Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald dramatised by Michael Butt

Whilst you can point to contradictions the underlying feel of the ‘60s in Britain, sharply focused on London, was bright, breezy and optimistic.  Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel Offshore, here dramatised by Michael Butt, captures a penetrative snapshot of that shiny optimism through the dilemmas of an eclectic mix of seemingly unconnected characters who live on boathouses on the Thames.  Fitzgerald had a literary background but came to publication relatively late in life at the age of 58 and Offshore, her third novel, won her deserved acclaim through winning the Booker Prize.  Michael Butt’s dramatic adaptation for radio captures expertly the novel’s unassuming simplicity that masks razor sharp characters and the spirit in which many of the era tackled their dilemmas in this “tragi-farce” set, hindsight teaches us, in a golden time.

Forced to live on a houseboat on the Thames when her husband takes a job abroad, Nenna, and her daughters Martha and Tilda, encounter an eclectic mix of individuals who also live on houseboats.   For various reasons, each has difficulty fitting in and faces crucial dilemmas and decisions exacerbated by their flaws, needs and outlooks.  Together they get along, gather wisdom and insight and begin to see more clearly who they are and what they want in life.  This is not the heavy and involved existentialism of Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir, but perhaps existentialism in real life as it was for a generation awakening for the first time.

The play is introduced and ended in the style of an announcer, by Martha and Tilda, and has the feel of a Polaroid snapshot of the period.  Stylistically and structurally this gives the play shape, sets the tone – light, fun, entertaining – and helps us to view the characters as though doing so through the eyes of young children.  The innocence and childlike simplicity of problems and difficulties is explored through the play and although a deceptively simple technique, it is genius in its effectiveness.  Would this novel be published nowadays?  It is unlikely, although it ought, and yet through a radio play it works extremely well and carries relevance some 55 years after its first appearance.

Michael Butt’s adaptation for radio is sharp, witty and accurately draws on the novel.  He has captured the tone of the novel, the times and the characters with spot-on accuracy.  Somehow, and it is the mark of great writing, the characters seem larger than the words they utter, the interactions they have and the things they do.  The children’s direct appeal to the audience at the beginning and the end of the play lures you into an sympathetic intimacy with the characters and their lives.  We feel we know Martha and Tilda as they make their faux mistakes in introducing the characters just as a chorus would in a Greek play.

The play’s production values are excellent.  Ambient noises add atmosphere and whether it is a crowd or a sinking boat the listener is lured deeper into the colourful world.  The early ‘60s were bright and breezy and the music that depicts the time – carefree, aspirational, full of exploration – carries that sense of fresh liveliness especially for a generation of young who had never before experienced the luxury of choice, possibility and potential.  A heady mix for the times.  Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday – a timeless classic – transports the listener back to the period with vivacity.  I can see that bus, Lionel Blair, and those arguments and all the colourful clothes.

For the more intent and serious listener the play does not disappoint a modern, thoughtful audience.  Characters throw out one-liners that are as relevant nowadays as they were at the time the novel was written.  “I told you we can’t be responsible for our parents all our lives.   We have to allow him to work things out for themselves. It’s the way I see it” decries Martha, as a boat sinks nearby.  “Didn’t you know that everything you learn, and everything you suffer, will come in useful at some point in your life?”  Such wisdom, although perhaps just repeating her headmistress, seems out of place coming from a six-year-old nowadays but wisdom and insight like this were commonplace in children before social media contaminated our young.  Tilda’s offhand observation that “It must be difficult being an adult” screams volumes about crises we face today and begs reflection on how the world has changed for the young, robbed, by technology, of their time, innocence and ability to unselfconsciously observe and comment with searing accuracy.  Ambiguity and disorientation remain beneath our water level and threaten constantly to flood our lives.  Perhaps there is deep symbolism in the houseboat being called Grace in a period when there was more optimism and spirit than there would appear to be today.

