuously and successfully for the better part of half a century.  There are two further Cold Comfort novels, also now in Vintage.

Westwood is a wartime novel, published in 1946 but set (and I suspect written) a couple of years earlier.  My guess would be 1944, with the air raids continuing but the Blitz itself long over.  It certainly has to be after the beginning of 1942 because the Americans are established participants in the war.

Westwood has this wartime background but is in fact a gentle satire of the pretentious Hampstead set – notably the overweening and justly forgotten West End playwright Charles Morgan – couched in the form of a comedy of manners.

The paperback has a quote from the Times on the back cover, citing Gibbons as a 20th Century Jane Austen.  This is exactly right, with the heroine, Margaret ‘Struggles’ Steggles more a Catherine Morland than an Emma Woodhouse.

What Gibbons has, which Austen does not particularly possess, is a gift for effortless incidental description. Take this for example, culled at random from one of the later chapters.  The dramatic point of the chapter is a party at the big house to which Margaret has been invited as a very peripheral adjunct to the gilded circle.  But Gibbons takes the time to describe the garden which Margaret passes through on her way in.

“It was a calm evening, grey and still.  Soft plumes of violet cloud lay along the west, where a little golden light broke through, wave on wave of cloud lying beyond the clear reaches of the light.  Not a leaf stirred, and the pansies and roses, lifting their motionless faces in the flower-beds, looked as if their eyes were shut.  There was a sweet cool smell in the air of freshly mown grass.  A trail of blades and severed daisies had escaped as Cortway was carrying the heaped bin over the paths and lay along the ground; his sight was not so good as it used to be, and he had overlooked them when he was sweeping.”



Saturday, August 20, 2011

Still hope for BBC World Service drama

Reading the Radio 4 blog led me to an article in the Guardian (probably the last national newspaper to devote any real attention to radio drama news, although they all do a certain level of reviewing).

John Dryden and Matthew Solon, the pair behind 2008’s The Day that Lehman Died, are working on a drama doc for the World Drama strand about England’s failed bid for the 2018 football world cup.  Not in itself particularly interesting – corruption in an international sporting organisation entirely dominated by non-sportsmen from non-sporting minor nations (wow, hold the front page!) – it is interesting that a channel and an art form both pretty much despised by the current, hopeless Director General continue to flout intimations of mortality.

Worth looking out for.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Celebrating Radio 4

Great piece by Gillian Reynolds in today's Sunday Telegraph extolling the virtues of BBC Radio 4. This extract particularly resonated with me:

"Speech radio costs lots of money: it recently proved too expensive for Channel 4, when it tried to develop a rival service. Indeed, much brainpower and money have been spent on trying to build commercial alternatives. It can’t be done: Radio 4 exists only because it is protected by the licence fee, with the freedom to grow, change shape, try new things, and refresh old favourites.

"Above all, what keeps it on the air is quality. And the big news is that there seems to be a new market for it. Radio 4 now has 10.85 million people listening to it every week, an increase on the last quarter, and an increase on this time last year. Its drama reaches a weekly audience of 7.14 million, comedy 5.67 – both the highest figures ever. The Archers, having dipped after the death of Nigel, are now back up, reaching 5.08 million fans a week (although perhaps the current E coli scandals will dent the next set of ratings).

"Radio is also adaptable: it suits new listening technologies. Programmes from Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time to The Archers fit the podcast as well as the broadcast. Radio knows how to grow writers. Is there any new comedy on TV as good as Cabin Pressure, on Friday mornings? It knows its audience, respects its intelligence."
I couldn't agree more.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Good old Norway…

“Good old Norway,” he said, and stroked his country with his finger, from north to south.  “For many years now we’ve talked about what a colourful society we are and what a multicultural country we’ve become, and allowed ourselves to be lulled into a sense of security, peace, innocence – that we were somehow different.  We’re always saying that the world is pressing in on us from all sides, yet at the same time we get extremely offended if that very same world doesn’t see us in exactly the same way that we have always perceived ourselves to be, as an idyllic place on earth.  A peaceful corner of the world, rich and generous and kind to everyone.”

It was hard not be moved, after the actions of one sociopathic Nazi in Norway last week, when I found this in the novel I’m reading.  “Death in Oslo” was published in 2006.  Even five years ago someone intelligent and empathic could see how vulnerable the idyll might be.  The passage has particular resonance when you realise that the author, Anne Holt, was briefly the Norwegian Justice Minister.

