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Mart’s Radio Drama Digest – 21 July 2015

Recent BBC drama output that’s really caught my attention, and which is available on iPlayer at the time of writing.

Air-Force One
by Christopher Lee, directed by Martin Jarvis.
In the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination Lyndon B Johnson prepares to be sworn-in as US President.

The Disappearance of Shirley McGill
by Katie Hims, directed by Jeremy Mortimer.
Hims further explores issues of identity, disappearance and loss.

Bee Journal
Sean Borodale fuses life in the hive with a contemporary urban setting and human beatbox rhythms in this unusual production.

Home Front, 2 July 1915 – Victor Lumley
by Sarah Daniels, directed by Lucy Collingwood.
A wonderfully written and performed episode that rewarded regular listeners by drawing on the complex storylines of the characters featured.

See my previous radio drama posts here.
Sign up to the BBC radio drama newsletter here.
Download the BBCiPlayerRadio app here, or go to the website here.

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Out of the Unknown – Essence of Wyndham, Absence of Women

Earlier in the year I was given a copy of the BFI’s Out of the Unknown – a collection of TV plays broadcast by the BBC from 1965 to 1971. The set includes 20 plays and special features, with some episodes also available with audio commentary. Although many episodes were wiped the BFI has made efforts to restore those of which some aspects remain through creative use of stills, audio and script samples, which are in themselves interesting.

While the plays were initially science fiction stories there was from series three a shift to horror and fantasy, partly for reasons of cost. There are many enjoyable and interesting episodes in this varied collection but two were particularly notable: Stranger in the Family and The Machine Stops. Also notable is the male dominance of these productions.

Stranger in the Family
Pick up that knife

Stranger in the Family was an original screenplay by David Campton in a collection otherwise comprising mostly dramatisations of prose work. Broadcast on 18 October 1965 Stranger in the Family has that distinct Wyndhamesque feel I love. Indeed, the theme is particularly reminiscent of Wyndham’s 1955 novel The Chrysalids.

Boy (Richard O’Callaghan) is “a mutant” with the ability to influence others to act in whatever way he desires simply by telling them what to do, while those he influences remain largely ignorant of or unwilling to accept the fact that they are not acting under their own volition. Boy’s difference from the accepted norm is additionally manifest in his lack of fingernails – a visual giveaway that comes in handy – although the image quality means the specific nature of this mutation is not really clear on first reference.

With those possessing such mutations hunted down, Boy’s family has had to move home several times in the past, and fear they may have to do so again as he finds himself attracting unwanted attention. The potential power of Boy’s ability is demonstrated in two wonderfully sinister scenes. In the first he pulls back from the brink having effectively made his point, but the second time the act is carried through in a scene I imagine would have been quite shocking to a 1965 British TV audience. That the act itself occurs off-screen adds to the tension.

O’Callaghan’s portrayal of Boy was notable, and he went on to have a long, varied and apparently on-going career in TV drama – most recently appearing in Casualty in 2014.

The Machine Stops
The mending apparatus is itself in need of mending

The Machine Stops was dramatised by Kenneth Cavander and Clive Donner from a story by E M Forster. Starring Yvonne Mitchell as Vashti, the machine – a device we never actually see other than in the form of a robotic doctor – provides everything required to live in what is apparently a post-apocalyptic or environmental catastrophe scenario that has forced the population underground. Again, the Wyndham influence is notable here.

The population’s existence is controlled and supported by the machine to the extent that they become reliant upon it, uncertain how to function when it ceases to operate and are thus separated from its security and comfort. Vashti seems to fear the machine yet also worship it, and as the machine deteriorates so does society. Constant internet connectivity, anyone?

Like O’Callaghan’s Boy in Stranger in the Family, Gothard’s performance in The Machine Stops – his first in TV – was also interesting, so I investigated what became of this young actor too. Following a long career in TV and film, including an appearance in the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only, Gothard took his own life in 1992.

No children, you said
I’m going to wash up, then I’m going to bake a cake

I can only assume the portrayal of women in Out of the Unknown is a result of the fact that the scripts were adapted by men from stories written by men, with the plays also being produced and directed largely by men. Generally the female characters are weak, subservient, prone to frightened shrieks, manipulation or running away to throw themselves on to a bed in tears.

In Deathday Lydia, the wife of the protagonist, is having a relationship with someone called David that is “only physical”. When not engaged in this purely physical relationship – in which David “certainly knows what he is doing” – she is either washing up or baking. This is unfortunate in what is an otherwise interesting episode. In To Lay a Ghost a 15-year old girl is raped while walking home from school. Years later, when moving in to a ramshackle old house with the man of her dreams, it transpires that she can only be aroused sexually by the ghost of yet another rapist who haunts the place. The strongest female character is Angie (Geraldine Moffatt) in the incomplete but nonetheless fine episode The Little Black Bag, dramatised by Juilan Bond from a story by C M Kornbluth. Yet while Angie is instrumental in developing a business relationship with Dr Full (Emrys James) she still has to submit to Full’s greater wisdom.

