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Beast by Nick Warburton

This was one of those lucky radio listens.  Working late one night I had no access to either my ipod or iphone (shock horror) or my iTunes (shock horror probe) so I was forced to browse BBC7 listen again.  Happily I chose Beast and managed to get no work done for the next 40 minutes…
As usual the BBC gave scant details on the website, not even mentioning the great track record of Nick Warbuton or the fact this play was a winner at the 2006 Tinniswood awards, so I went into this with no expectations.

The play (with it’s roots in a folk story) is set in a village in the year?  Well to be honest I thought it was set in the present day, only when the hint of dungeons and torture emerged did I realise it was set a few hundred years ago, or set in Guantanamo Bay (thank you, my name is Ben Elton and goood night).

Forget my cheap dig, this is not 24 set in a fishing village, this is a highly effective and unusual radio play.  The words, the players, the motivations, the setting and even the beast are nebulous.  Enough is sketched in that we now what we are hearing, but you feel you are missing something, something that is merely hinted at, something fearful all around.  You do have empathy and understanding for the characters, but in the same way you fell for someone struggling against the wind and rain when viewed through a streaked and misty window.

The beast is a catalyst for change in the village. Not by its actions but by it’s mere presence.  Conflicts arise, loyalty, freedom, responsibility and guilt, the all mix together for a tautness that begins to infect everyone.  At the center is James Fleets’ Cley, a quiet, loyal and sympathetic man, who by his very character causes so many of the problems and, eventually, solutions.

It is difficult to discuss or comment more as everything is so abstracted I feel there is something different for everyone to take from this excellent play.  I think particular credit must go to the production team who avoided making to much of the drama and simply letting it play. The result is quite hypnotic. Anyone with half an interest in radio plays should give it a listen.


BBC Iplayer

Tinniswood Awards 2006

Pack of Lies by Hugh Whitmore

Stars Alfred Molina, Michael York and Terri Garr, directed by Martin Jarvis – interested?  Well you should be. The real stars?  Rosalind Ayres and Hugh Whitmore for a superb performance in a great play.

Lying and deceit are at the heart of this drama.  I can’t really call it a cold war thriller because it isn’t, but it’s not a kitchen sink drama either.  That is what makes it so interesting.  The idea that alongside middle class surburbia, there can be the world of Harry Palmer and George Smiley. Reds under the bed? Not really, more like secrets behind neighbour’s doors.

I pulled out Rosalind Ayres (the current Mrs Jarvis I believe) performance as the nervous Barbara simply because it would have been very easy to make the part into some kind of OTT nervous breakdown.  What we actually see is a woman wracked (and wrecked) by her desire to tell the truth and believe the best in people.

Micheal York as – for a better word – ‘The man from the ministry’ is excellent.  he plays it somewhat like Guy Doleman in The Ipcress File (Don’t slouch into my office like a pregnant camel… what a great line)  but with a little more humanity. It may be his job but you feel even he doesn’t really enjoy all the lies.

There is fact behind the fiction, this is based on a true story, but I am not sure what that adds to what you hear. It is obviously a play, the lack of locations (there is one) and heavy dialogue show its antecedents, but that hardly matters.  Not the when the dialogue and the performances (all of the performances without exception) are just so very good.

Everyone in this is very real, almost understated and you do care, by the end of it you can almost taste the tension and weariness in the house.  The period detail is there but not overly precise or in your face.  You know its broadly the sixties and the cold war is at it’s height and that is enough.

When we hear the monologues from Peter and helen about the life that lead them to spy one feels sympathy but not necessarily understanding, which I think is probably right. This is not a political play; the politics is a player but not the focus.

The original West End / Broadway productions were great successes, if they were much better than this radio play then the Lyric Theatre must have been outstanding in 1983 because that’s how I feel about this play – outstanding.


The Wyndham Case by Jill Paton Walsh

Of all the many programmes I have listened to courtesy of radioarchive (and of course BBC7) the crimes and thrillers have been particularly enjoyable.  Merrison and Williams (later Sachs) make a peerless Holmes and Watson, Carmichael the perfect Wimsey, Moffat a pin sharp Poirot and June Whitfield my favourite Miss Marple and let us not forget the huge works of R D Wingfield.

I actually met June Whitfield last year when I was a cameraman at a poetry / prose evening at Ely Cathedral and had I said anything (as opposed good evening which was the actual conversation) it would have been to complement her on her performance as St Mary Meads finest.  A few years ago it would have been questions about Take it from here, Ab Fab and Hancock.