Norway is still the ideal social democracy.  Outrages happen.  No one can predict mass murderers.  When the worst problem your system of governance has on its plate is finding a means to keep this subhuman in prison for more than the maximum twenty years, be assured your nation is doing everything right.

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Monday, July 18, 2011

Classic Serial–classic production

I rarely bother with Radio 4’s Classic Serial, being more interested in original drama than derivative dramatisations and not at all interested in brutal hack jobs on great literature.  Knocking a novel of 300 pages or more down to two hours is pure vandalism.

I have never, however, read Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy and was attracted by the fact that The History of Titus is a six-episode, and therefore six-hour undertaking.


It is superb.  Brian Sibley, an authority on Peake who assisted Peake’s widow with the unfinished Titus Awakes, has maintained the rackety sprawl of Peake’s characters and, despite inevitable cuts and compressions, keeps up a strong dramatic pace.  Jeremy Mortimer’s production is an object lesson in the radiophonic arts and some of the acting – most of the acting – is exceptional.  Paul Rhys’s agonised howl at the burnt ruins of Sepulchrave’s beloved library scoured the soul.


So this is the perfect example of a BBC Classic Serial.  It works within its own terms as a highly successful drama and it prompts the listener to get hold of the original forthwith. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Torchwood–two new series, one week


I don’t know, you wait a couple of years for more Torchwood and two brand new series come along in the same week.  On BBC1 TV we welcomed the new transatlantic co-production, the ten-part Miracle Day.  On BBC Radio 4 we had three self-contained episodes under the umbrella title The Lost Files, which enabled them to resurrect the character of Ianto.

It’s funny.  I wasn’t keen on the last TV series (Torchwood Season 3: The Children of Earth) but I loved Miracle Day.   I loved the last radio season (notably The Golden Age) but The Lost Files was so unremittingly awful I couldn’t last the course.  Rubbish ideas, clumsily executed and brought to the airwaves with all the loving care of a fishmonger gutting fish.  Unspeakable.

But back to the positive…

Captain Jack already has an American accent and coat, so it didn’t seem at all odd for him to be Stateside, whilst living in hiding on the remotest stretch of Welsh coast, and becoming a mother, has only souped up the wondrous Gwen (the always brilliant Eve Myles, above).  The American co-stars felt right  because they  are already stars.  Bill Pullman was super-creepy and Mekhi Phifer nothing short of magnificent – who is ever going to forget him driving a war surplus jeep along the Welsh  beach while Gwen looses her bazooka on the chasing ‘copter?

Obviously huge amounts of co-production cash have been lavished on the show.  This is because American TV execs know a good thing when they see it.  The good thing in this case (OK, the biggest of several good things) is the writer.  Russell T Davies here reminds us why he was able to make Doctor Who go global and why the current series of Doctor Who lost a little of its shine.  Davies is able to thrill hardcore sci fi buffs with the originality of his ideas but keep the mass audience on board with characterisation and compassion.  His replacement as Doctor Who showrunner, Steven Moffat, can certainly deploy a formidable arsenal of sci fi tropes but he simply can’t do credible compassion.  His audience is said to be shrinking slightly, which is a shame.

Maybe the second half of the current season, which wrapped filming last Monday, will vindicate his stewardship.  I for one hope so, because I got really bored with the first half.  In the meantime, we have Torchwood.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Alone in Berlin

I have just finished reading Michael Hofmann’s fabulous translation of Hans Fallada’s last masterpiece.  Amazing to think that this, in 2009, was the first English translation.  It’s not like Fallada is unknown – I remember a stage version of Little Man, What Now? creating a major cultural buzz back in the Seventies.


Is it perhaps because of the content?  Because for me the most startling aspect was the inescapable fact that ordinary working Germans knew exactly what the Nazis were up to in the concentration camps and approved, either tacitly or overtly.

The story is that Fallada, dying, knocked this off in 24 days.  He always wrote intensely but, even so, 24 days seems an impossibility.  I can imagine a draft in that time but he must have gone back and deepened the story later.  On the other hand, he did die soon after.  Whatever, this translation should put Fallada centrestage in 20th century European literature.  I cannot wait to get my hands on more of his works.