The play is peppered with cameo characters (with each actor who portrays them worthy of note) who bring perspective to the plot and motivation to Canadian exile, Nenna, who at only 32 seems exhausted and exasperated with life.  The acting across the play is consistent, excellent and benefits from clear and strong direction by David Hunter.  I get the sense that the director and characters enjoyed the play.  Nenna’s worry is conveyed clearly by Hattie Morahan.  Rosie Boore and Molly Pipe play Tilda and Martha respectively and through sisterly love masterfully capture that unimpeded knowledge that children can have and the savage insouciance with which they state the obvious.  They also carry much of the play’s humour with great skill and command.

Whist not initially a play I would look forward to listening to I found it gripping and it brought me into a long-lost world of innocence, space and happiness.

Offshore is highly recommended for its production, humour, characters and sense of joy.


How the Marquis Got His Coat Back, adapted by Dirk Maggs from the story by Neil Gaiman

How the Marquis Got His Coat Back is adapted from a short story by Neil Gaiman based on characters from the original 1996 BBC TV dramatisation, Neverwhere.  The title pretty much sums up the plot but that’s neither here nor there as the protagonists embark on a series of encounters that lead to subplots, strange characters and odd happenings.

The soundscape is detailed and immersive as we’ve come to expect from Dirk Maggs the experienced, writer, director and producer.  The listener wearing headphones is well rewarded.

The preeminent cast is led by Paterson Joseph in the eponymous role and brilliantly supported by Adrian Lester, Don Warrington, Mitch Benn with Bernard Cribbins reprises his role of Old Bailey from the Radio 4 production of ‘Neverwhere’.  James McEvoy manages to make a surprise cameo appearance as Richard Mayhew a role he played stunningly in the 2013 Neverwhere.

The play is fast, fluid and expertly written for radio with a range of voices exciting, thrilling and haunting listeners to a well-chosen background of supporting music and sound effects.  At times it’s poetic and of particular note the Joseph’s description of the Marquis’ coat “It is beautiful. It is remarkable. It is unique. It is the colour of a wet street at midnight, and, more important than any of these things, it has style”.  I do think there could have been a more resoundingly satisfying ending to the play but you’ll have to judge that for yourself.

Listeners keen on Gaiman should note that Radio 4 has announced a forthcoming adaptation of Stardust.

For listeners who are a little more keen the BBC has kindly provided a copy of the script here:

There’s a further wealth of information to be had here:



Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, adapted for radio by Dirk Maggs

I’m new to Neverwhere.  Don’t get me wrong.  I was aware it was “out there” and Neil Gaiman has occasionally replied to my Tweets (well, once anyway), but I’ve not seen the TV original, the novelisation, the film or the stage show.  I have, however, listened to the six-part radio dramatisation and I loved it.  The radio adaptation is written and directed by Dirk Maggs of THHGTTG fame and it shows, especially in the strong production values although keen listeners please note that the play is co-directed with talented and insightful producer, Heather Larmour.

The series of plays appeal on so many levels it almost merits the status of THHGTTG.  Neverwhere is the fast and gripping story of Scottish visitor to London, Richard Mayhew, who, against his fiancée’s wishes, stops to help an injured girl who just appears in the street.  As a result of his kind act, he ends up in the curious and bewildering world called London Below – a peculiar reflection of upper world London with similar names and locations.  Richard is led through an array of threatening, exciting and romantic encounters and events in his efforts to recover his original life.

In London Below Richard meets a series of peculiar characters who talk to and receive messages from pigeons and rats.  He must protect Door from assassins Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar.

There is a stellar cast sprinkled across the six series.   Luminaries such as Sir Christopher Lee (the plays are worth listening to for his performance and voice alone) demonstrate their brilliance through their mastery of character and acting.  James McEvoy is perfectly cast as Richard Mayhew along side foil Natalie Dormer as Door.  Also providing particularly superb performances are radio drama stars, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anthony Head, Bernard Cribbins, Andrew Sachs and Johnny Vegas to name but a few.  The distribution of voices across the plays is amazingly chosen, perfectly apt for the characters and provides a distinction and pleasure for the listener that is becoming more and more rare in radio drama.  One would think the plays were written for radio and not for TV.

