One of the pleasant side effects of turning my back on BBC news and the overpaid (male) presenters is that I have discovered new things on Radio Four Extra. I thought I could never be without Radio 4 in the morning with the Today Programme a staple of my life since student days but it seems I can! Radio 4 Extra has programmes from the archive and I recently discovered that they are broadcasting the 2005 production of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet.
I have yet to read my way through the four books that make up Scott’s highest literary achievement but I started listening to the episodes that covered ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ and then carried on listening past ‘The Day of the Scorpion’ and on to the episodes that covered the final two books.
It was captivating radio in the way that radio drama can be; an intimate experience that is expansive at the same time. Across nine hour long episodes it follows the story of the British in India and their effect on the Indians during the second world war when it is becoming increasingly clear that British rule must come to an end.
The books are not given equal exposure; while ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ is covered well, the third book of the quartet is only given one episode and large parts of ‘The Day of the Scorpion’ are left out. This is why is worth reading as well as listening. Scott may have been discursive at times but the back story of the end of empire is worth covering.
Mark Bazely played Ronald Merrick and Prasanna Puwanarajah played Hari Kumar. Lia Williams was Sarah Layton and Anna Maxwell Martin was Daphne Manners. My favourite performance was Gary Waldhorn’s Count Bronowski.
Every once in a while I stumble across something golden while searching for something else. Having thought the radio dramatisation of Salman Rushdie’s novel ‘Midnight’s Children’ was fantastic, I was pleased to discover this BBC Leeds radio play by Nick Ahad. Ordinarily, I would have no reason to listen to a Leeds radio station since I do not live anywhere near but I was searching for information about the partition of India at the end of British rule and came across this production by accident.
The play is a joint project with the West Yorkshire Playhouse where it was staged following the radio broadcast.
‘Partition’ tells the story of the past by focusing on the present day relationship between a couple about to get married. He is a Sikh and she is a Muslim. Their families have been invited to the wedding but her mother and his grandfather will not attend. We may be in present day Leeds but history is not in the past for the generation that experienced the partition of India.
The play takes us on the wedding day to the ceremony where officials are used to dealing with unusual experiences, except for the registrar, this is her very first time officiating at a wedding and the non- arrival of witnesses is going to be a problem. Both bride and groom- to- be are relying on their respective family members coming; witnesses from the street would be needed if they don’t turn up. The play shows us what obstacles would need to be overcome to face a marriage across the divide.
‘Partition’ by Nick Ahad is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The recent radio dramatisation of Salman Rusdie’s 1981 novel was fantastic. Not having (yet) read the book, I was ambivalent about listening to the drama as it was broadcast over one day in August by BBC Radio. However, once I started I had to see it through to the end.
The drama was split into episodes of varying lengths, a creative touch that made the broadcasting special. The first episode was broadcast before midnight on the day before the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan. The rest were broadcast throughout the next day.
The story of Saleem Sinai, born on the stroke of midnight with the creation of two new countries is a brilliant one. Nikesh Patel played the adult Saleem who narrates the story of his life as well as the background story of his grandparents and parents. It is a story that follows the history of the new countries as well as the young man. His life weaves in and out of important moments in the life of India and Pakistan.
There is something satisfying about a radio adaptation, especially as voices coming through the air is a significant idea in the novel. The term magical realism is often applied to this story and this may be a reason why I haven’t read it; or the 600 page length may have put me off. However, when brought to you across the airwaves, the concept of magical realism is less off- putting and in fact works very well.
Themes of identity, belonging, national pride, cultural differences and honour all play a part. As Saleem grows up, so does India.
‘Midnight’s Children’ dramatised by Ayeesha Menon and directed by Emma Harding is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
In all the fuss over BBC salaries this week, I heard nothing about the quality of the presenters and the relative merits of their salaries. Bridget Kendall came to mind as an example of the very best of BBC journalists. I wonder what she got paid!
This second series of ‘Cold War Stories’ was essential listening. Just like the first series broadcast on BBC Radio Four last year, it is made up of fifteen minute episodes, each relating a specific event in the Cold War, with contributions from people who actually took part. It takes off where the last series ended with the death of Khrushchev and follows on chronologically, taking in events such as the fall of Saigon, the Prague Spring, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the birth of Solidarity in Poland. There are also episodes on the proxy war in Africa and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Later episodes cover the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Bridget Kendall is now Master (!) of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Her expertise in Russian made her an outstanding journalist for the BBC and this series reminded me of her contributions to bulletins when a trusted voice was essential.
Jeremy Bowen is something of a BBC star as far as I am concerned. His level headed reporting from one of the world’s hottest regions is always worth listening to. He seems to get across complex ideas with clarity and he is not prone to that modern journalistic disease which rates feelings over facts and imagery over clarity.
This series of short (fifteen minute) radio programmes, broadcast by BBC Radio Four, allows him the opportunity to reflect on his twenty five years of reporting from the Middle East. I remember most of the stories the covered even if many of them were long forgotten to me. He carefully crafts a modern history of the region through returning to his news reports.
The series is not without feeling, how could it be, when as a journalist, he has seen some terrible things? Yet, while showing his humanity he never forgets that his job is to report the facts and get the stories out. There are brief glimpses behind the scene as well, though. He tells the story of his dinner party for fellow journalists on the night Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered.
‘Our Man in the Middle East’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I have been thinking recently about the 80s and how it felt for the whole of that decade to feel politically adrift of the mainstream view in this country. One thing that kept up my spirits, apart from all the campaigning I did, was the radio comedy programme broadcast every Friday in a late night slot on Radio 4. Before the days of catch- up and download, it was essential listening.
The show consisted of satirical sketches, mostly mocking the government and senior politicians of all parties and always topical. Apparently, it was written and recorded very close to broadcast.
Bill Wallis, a great character actor, had the most distinctive voice and, along with Sally Grace and David Tate, is the audio memory I have when I think of the programme. It ran from the 70s until the late 90s but I remember it from the 80s when I was a keen listener.
Poking fun at politicians is a healthy thing but seemed necessary to me back then when the values I subscribed to seemed unwelcome in a right-wing Britain. I was glad of ‘Week Ending’ and remember it fondly.
I rarely write about radio drama yet I listen to a lot of BBC plays or I listen whenever I get the opportunity. The selection from the week available as a podcast is usually very good indeed. Thinking back on last year I heard a lot of powerful plays broadcast but the one that remains in the memory is from the early Autumn.
‘Hidden Harm’ by Natalie Mitchell was a wonderful but poignant play about the effects on a brother and sister when their family falls apart. Things are looking up for Sam and his sister Lucy at the start. They have been allowed back home to live with their dad after a year when, following the death of their mother, their father hit the bottle. The main issue is whether he can remain ‘dry’ when his own father has little confidence that he can and when his own mother is herself near to death. These pressures have an effect on everyone but Lucy finds herself in the role of substitute adult. Quite soon she is projecting a positive family image to the world when the reality is something different. Her brother feels left out and retreats to making tapes, inspired by the mix tapes his father showed him. Yet, his tapes reveal the anguish he is feeling.
The play illustrates the harm caused by people who want to do the right thing but whose own concerns prevent them from seeing things clearly. Actors Finn Monteath and Fern Deacon were excellent as Sam and Lucy. ‘Hidden Harm’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?