In the US, Alone in Berlin is apparently called Every Man Dies Alone.  I’m pretty sure it’s the same novel.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Now showing at the New Walk Gallery

It’s been a while, at least a year, since I visited my local art gallery.  This morning I had to be in Leicester anyway, so I took the time to drop in.

New Walk is always a boost – such a beautiful building, such an unusual specialism (German expressionism), so imaginatively displayed.

The Attenborough gift of Picasso ceramics now has a permanent gallery showing 40 or so objects at any one time.  The gallery is in memory of Lord and Lady Attenborough’s daughter and granddaughter, lost in the 2005 tsunami.  I find these works inspirational – the greatest artist of the 20th century rediscovering his mojo in his 60s and 70s – but I hope this dedicated space doesn’t limit display opportunities for other treasures in the Leicester collection.

4 Faces Picasso Ceramics

As always at this time of year the Leicester Society of Artists is having its annual exhibition.  They have some extremely gifted members.  My favourite exhibits this year happen are two acrylic paintings – Lutterworth Market by Husbands Bosworth artist Ann Saxton (, which I like for geographical reasons, and Night Rain by Barbara Agg, with its sumptuous, seductive blues.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Treasures of the Ashmolean

Took myself off to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford the other day, my first visit.  I was drawn by the current exhibition Heracles to Alexander, which was a big disappointment.  Wildly overpriced at £8 for three average-sized galleries and not a single article that was ever likely to have been handled by either of the great men.  What it really was was a collection of stuff largely created for Big Al’s father Phil and Al’s posthumous, undistinguished son.  Only two items could properly be called treasures, both ornamental crowns, one of myrtle, the other gold, rendered with breathtaking skill.  For a fiver or less I would willingly have paid to see these but for £8, no thanks.

The newly restored building, however, is a marvel packed with beautiful and historically interesting items.  Ironically, the bits that fascinated me most were in the old building, mostly art.  Three paintings in particular held me spellbound and more than warranted the train fare (I still begrudge the £8).

First to stop me in my tracks was Piero di Cosimo’s Forest Fire (c. 1500).


It’s an usual subject, so far as I know unique, and doubtless meant something to Piero and his patron.  The fact that the meaning has long since been lost only adds to its interest, as does the discrepancy in quality of the various animal images.  The cow up front is so realistic you instinctively step back to take it in.  The lions are poor, the so-called bears rubbish – if I didn’t know better I’d have guessed wombats.  Likewise the birds: the banking hawk dead centre is on a par with the cow but the thing that looks a bit like a bittern to the right of the tree appears to be attempting some sort of kamikaze crash-and-burn manoeuvre.  And what of the pig and deer with human faces, slinking shamefacedly off to the left?  I loved it.

Hanging nearby was a painting of similar dimensions, Uccello’s Hunt in the Forest.


This is said to have been the last painting Uccello worked on.  Pretty good for an octogenarian.  His career, and this painting in particular, bridge the medieval and the renaissance.  The image is flat, like a tapestry, with the trees so similar they might be a stock design repeated, and yet the artist’s main focus is clearly to establish perspective, with everything converging on an external vanishing point dead centre. It took me a moment to work out what the shimmering blue line on the right was: it’s a river, glimpsed through the trees.  The main contradiction – and visual dynamic – is the juxtaposition of the brilliant colours of the figures and river with the midnight blue sky.  This is a night scene yet we see everything with crystalline clarity.  Where is the light source?  Somewhere else, apparently, perhaps with the huntsmen’s prey.

And finally, Walter Sickert’s Brighton Pierrots from 1915.  Another night scene or at least twilit.  Look at the vermilion blush of dusk – the lights in the hotel windows overlooking the promenade.  Because light is fading Sickert can mute the artificial colours of the pierrot costumes, blue and pink and viridian green.  The figure centrestage, however, is in a russet suit and boater.  Is this the master of ceremonies or the patter comedian, flogging his material to a small, disinterested audience?