As I’ve said the production values are superb and that includes the sound effects.  I listened to one part of the play whilst out walking and the sound of the seagulls in my headphones kept me looking over my shoulder for swooping white birds.  Direction is assured, almost firm and occasionally verging on being assertive as is the ruthless efficiency of the final edit.  All the actors give smooth confident performances well within the scope of their personal capabilities yet they have clearly risen to the demand of the job and the directors.  I suspect strongly the atmosphere on the recording to have have been beyond enjoyable.  The colours are strong, vibrant and tell of a marvellous and wondrous world below London.  Whether you’re a sci-fi fan or not this is a series that will satisfy on many levels.

Highly recommended.

This Friday Maggs and Larmour reunite to offer Radio 4 listeners another treat in the form of their adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s short story How the Marquis Got His Coat Back.  Another stellar cast has been assembled, with Bernard Cribbins reprising his role of Old Bailey from the original ‘Neverwhere’ promises to enthral and thrill us on Friday afternoon.


The Good Listener series of radio dramas by Fin Kennedy and Boz Temple-Morris

The Good Listener series of radio dramas, created by Fin Kennedy and Boz Temple-Morris has already had two previous outings in July 2015.  Set inside GCHQ (Government Communications Head Quarters) a team of skilled operatives use high tech surveillance and apply intelligence, tact and experience to track three British Muslums who make their way to Syria.  Henry, played by Owen Teale, must convince his superiors of the boys’ intentions in this tense thriller.  The Good Listener, for that is what the series and the first episode are called, was followed by The Good Listener: Ghost in the Machine in which the team must plot an intricate pathway to gathering data from millions of phones across the globe.  Tensions rise not only with the chance of being caught at any minute but relations within the team feeling the strain of battling computer a computer virus that is constantly monitored by their enemies.

Fast forward to autumn 2016 and series two of The Good Listener makes a welcome return with three plays with Fin Kennedy taking the writing credit for the first play Carte Blanche while Hassan Abdulrazzak and Anders Lustgarten wrote Private Lives and Quis Custsodiet Ipsos Custodes respectively.

Whilst fictional The Good Listener weaves real and realistic events and tactics into its plots along with a fair dose of office politics and modern day work related accountability.  Carte Blanche sees the GCHQ team tightening security ahead of a G20 summit when they discover an immanent threat to the British National Grid.  They must apply ever more subtle yet effective ways of assessing the threat and making sure terror is averted.  The plays are thrillers and can and should be enjoyed on that level.  Plots are well woven and intricate without being too complex in the way television can do spy thrillers such as Homeland or Spooks but observant listeners will see and draw justifiable parallels.  There are evident references to current affairs – including the US presidential elections (can next week not arrive any quicker?) – which add a spicy interest to the plays that nonetheless stand on their own without the need for currency.  Of more significance is the inherent debate on the ethics and morality of spying – a theme that runs through the series.  There is enough about technology in the play to keep the geeks awake and interested and yet it’s not technical, complicated or jargon which would turn off and cause to turn off the ordinary listener or uninitiated.

The plays are at times humorous and that levity, although darkish, is needed to provide balance and relief.  On his return to work after his father dies Henry gets a hard time from Gerry who says “I apologise if I’ve offended you.”  To which Henry replies “You’ve not offended me Gerry.  You’re too stupid to offend me”.  There is some skilled audio humour and credit there must go to the director and producer Boz Temple-Morris and Alisdair McGregor.

Scenes are marked with technology-sounding jingles, not to the extend that they are sci-fi but sufficient and apt to lend a sense of speed, gravity and urgency to events. As you might expect from a series of plays dealing with listening spies the sound effects are excellent and enhance the listening experience. Of particular note is the fact that David is cursed with tinnitus, a significant stress in the life of a listening spy, and at times, the play’s sound effects replicate the sensations of tinnitus which is effective.  It’s certainly a technique that draws us into the character of David and listeners will sympathise with his plight. Alisdair McGregor has given a level of detail and attention to the sound that has become lacking in some BBC radio productions of late.  The BBC might do well to have a listen to what some, often amateur, productions are doing with audio drama on the internet and often with very basic and often free equipment.