I hope digression is the spice of life as this is certainly gooing to be that kind of review.

So back to ‘The Wyndham Case’.  Murders in our Oxbridge universities always have a certain appeal and several of the threads behind this story offer quite a hook for a crime fan. Firstly is Jill Paton Walsh herself.  My only knowledge of her was in her work on the two Wimsey novels.  Finishing Thrones, Dominations and her own Presumption of Death.  She is obviously a very talented and literate writer and a great partner/sucessor to Dorothy L Sayers for those novels.

The idea of a library within the university which is at the centre of an important centuries old trust (of which the books are both the least and most important part) has a nice rich taste to it, and the finding of a murder in it’s supposedly locked room sets the scene well.

The lead character Imogen Quy I found less enticing.  Now remember I am reviewing the radio adaptation, NOT the novel – I have not read it, but of course neither should I need to. Quite what makes Imogen the amateur sleuth remained in the dark for me.  Likewise her relationship with the policeman on the case never quite explained. In a 1 hour play something had to go so that is perhaps forgivable, but more importantly the dénouement seemed was neither a surprise, nor important and the killer really has to have centre stage for those few moments. I simply didn’t care.  Strangely enough all the material relating to the actual Wyndham case was quite engrossing, as were the various shenanigans of the librarians, but surely the thread of the murders should have taken centre stage.

The plot underlying it all is very good, with multiple threads which are nicely closed at the end.  What was missing was motivations.  Both the sleuth and the murderer.
There is no fault with the production or the cast and it may be that 1 hour is simply not enough. This was an adaptation, not a radio play, and much of the denseness of the novel must have been dropped.  Had it been adapted like the Wimsey books over 2 or more hours I may have had a different opinion.  It was adapted by Neville Teller (who has a great track record, especially with PD James) so the lack of accuracy is even more surprising.

Would I recommend it, yes, it is an enjoyable hour’s listen, but unlike your first encounter with Wimsey I am not sure you will be eagerly awaiting more.


radioarchive link

iplayer link

London This is Washington by Mark Lawson

For me MacMillan is Peter Cook.  His devastating impersonation in Beyond the Fringe in indelibly printed on my mind.  What else do I think of? Suez, ‘Never had it so good’ and a certain Christine Keeler  (the famous photo taken at a certain Mr Cooks Establishment Club).

Probably not the most balanced view but then most of what I have picked up about MacMillan is mostly through 60’s satire.  As someone who grew up with Mrs Thatcher in charge, previous Prime Ministers always seemed stuffy to me, if less frightening. After listening to this excellent play, MacMillan seems a little more three dimensional.

How accurate this play is, which primarily dramatises the meetings between MacMillan & JFK, is perhaps open to debate.  Especially as the more poignant discussions are off the record.  So bearing in mind that this is not dramatised from actual recordings (unlike ‘The Kennedy Tapes’) one has to say it gives an absolutely fascinating insight into ‘The special relationship’ as well as the way a personal relationship can impact on enormous events. 

There is humour, which comes out of the old world MacMillan and the hip, cocky JFK. But it is MacMillan that is the wit , whether talking about Trollope or Lady Dorothy some of MacMillan’s lines are priceless. This dry wit sits alongside the broader humour of the initial meetings where JFK and his aide Dick seem to come from a different world to MacMillan and Timothy.

The phone calls behind the Cuban crisis are fascinating and seem the turning point that leads to a genuine relationship between the two leaders. At the same time one can see MacMillan’s governement (and his popularity) slowly crumbling in the background, with That Was the Week that Was getting a quick mention.

Of course there can be no happy endings, for JFK there was Dealey Plaza and for MacMillan there was Profumo and prostate cancer. Yet MacMillan was to outlive JFK by over 20 years.

The final section detailing the relationship between Harold Wilson and LBJ is funnier and interesting but seems more caricatured, but then perhaps they were two politicians who invite a more overblown impersonation.

The ending hinting at the UK’s ongoing reliance on the US is true but a little heavy handed.

The cast is simply excellent.  David Calder as MacMillan and Nathan Osgood as JFK  should be particulary proud of their performances.  Mark Lawson has written an intelligent and interesting play, which more importantly keeps one listening from beginning to end.

radioarchive link

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