I like radio. Not the endless barrage of drivel interspersed with mediocre high-charting music that fills up much of the BBC and local output, but the actual programmes, most of which are confined to Radio 4 and its baby brother, 4 Extra. Well written, well performed drama and comedy through the medium of sound, the sort of thing that was a mainstay of popular entertainment in the Good Old Days but is now a shadow of its former glorious self. When there are decent programmes on offer, they are frequently missed, since the BBC is mostly intent of pushing its televisual output. Even the Radio Times has little time for radio anymore.
One of the few items that has received a good deal of coverage lately is the new adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Dirk Maggs adapted this one, as he has previously adapted several prose works, including the later Hitchhikers books. Neverwhere is a bit different, of course, having started out as a six-part TV series. It was broadcast in 1996, so I was twelve, for once exactly the right age to catch something on its original broadcast. The TV version of Neverwhere isn’t popular, having been thoroughly eclipsed by Gaiman’s novelisation, but I adore it. A broadcast serial is how it was originally conceived (by Lenny Henry, no less), although I have read of stage versions, for which I imagine it is equally well-suited.
The new radio version mainly pulled the media due to its superstellar cast, which includes James MacAvoy as the hero Richard, Natalie Dormer as Door and man-of-the-moment Benedict Cumberbatch as the Angel Islington. There’s more to it than big names, of course. There’s a reason big names become big. These are some of the best actors of their generation. While Cumberbatch’s presence will be the most celebrated – and I did enjoy how hammy he got in the final episode – it’s the leading duo that holds it together, with real chemistry on display. David Harewood is silkily smooth as the Marquis de Carabas, coming across as a little more dangerous than his televisual alter ego (played by Paterson Joseph), and we get the sheer joy of hearing Bernard Cribbens as Old Bailey and Christopher Lee as the Earl of Earl’s Court. If there is ever a sequel, please may we have David Warner as the Baron of Baron’s Court? Thank you kindly.
The joy of audio is its ability to create vivid worlds solely through the medium of sound. Neverwhere triumphs over its TV incarnation, forever looked down upon because of its limited budget and untreated video footage. On radio, the battle with the Beast of London is as powerful as it should be, rather than a slightly embarrassing mess. Equally well served by this format is Eric, a new adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s short novel of Discworld. Discworld adaptations for radio are common, but this one works particularly well. For a start, it’s actually funny, something that certain adaptations have somehow managed to miss. The difficulty, I guess, is in translating Pratchett’s humour, which comes across primarily from his prose style and turn of phrase, to a non-narrated format. Eric works it by focussing on the silliness of the situations. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone more suited to the role of Rincewind the Wizzard than Mark Heap, the unfairly overlooked actor of Spaced and Green Wing fame. The man is comedy on legs, and should any further TV adaptations of Rincewind stories be in the pipeline, I really, really hope they seek him out. The only issue I have with this adaptation is the terribly brief running time, with episodes only lasting thirteen minutes. Still, this does at least prevent them from getting stale.
Remaining on the fantasy-comedy route we come to Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Carefully. I’m undecided on this one. I reviewed the pilot episode last year, and concluded that it had potential, but, after hearing two episodes (I missed the first and they’re only up for a week), I have yet to hear it reach that potential. This week’s episode was the better of the two, with some genuinely funny moments and a solid story idea. It’s not bad by any means; I just think that Eddie Robson can do a lot better than this. Village skirts on the edge of science fiction, with most of its jokes coming from the exploration of middle class England, and more could be made from the juxtaposition of this and the invading Geonin.
I suppose it’s only natural that I’d want more sci-fi in the show, as a sci-fi geek of some repute, but it still feels like Village is playing it too safe. Perhaps it should be taken off Radio 2 and given to a 4 Extra? Fewer people would tune in of course, but if it was left on iPlayer for more than a few days I’m sure it would garner a great many listeners after initial broadcast. A big shame is that my beloved Katherine Parkinson has not stayed on, Katrina now being played by Hattie Morahan. She’s perfectly fine, but Parkinson has is just a natural for comedy. Thankfully, Julian Rhind-Tutt is still on hand as Uljabaan, the alien leader, and Peter Davison is Katrina’s weary father Richard.
By far the most impressive programme I have listened to in some time is ‘The Startling Truths of Old World Sparrows,’ an instalment of Radio 3’s The Wire. The author and producer, Fiona Evans and Pauline Harris respectively, interviewed several elderly people and much of this is reproduced verbatim in a dramatic presentation concerning three pensioners dealing with a severe snowfall. The programme jumps from one person to the next as we explore the potential consequences of the snow on their lives, and we realise just how reliant they are on those who care for them. It’s a powerfully affecting look at the realities of old age in our country, and deserves praise for allowing elderly people to present their own concerns instead of having a younger writer explain them to us.
The most inspired decision is the casting. Rather than having three elderly actors portray the roles, the creators have chosen to cast children. All three of them are quite astonishingly fine actors, to the degree that there were several points at which I entirely forgot I was listening to children instead of fully-grown adults. Their names are Sydney Wade, Daniel Kerr and Ellis Hollins – ones to watch for in future, I feel. It’s an incredibly affecting and moving piece, with the vulnerability of the three protagonists really brought to the fore by their portrayal by children. It’s not something I would normally have listened to, and I did so on the recommendation of Paul Magrs. Truly exceptional.