The plays are littered with subplots and leitmotifs – David’s father, ghost hunting, Dostoyevsky – which of course is important when a play becomes a series.  It does strike me that we are at the edge of characterisation with a few of the characters and that character development will be a crucial factor in the commissioning of a third series – which I think should happen.  There’s nothing wrong with a play being more driven by the interpersonal dynamics of its protagonists but there must be, at least change, if not growth and development.  Thank goodness Shakespeare had little else to do than write plays and aren’t we lucky he didn’t have social media.

The Good Listener series of radio dramas are tense and authentic.  The acting is superb throughout the well-written and tightly directed series.  They draw the listener in through plot and character and we are getting to know a group of likeable people and we feel the authenticity of their work, lives and relationships.

Highly recommended.

The Tunnel by David Lemon

Escaping a future Britain where technology and power have failed George and his granddaughter set out to reach a reported safe haven in France.  This is a run of the mill eco, techno or enviro-thriller from the writer of Containment the independent film released last year to the acclaim of critics.  My hopes of something akin to Containment or Radio 4’s recent The Kraken Wakes or even The Day of the Triffids were sadly dashed on the narrow canvas of a clichéd road trip.  The play felt not so much like a draft as writing tossed off for practice.

Whilst the idea of a techno thriller on the radio is welcome it must have emotional depth and appeal for listeners.  The characters in The Tunnel were shallow, the events and incidents contrived and attempts to make them appealing seemed overly concocted.  It was difficult to identify with characters who seemed to be poorly chosen and possessed of thin motivations.

Technically the play is well produced, directed and there are passages of dramatic tension that work well, such as the escape from the snitch, but overall there is an inconsistency and the feel that the play could have and should have been so much more than it is.  The intended tension wasn’t tense, the humour wasn’t humorous and the plot not purposeful enough.

There are sound acting performances from Jonathan Coy, Georgia Groome and Neil Grainger.

The play stands up to a second listening and more depth can be felt but a techno thriller from such a talented writer should have had more grip and appeal from the outset.

Try it for yourself on iPlayer Radio now.


Brief Lives – Series Nine by Tom Fry and Sharon Kelly

Frank’s back.  The return of Brief Lives is like having your favourite dinner made made you.  We dive into Manchester’s murky underbelly guided by our friends Frank Twist and Sarah Gold.  Across the first four of a purported six episodes the paralegals pit their wits against thieves, arsonists, a teacher and a judge.  There is of course the usual prickly dramatic tension between Frank and Sarah.

In episode four Frank falls for the silver tongued patter of a judge accused of rape and Sarah can’t contain her curiosity and pursues a parallel line of enquiry that sheds an altogether different light on the matter.  The dénouement brings a painful buried truth to the surface.

With no sign of an appetite satiated Brief Lives presents series nine of what Frank and Sarah get up to in their professional and personal worlds.

Like all favourite dinners there is a complex mélange of ingredients that serve to dish up the platter.  Brief Lives is no exception to the recipe.  Chief among the ingredients is the writing of Tom Fry and Sharon Kelly (others have written episodes but they have done lion’s share).  They know and love the characters, have a thorough grasp of their plots and possess bags of confidence in structuring their stories, humour and characterisation.

Next in the mix must be the acting.  Frank’s flat northern accent and protests of unsophistication belie an understated suave sharpness that gets the better of most of Manchester’s underworld.  The character is brilliantly interpreted by David Schofield who has a radio voice to die for.  The perfect foil to Frank is the more emotional and reactionary Sarah played, in this series, by Sally Dexter.  They share a prickly relationship soaked in love and care for each other.

There is a strong understated energy to the serial brought about through the writing and the acting.  It draws the listeners into the lives of Frank and Sarah.  We eavesdrop on their honesty with each other even as they share breakfast and we feel we know them.  They offer empathy to Manchester’s accused and in spite of their separation (but they have a daughter and share a business) they love each other fondly.  We harbour affection for Frank and Sarah and imbue it with doomed hope.  Don’t we love a lost cause?