A moment in time, a banal event from a century ago rendered magical by uncharacteristic restraint on Sickert’s part.  By far the best of his paintings that I have seen.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

BBC wakes up to its national treasure

I read in Paul Donovan’s ‘Radio Waves’ column in last week’s Sunday Times ‘Culture’ supplement (May 29) that the BBC has finally realised the value of its prime radio product, drama.  According to Donovan, whom I consider to be the leading radio columnist currently working for the national broadsheets, there is to be a radio drama awards night at Broadcasting House on December 4.  Also, what Donovan describes as “new family-friendly dramas on 4Extra.” All to the good is what I say.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Francis Fukuyama

Excellent interview with Fukuyama in today’s Guardian (G2, pp 7-9).  The following statement particularly resonated with me.

“Collectively it seems to me that the EU is in big trouble,” he says.  “They basically let in a whole bunch of countries that they shouldn’t have.  There’s no mechanism for disciplining them once they’re in and there’s no exit strategy.” He doesn’t understand why Greece, Ireland and Portugal are submitting to the euro straitjacket.  “The policy which is now being dictated out of Berlin is crazy.  There’s just no way those countries are going to grow with a strong currency and an austerity policy that stretches out for years into the future.  They’ll have to consider coming out.”

The interview is by Stephen Moss.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The best writer I have discovered this year

Karin Fossum, the Norwegian crime writer who is now being published in English on the back of the success of Mankell and Nesbo.  I have not read any Nesbo but I am familiar with Mankell.  I much prefer Fossum.  She is obviously influenced by Ruth Rendell – specifically, Rendell in her Barbara Vine style – but develops and refines the genre.  On the surface The Water’s Edge is a procedural detective story about a paedophile, but the depth of characterisation Fossum gets into barely 200 pages, her compassion, and above all the final devastating twist are truly remarkable.  I want more!  I will get more.

The value of a Humanities PhD–in America

This week’s Times Higher Education contains s report by Matthew Reisz about a recent conference at Stanford called Google Wants You, the theme of which was that hi-tech businesses rely on people who have highly-developed thinking skills, whatever the subject.

He writes: “For June Cohen, executive producer of TED Media, anyone who had studied for a PhD, however seemingly irrelevant the topic, had ‘learned stamina and focus and how to listen’ – and those skills would always be valuable to employers.

“As long as PhDs were regarded as essentially academic qualifications, commented another speaker, many people were likely to feel like failures because there were never going to be enough academic jobs, particularly tenure-track ones at elite universities, to go around.  Yet the reality was that PhDs offered transferable skills, that many people with doctorates went into business, and that universities needed to acknowledge and celebrate this.”

The keynote speaker, Google’s engineering director, Dr Damon Horowitz, summed up:

“You go into the humanities to pursue your intellectual passion; and it just so happens, as a by-product, that you emerge as a desired commodity for industry. Such is the halo of human flourishing.”

There, in a nutshell, is the reason the US is emerging from recession while the UK sinks ever-deeper in the mire.  The US values independent thought, the UK loathes it.  The US has proper businesses, the UK’s main commodity is the unemployed.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Franzen’s Freedom

I’ve been reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010), the latest attempt at the Great American Novel.  His subject – the aspirant, midwest nuclear family – is the subject of all GANs and Franzen undertakes a forensic scrutiny of their interrelationships with masterly aplomb.  This is his territory; he knows every inch of it.  The problem is the context in which he places the Berglund family, the traditional American battleground of nature versus commerce, in this case updated to conservation versus the corporate machine.  The character arcs within the context are just too facile – Walter is arbitrarily given control of a multi-million dollar trust to save the cerulean warbler while his 20 year old student son finds himself cutting a deal with a thinly-disguised Halliburton.  The story points themselves are acceptable, but the way in and out is so crude and clumsy that it is obvious Franzen has no knowledge of either world.  This kills the book, undoing all the fabulous character work.  Freedom is a great novel by an American writer but falls some way of short of being the Great American Novel.  Shame, because a little more research might have done it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Best radio drama at the Sony Awards

The Sony Radio Academy Awards 2011 were announced yesterday, May 9th.  Gold went to Every Child Matters (Christopher Reason), a play about child protection, directed up in Manchester by Gary Brown.  Silver, predictably enough, went to the most illustrious writer who deigned to write for radio last year, David Hare’s Murder in Samarkand (I really don’t care).  Bronze to RIP Boy (Neil McKay) set in a Young Offenders’ Institution.  RIP Boy was directed by Melanie Harris for Red Productions, and would probably have been the recipient of my vote if I had one.

