The Play’s The Thing

Generally, not a week goes by without some hyperventilating actors and dramatists tripping on to a stage somewhere to collect a prize, so a dearth of drama awards is not, one might think, the greatest crisis facing the artistic world. Yet radio drama is still a bit of a poor relation and its achievements do go largely unrecognised. Hence, the BBC’s new Audio Drama Awards, for anyone who has ever sat in their car to catch the end of a play, marvelled at the ambition of Life and Fate or, like a former editor of this paper, never missed an episode of The Archers.

It may be no coincidence that this new award comes as the BBC is cutting back its own output. Radio 3 is reducing its production of drama, Radio 4 has axed The Friday Play and the World Service has ditched drama production. This, despite the fact that at £23,000 an hour, radio drama costs a fortieth of the TV equivalent. And that the Afternoon Play is heard by more people in one day than the National Theatre manages in a year, with all three stages full.

Just three examples show the amount of variety, ambition and entertainment that goes out in an average week. Ambition was represented by Harold Pinter’s screenplay of The Heat of the Day, Elizabeth Bowen’s novel set in wartime London, adapted by Tristram Powell. Stella, played by a marvellously clipped Anna Chancellor, is warned that her boyfriend Robert, who works for British intelligence, is a German spy, but the man who warns her is prepared to keep quiet if she agrees to become his lover. Pinter’s style was perfect for the nightmarish atmosphere of subterfuge and unarticulated messages in Bowen’s novel, and the execution was bold and stark, with stage directions spoken out loud. But ultimately the narrative, which moved back and forth in time and between storylines, became increasingly difficult to follow and ambition, in this case, somewhat exceeded achievement.

Tontine, in the Afternoon Play slot, was both gripping and bang up to date. Karen Brown’s play was based around a Liverpool-based tontine scheme, where people give Christmas savings to a community collector. Anne played by Jess Schofield, reveals she has been dipping into the pot and owes thousands to the neighbours. Alison Steadman was magnificent as the mother-in-law and the harshness of the scouse accents was an exact match for the uncomfortable subject matter. The idea of the “tonny” must have been new to some of the Radio 4 audience and Anne’s rationale for stealing was pitiful and compelling in its detail. She wanted, “just some things some people have all the time”. “I had a pedicure with little tiny fish biting at the skin of me feet and a hot stone massage, with my hair done in a fancy style. Three hundred quid! How selfish is that?”

By contrast, there’s nothing more reliably entertaining than an Edwardian murder mystery and The Rivals delivers handsomely. Its conceit is to resurrect Inspector Lestrade, who was made to look a fool in the Sherlock Holmes stories, to narrate some of the triumphs of Holmes’s rivals. This week’s detective was Paul Beck, played by Anton Lesser, called in to solve a country house murder. The story, by Matthias McDonnell Bodkin, was not exactly cutting edge, but who cares? Characters said things like, “Uncle has been shot dead, but how could he? The gun’s on the table the other side of the room!” and Beck had lines like, “Things around a corpse always have a story of their own if they are allowed to tell it.” He solved the mystery in 30 minutes flat and concluded with the old chestnut, “Would you care to join me in the study?” Well, of course we would.