Production values on all nine series are excellent and credit must go to Gary Brown.  Direction is tight and snappy yet it allows for Frank’s steady and reflective delivery.  Splashes of echoing guitar chords mark clearly the end of scenes and serve to punch home tension.  (Of course Frank was in a band – The Shipbuilders – and the splashes reflect his past and point to more sophistication than the character reveals on the surface.)

If you don’t know Frank and Sarah, invite them round for tea.  Send your invitation to BBC Radio iPlayer.  You’ll find them great company with fascinating stories to tell.

Black and Blue two plays adapted for radio by Judith Kampfner

Black and Blue is the clever title given to two plays, broadcast on consecutive days, that, through a blend of drama and documentary, examine attitudes, events and reactions following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, who was shot by a white police officer on the 9 August 2014.  Brown’s death caused uproar and protests across America and the world and empowered the Black Lives Matter movement.  Each of the six plays, in part one entitled Hands Up, is a vignette of personal insight peppered with broadcast footage from the aftermath of the shooting.  The plays are adapted for radio by Judith Kampfner.  Hands Up from the stage and the second play, String Music, from a short story by George Pelecanos (The Wire). Both were recorded and produced in America.

Across the plays there is a sense of inevitability that such a shooting happened to Michael Brown but it could have been any black boy.  One mother hopes her unborn child is a girl as a boy “you’d be born with a bull’s-eye on your back”.  Common to the plays is intelligent reflection that masks palpitating anger and immense repressed frustration.

Let me get two pet hates out of the way first of all.  The first play, Hands Up, is a docudrama.  So it’s a hybrid.  It’s neither a drama nor a documentary.  I’m not a fan of hybrids.  Docudrama is an art form, and I use that term loosely, that doesn’t work well. The descriptions, the factual content, the narrative are interesting but it is, ironically, often more bloodless than that which is dramatised.  Listen to the first few minutes of the second play, String Music, and although it’s a monologue we are utterly in the world of Tonio.

My second pet hate is how Americans do narration.  They always seem to find someone who tells the story in what I call the Huckleberry Finn voice.  Inevitably the narrator has a middle America voice and who could be a well rewarded voice over artist and they narrate in that passionless, almost monotone way, that lulls you to sleep.  So, all that aside, what are we dealing with in these two plays?

Across the six vignettes in the first play we are treated to varying perspectives, inevitably bleak, on life for young black males in America.  Without wishing to return to a pet hate but the style makes this play a blunt instrument.  Much more subtle and I believe more effective, perhaps over a longer and slower timeframe, is the revelation of stories and allowing the audience to seep into the world of repressed, fearful individuals.  However, such is the brevity and variety of each vignette that we get a broad sense of the severity, irrationality and consequences of threat to the life of a young black man.  To listen again offers greater depth and detail in what appears to be a shallow format.

The plays and playwrights in Hands Up:

How I Feel by Dennis A. Allen II

Walking Next to Michael Brown by Eric Holmes

Superiority Fantasy by Nathan James

Holes in my Identity by Nathan Yungerberg

They Shootin! by Idris Goodwin

Abortion: Letter to a Beautiful Soul by NSangou Njikam

These short docudramas are theme or event based.  In a way that makes them interesting and gripping.  They are in contrast with part two, String Music (a single play) which, it is immediately apparent, is character driven. Instantly we are inside Tonio’s head.  We know what’ he’s thinking, what he’s about, we hear the basketball tapping.  Our imagination and empathy are fully engaged.

Tonio’s passion is basketball.  It’s his escape from the constraints of being black in a rough part of Washington DC in the summer of 2001, “pickup games is where I throw off all the worries”.  However one hot sweaty afternoon it goes wrong for Tonio when he crosses gang members and he sets a threat on his horizon.  How will he manage?

The radio 4 afternoon drama audience isn’t probably used to authentic Washington DC street jive but they got a taste of the real thing from a cast that are mostly native to the area.  Congratulations to Radio 4 for putting these two plays into a slot that isn’t an obvious choice for such material.