For more info check out

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Recommended read: The Widow’s Tale

I came to Jackson’s work by a circuitous route.  I found his recent collection Bears of England serialised on the BBC’s Afternoon Reading and thought, This is a writer I have got to read more of.  I tracked down his Booker nominated The Underground Man and was spellbound.  Surely this is one of the least-known Booker nominees of recent times.  Then, last week, I was mooching round my local library and stumbled upon The Widow’s Tale (2010).  Jackson, who is 50 years old and, obviously, a man, entirely inhabits his character of a 63 year old widow.  Everything is experienced from her point of view.  The story, in itself, is slim, but never fails to hold the reader’s attention.  I was swept along, sometimes amused, other times squirming with the unnamed widow.  Writing of the highest order without the slightest pretention and with all the artistry masterfully disguised.  The best book I have read so far this year – and I haven’t been doing badly in that regard.

The Passing of Sarah Jane

It has been announced today that the luminous Elisabeth Sladen has died of cancer, aged only 63. Very sad.  Her role as Sarah Jane Smith in the main Dr Who was as good as most but she came into her own with the recent spin-off for CBBC, The Sarah Jane Adventures, which is as good an example of serious ambitious writing for intelligent young people.

Mainstream BBC should pay tribute by running Sarah Jane on Saturday or Sunday teatime.

Best of Beryl

Readers have voted Master Georgie the winner of the Man Booker Best of Beryl prize.  Dame Beryl Bainbridge never won the Booker Prize, albeit she repeatedly made the shortlist.  That said, she enjoyed a wide and devoted readership which many Booker winners could only dream of.  All in all, it’s a fitting tribute to a great writer.  Who can doubt that a public vote is how she would preferred to win?  Master Georgie got my vote (see earlier posts below) because it seemed to me the most ambitious in theme and technique.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Gin Game on LATW

I’ve been listening to the first hour of D L Coburn’s 1977 theatre classic on the wondrous LA Theatre Works site.  The world is convinced that America doesn’t do radio drama but here is the proof.  OK, it’s an adaptation but LATW give it in full with actors of the highest quality (Harris Yulin and the magical Katherine Helmond).

The Gin Game is that rarest of dramatic forms the tragi-comedy.  Here are genuine laughs but also true tragedy.  Coburn brilliantly uses the titular card game as a paradigm for interpersonal relationships, both between the players themselves and their long lost loved ones. I can’t wait for the second hour.

Why doesn’t the BBC broadcast this version?  They have been known to broadcast LATW productions before and an informal repertory of British radio actors regularly perform for LATW live in Hollywood.  The live audience isn’t always a plus but it certainly is here.  A true gem.  Find it here ( and relish it while you can!

Much more info about the play itself can be found at  Wow, this Coburn guy is one shrewd cookie…

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Samson and Delilah

I have just listened to BBC Play of the Week podcast – Katie Hims’ contribution  to R3’s New Mystery Play series for Easter.  OK, it’s a restrictive brief and the writers only have 25 minutes or so at their disposal.  Nevertheless, this was pretty poor fare.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Horror of horrors

Here I am, blithely scanning the New York Times website ( when I stumble across news that AMC has launched an American version of The Killing, relocated to Seattle.  Please, please don’t show this abomination in the UK!

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Sony drama nominations 2011

The Sony Radio Academy Award Best Drama nominations have been announced:

Every Child Matters by Christopher Reason, dir Gary Brown, BBC Radio Drama Manchester, Radio 4.

In For A Penny by the Reynolds Brothers, Tempest Productions for BBC Radio Scotland.

Murder in Samarkand by David Hare, dir Clive Brill, prod Ann Scott, Greenpoint Films for Radio 4.

RIP Boy by Neil McKay, dir/prod Melanie Harris, Red Production Company for Radio 4.

The Recordist by Sean Grundy, dir Alison Crawford, BBC Bristol for Radio 4.

