The picture’s better on the wireless

Reading, as much as I love it, has always come second. Second to Radio Drama. Even through my flirtations with the Skandy thriller brigade or a year or more of Oliver Sacks and what his clinical work means for human interface design. But radio broadcasts of dramatised books or plays haven’t really been that popular for decades and it’s certainly 40 or more years since the glory days of radio when families gathered around the wireless to tune in for the latest installment af a Paul Temple or Inspector West mystery – cue cliff-hanger music.

This was before my time, so pre-media player or I scoured speciality bookshops for CDs, and now online for MP3s, for a dramatic fix. Over the last year or so though, scanning through the listings of terrestrial and internet radio stations, radio drama seems to be  making a comeback.

Not just old favourites finding a new audience, but new radio drama being commissioned at a rate we haven’t seen for years. Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTÉ has one of the oldest audio theatre departments in the world and fosters new creative talent via initiatives like the PJ O’Connor Awards and broadcasts dramas weekly. I particularly liked RTE’s production of David Mamet’s Oleanna with Sharon Horgan, and the new RTÉ drama Science Season means that frequency-hopping has never looked or sounded as good thanks to Joe O’Byrne’s excellent What Next for Hedy Lamarr, the first of four plays in a series celebrating the 70th anniversary of Schrödinger’s What is Life lectures in Dublin.

Logical that I’d enjoy a bit of techno-science on the radio, but I really do love a good caper. Bill Nighy in the Charles Paris mysteries produced for BBC Radio 4 LWT – I like to think he heard Bill Nighy at a reading and insisted he was cast, there and then.

When is a radio play not a play?
I went to see All That Fall in November last year; at the Arts Theatre – short run, well acted, beautiful venue. Originally titled Lovely Day for the Races, commissioned by the BBC in 1956, it was the first Beckett work with a female central character and the writing, although unusually quick, left Beckett depressed.

It’s an intriguing play, described as Beckett as his most accessible; I saw it with Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins – Gambon excellent, Atkins breathtaking. The production is staged with the entire cast on stage, sitting, and then standing to speak their parts. The set-decoration even included a row of BBC branded, U47 Neumann microphones and big red ON AIR lamp.

“Never thought about radio play technique but in the dead of t’other night got a nice gruesome idea full of cartwheels and dragging of feet and puffing and panting which may or may not lead to something.”

— Samuel Beckett, 1956

A great evening, with gushing reviews, which relieved me – it would be embarrassing if it was only I that felt that way. And, I admit I felt a bit smug. Smug, as a radio fan; because in our era of non-stop, compressed, abbreviated, fibre based media – for seventy-two minutes, it felt the wireless was teaching us a lesson, a lesson that showed us who’s really boss.

Old fashioned page-turners or is that ear-burners?

Paul Temple and the Geneva Mystery : Francis Durbridge
Pau Temple and his glamorous wife Steve plan a much needed break – but before they know it, they become embroiled in a plot of deception stretching from London to Switzerland with anonymous gunmen, exploding cars, ransom demands, and more than one mysterious rendezvous. Unbeatable.
Paul Temple and the Geneva Mystery
Cards on The Table : Agatha Christie
Hercule Poirot, along with three other luminaries from the world of crime detection, is invited to dinner by the renowned London socialite Dr Shaitana. Also on the guest list are four members of what Shaitana calls his Black Museum – a collection of murderers who have each succeeded in ‘getting away with it’. You know where this is going, but it doesn’t matter.
Cards on the table - Agatha Christie
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy : John Le Carré
Starring the award-winning Simon Russell Beale as Smiley, and with a star cast including Anna Chancellor, Alex Jennings, Kenneth Cranham, and Bill Paterson, this is truly an epic. Ane brilliantly depicts the complicated moral dilemmas of those who practice espionage – the spooks.
John Le Carre - Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
  1. Radio Drama @ The Guardian
  2. RTE Radio 1 Drama
  3. BBC Radio 4Xtra Drama
  4. Audible dramatisations
  5. All That Fall: The radio play that isn’t @ The Guardian
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