Winner announced May 5.  For nominations in other categories see:

Sunday, March 27, 2011

BBC knee jerk reaction

I found this item in Matthew Bell's media diary in today's Independent on Sunday (p. 43): "The BBC acted quickly to avoid causing offence in the wake of the unfolding Swindon murder case. The fifth episode of a Woman's Hour drama, Cottonopolis, was pulled on Friday because it was about a missing woman and a taxi driver who wrongly comes under suspicion. The chief suspect in the murder of Sian O'Callaghan is a taxi driver. No doubt it was the right decision, but it must have been a blow to the play's author, Michelle Lipton. She has written about how difficult the series was to write, because it all hinges on the sixth episode, which brings together several storylines. That was due to be aired on Monday, but a BBC spokesman says it will be postponed indefinitely." On the face of it, no one can blame the underling of the day who cancelled Friday's broadcast as the O'Callaghan case was unfolding in real time. This is the paranoid atmosphere of Mark Thompson's servile Beeb and no employee would have dared do otherwise. But it raises so many issues that Matthew Bell seems to accept without question. First of all, the play is drama not reality. Secondly, it played on radio - Radio 4 moreover - as part of the Woman's Hour slot and had been doing so since Monday. Was the assumption that its listeners had forgotten the previous four episodes? Also, this is radio, which pretends radio drama doesn't exist, not TV where it would have been advertised in every break between programmes for at least a week - in other words, discriminating consumers had searched it out and chosen to listen. Michelle Lipton has learned what I learned some years ago - don't write realistic police dramas involving sex crimes for the Beeb. There is always some perv who does something vaguely similar in real life and it will always get pulled. In these instances indefinitely usually means permanently as the culprit's capture, trial and conviction will be followed by endless legally-aided appeals. Have the butler do it with a candelbra in gazebo and you'll be fine. Of lesser importance is the fact that a Woman's Hour serial was unwisely linked to an Afternoon Play (the sixth episode mentioned by Bell). This is a trope of Alison Hindell's time as Head of Radio Drama and is, in my opinion, ill-judged. The surviving slots have distinct characteristics; this is a good thing, this is what your huge audiences like.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Note on radio comedy

I found an interesting comment from Jane Berthoud, Head of BBC Radio Comedy, in a podcast on the Writers' Guild of Great Britain website (

"...because it's radio, and because you can go anywhere, I think that people can have a tendency to overcomplicate. When I arrived I don't think there was a single sitcom that was set in 20th century ordinary Britain, which I found quite odd actually."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

At last - the BBC Drama podcast

The weekly BBC Drama podcast launched this weekend - and launched with an absolute corker, the form at its finest... Black Roses The Killing of Sophie Lancaster. Actually, this wasn't a play at all, but a dramatic feature in the finest tradition of Geoffrey Bridson - Sophie's mother describing her daughter's life and brutal, senseless murder (kicked to death in a park in Bury by a gang of thugs who didn't like the appearance of Sophie and her boyfriend, both Goths) interwoven with beautiful, simple, plangent poetry specially written by Simon Armitage. It was indescribably moving in a way that straight broadcast drama no longer can be, thanks to the grand guignol TV soaps. Fittingly produced in Manchester, home of Bridson and the laboratory (under Archie Harding in the 1930s) in which the dramatic feature was forged.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Friday Night Dinner

Robert Popper's new C4 sitcom is classically wonderful. Family-based, five recurring characters and essentially a single set, it is beautifully written and marvellously acted. Paul Ritter, an actor I haven't noticed before, is an absolute revelation, Tamsin Greig seizes the opportunity to extend her range by playing the mum of adult sons, and Mark Heap (notwithstanding the shame of his role in the abyssmal Lark Rise to Candleford) positively shines as the nutty neighbour. I love it so much I watch every episode twice.

Give it time...

Brian Viner, writing in today's Independent, says critics were too quick to diss the recent BBC1 Sunday night dramatisation of South Riding. I myself was one who moved rapidly on about halfway through Episode 1, but that was mainly because if I see David Morrissey in one more worthy drama I think I might cry. However, Viner makes the very valid point that when ITV did its dramatisation in 1974 they allowed 13 hour-long episodes whilst the BBC made Andrew Davies knock the novel down to 3. Viner continues:

"...people keep telling me how wonderful The Killing is on BBC4. It's a Danish import with subtitles, and significantly it is 20 episodes long. The incomparably fine Mad Men runs to 13 episodes per series. Yet for our own broadcasters, drama output is crippled by risk aversion. Naturally, they cite stratospheric costs as a reason for three episodes rather than 20, 13 or even six, but where there's a will to make an audience feel properly cherished, there's a way. Sadly, the BBC seems to have lost the will."

I would just add three points:

1. Neither The Killing nor Mad Men is written by a screenwriter as cynical as Davies. Neither stars actors as over-exposed as Morrissey or Penelope Wilton.
2. Mad Men is original drama. The Killing is a dramatisation of a contemporary novel. Neither is in themselves 'classic' or 'done better before'.
3. The cost of a 13-part series is less than the cost of the four shorter series that replace it. In drama, as in all things, economy of scale applies.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

The Killing

The BBC has obviously done a press release, because both Guardian and Independent have articles today about this cult Danish series currently halfway through its run on BBC4. Both rely heavily on the same publicity material and cite the same parallels. Overall, I marginally prefer Gerard Gilbert's piece in the Indy:

Murdoch-phobes will savour the irony that at a juncture in TV history when the chattering classes are supposed to chattering, Tweeting and Facebooking about Sky Atlantic's much-hyped new HBO shows – David Simon's post-Katrina New Orleans saga, Treme, or the lavish Prohibition-era epic Boardwalk Empire – all the noise is actually about an unheralded and subtitled Danish crime series showing free-to-air on BBC Four.

The Killing is keeping a growing group of viewers – 359,000 of them according to last weekend's figures (247,000 watched Boardwalk Empire in the same timeslot) – from doing anything more useful with their Saturday nights, as it follows the slow-burn investigation into the rape and murder of a 19-year-old girl in a Copenhagen flat.

["Wanted in Britain: Europe's must-see TV Thrillers" 5/3/11]
Personally, I have been hooked from the start. What maintains the interest is that the makers haven't gone down the route of cheap shocks or multiple murders. They understand the role of silence, and the show is at its best when probing the silent grief of Nanna's parents (both beautifully acted).
My only criticism is for the Beeb. Two episodes every Saturday night is too much. Each instalment of The Killing is a feast in itself and demands a period of digestion. Of course, fans can do what I do - watch the first ep on Saturday and then record the late night repeat of the next ep on Wednesday - but I would rather have had the 20 weeks the makers planned for. Like I say, a minor niggle.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Eoin McNamee

I recently discovered the novels of this celebrated Ulster writer, previously known to me only for his prize-winning radio play The Road Wife. The first of his novels that I read was The Blue Tango (2000) a beautifully controlled evocation of a real life Ulster murder mystery. This week I read the earlier Resurrection Man, an extremely dark study of loyalist terrorism. Absolutely brilliant - a writer who makes every word count.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

New season TV (cont)

Still the new TV series keep on coming. Sky Living's Bedlam isn't original but it is extremely well done - stylish without being self-consciously flash.

I couldn't bring myself to watch Outcasts on BBC1. Well, not for more than a few minutes at the end. I'm no fan of science fiction and the sci-fi genre I like least is the post-apocalyptic which seems to me an excuse for saving money on special effects. Poor Hermoine Norris struggles gamely and Liam Cunningham impersonates James Nesbitt for whom the part was obviously written.

I read a piece about Matthew Perry's new sitcom Mr Sunshine in the New York Times which led me to read the pilot script, which MP himself had a hand in. It was witty enough but made the fatal error of introducing too many characters in one ep, several of whom are there only to be 'funny' (i.e. cray-zee). It will no doubt pitch up on UK TV somewhere. I may have a look but I'm not hopeful.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Sky Atlantic

I am hugely enjoying the new Sky channel which launched on Tuesday (Feb 1). It's like a channel designed entirely for me. Boardwalk Empire is great, although I much preferred the second episode to the first. Oddly, it seemed to me that Martin Scorcese didn't bring as much visual flair to the pilot. A minor niggle, though. Steve Buscemi is amazing and the English actor Stephen Graham (This is England) is superb as Capone. The character of Arnold Rothstein likewise promises great things.

I watched Bluebloods, a fairly run-of-the-mill cop show but worth giving a chance, if only to marvel at Tom Selleck's morph into Mount Rushmore. I'm also catching up on Day 7 of 24, which I missed first time round, and looking forward to the pilot of Six Feet Under tonight.

That said, other channels have some goodies on offer tonight. Sky1 is premiering The Big C, the script of which made me laugh. And ITV1 has a multistrand ghost story, Marchlands, which features the divine Anne Reid.

So... bumper time for TV drama buffs. Count me in!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Movie treatment

There's a beautifully concise guide by Fenella Greenfield to making your two-page movie treatment as good as possible on It's been said a thousand times before but this as neat, digestable and encouraging as any I've seen. Recommended!

Monday, January 10, 2011

More new season shows

Watched first two eps of No Ordinary Family, supposedly a US hit starring Michael (The Shield) Chiklis. It's live action Incredibles. It's rubbish.

Shameless returned to Channel 4 for what I believe is Series 8, the first 5 eps striped across 5 nights of w/c January 10. The character of Frank has been a problem for some time and they tried to ameliorate this by sidelining him into a fantasy world following a drunken stag night. Otherwise, everything much as before. It's tired in some ways but still better than most drama series currently showing. I'm pleased they finally updated the title monologue.
Glee also hit E4 for what I was surprised to discover was only season 2. I thought we had already had two series. The first ep was a bit turgid as new storylines started up and new characters were introduced. It is still better quality than most of its rivals.
The hit of the week, though, was Patrick Harbison's new three-parter, Kidnap and Ransom.

They always seem to start the year with a bang on ITV1. On paper there was little appeal but the storytelling and acting were superb. Is Trevor Eve the consumate British TV actor of his generation? The direction was the only drawback - some ad director, presumably, with designs on Hollywood. But the way they built the tension towards the cliffhanger was extraordinary. What can possibly go wrong, we wondered? The ransom is to be paid - we have checked that the hostage being handed over is the one being paid for. I was on the edge of my seat. I have a horrible feeling the standard might slip next week. John Hannah is the baddie, the trailer informs us. He is certainly not the consummate TV actor of this or any other generation. He is budget grade ham.

Saturday, January 08, 2011


Alan Bleasdale's 90'x2 Sinking of the Laconia (BBC2, Thurs & Fri) was his first TV original in more than a decade, yet received scarcely any build-up. If it had been Poliakoff, there would have been ads every hour and an Imagine special. Is it because Bleasdale is irreverent and working class, we wonder?

Anyhow, the film, based on real events from 1942, was a masterclass in serious TV writing that offered interesting and involving characters whilst never getting bogged down in soap opera tosh and never losing sight of the theme, the essential humanity of both sides in a lethal conflict.

Some of the acting was superb. I am not a big fan of Andrew Buchan in Garrow's Law (although my dislike of the series is basically the stories) but his performance as Junior Third Officer Mortimer was brilliant. Likewise Ken Duken as the German U-boat commander and Franka Potente as the inevitable half-English/half-German character caught in the middle. There were no bad performance.

Perhaps the most reassuring element was that, for once, terrestrial BBC did not operate on the basis that its audience is made up of halfwits. The Germans spoke German and we read the subtitles.

One petty quibble: it was hard to shrug off the influence of Das Boot, but I don't suppose there's much else you can do aboard a submerged U-boat.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Big new BBC radio dramatisation

Apparently BBC Radio 4 are broadcasting a mammoth dramatisation of Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate (about the Battle of Stalingrad) across all its drama slots (except the blessed Archers) for a week in September.

This will be the biggest one-go dramatisation since Compton Mackenzie's Carnival, the first real radio dramatisation (by Holt Marvell) back in 1929. Properly marketed, it could give the radio form a major boost. Otherwise it's another regrettable loss of airspace for original work.

Aurelio Zen/Primeval

The new series of Aurelio Zen dramatisations began on BBC1 last night. It was superb, even better than Branagh's Wallander, from the same stable (Andy Harries). The story was risible but in my experience all Dibdin's plots are, and there was an odd mix of British TV stalwarts and actual Italians. None of this mattered. The always brilliant Simon Burke kept the worst nonsense out of his script, his dialogue and dramatic structure was a masterclass, the visuals were ravishing and the lead performances, especially Rufus Sewell as the titular Zen, were exemplary. Can't wait for next week.

Primeval also crept back onto our TV screens this weekend. I thought ITV had binned it. I always liked it - well done fantasy with great effects. I like it even better now that they've moved Connor and Abby centre stage. Can we hope that the abyssmal subplot about Crazy Helen (the always alienating Juliet Aubrey) has finally disappeared up its own anomaly?