Although Irene Shubik was the producer and story editor for series one and two, not a single script appears to have been written by a woman. Female production roles in Out of the Unknown were mainly in make-up, costume or design – yet these were some of the most successful aspects of these productions. In the single episode directed by a woman – Sucker Bait dir. Naomi Capon – it is ironic that no other female appears in either cast or crew. As for ethnicity, there is one young black actor in Stranger in the Family.

A future from the past
Out of the Unknown is television from a different age. As well as the aforementioned shortcomings in terms of gender and ethnic representation, the pace was slower – much slower – than we would see today. While I like a slower pace there are episodes in which dialogue sometimes seems to ramble on as padding without moving the story along. There are however many interesting visual effects and sets at a time when inexpensive green screen use in TV was still decades away, particularly in the first two science fiction-based series.

While I wish brave and to some extent experimental TV drama like this could be broadcast today, something with the quality and diversity of BBC radio drama productions I’ve written about previously, perhaps in a late-night slot on one of the mainstream channels, such scheduling is surely consigned to history in the face of reality TV and promotional chat shows. Also gone is the off-screen violence of Stranger in the Family, denying the modern viewer the opportunity to use their imagination – a factor at the heart of good radio drama.

The Out of the Unknown box set is not cheap – I’m glad mine was a gift – and while these plays in many ways feel dated there are some gems that make the package worthwhile, not only in terms of the stories themselves, but to appreciate the level and variety of ways in which television drama has changed since their production.

A fertile land

A fertile land. For centuries home to simple people. Their homes lie to one side of the valley, sheltered from the coldest winter winds, shaded from the noon sun. Huts of mud built by honest men and wives and laughing children.

All around tree limbs are heavy with ripening fruit. Overhead, a blue void shot with white lashes that shimmer and slide in the mirror below, its banks spattered with coloured blooms.

For so long this land a place of peace.

No more.

The peacemakers float above the eastern ridge, dark sentinels in line abreast. Huge vessels designed to carry troops and equipment wherever they may be required, their shadows span the valley entire. Drums throb and shudder, broadcasting orders to the bloodbirds that spill forth clutching barbed and bladed weapons.

Sinewy figures with tar-coloured faces daubed with vibrant streaks, they are a band of macabre, chattering clowns clad in scraps of armour and cloth and accoutrements gleaned from battles past. Animals’ hides. Scalps of enemies slain. The tattered flags of decimated tribes.

Dull and battered breastplates and helmets clank and clatter, not a suit complete among them. One is naked but for a bowler hat with rainbow feathers tucked into its satin band. The scuffed headpiece nestles above his brow, warms its tiny pointed ears.

Another wears high-heeled boots of purple leather and a cloak of fine white silk draped between its leathery wings. Some trail strips of coloured cloth that flow like maidens’ hair.

They dash like escaped shadows among the pitiful creatures that scurry and hide, or unfurl tobacco-leaf wings to sweep and soar.

The people of the village put up a brave defence. Muskets and pistols pop and clap, flinging riverbed stones in unpredictable arcs. A small canon thumps and rocks on wooden wheels, belching charcoal clouds that hang ahead of its stout muzzle.

The villagers’ few metal machines chug and clatter and wheeze and churn, spouting inky plumes and spitting clods of mud as they become bogged in mire, embraced by quag. They fight on as the bloodbirds pull apart their primitive artillery with bombs that send waves of heat and shock and spinning chunks.

Such bravery.

The bloodbirds hiss and cry and warble throaty ululations. Limbs tumble. Heads roll. Abdomens spill viscera. They flick pointed tongues from razorteeth mouths as they slake their thirst.

Amid this terror a shattered man takes the hand of death. As his eyes cloud he sees the woman he loved and the sons they spawned and raised through winters and summers, and who set off across the world in search of a life. He recalls the building of their small home, its thatch now aflame. The years of famine. The years of plenty that followed the thread of gold discovered in the rocks. The laughter and the love. The unborn child who died.

Then his heart ceases and his blood begins to thicken, his fading watched over by the sun’s white eye, while all around the land lies so ravaged that a worker of the soil boy and man would swear it a stranger’s home, and weep with eventual recognition.

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The ISS experience

On December 24th Radio 4 gave a heads up that the International Space Station would be visible over the UK at about 5:20pm that evening. The sky was expected to be clear and the air crisp, the lady said. The station would be the brightest thing in the sky, moving like a very fast jet – or Santa’s sleigh. Cor, I thought. I’m up for that.

I expected cloud or some other factor to intervene, but when the time came conditions were exactly as promised: perfect. So at 5:15 I went outside, accompanied by Dudley, our Labrador, armed with hot coffee, iPad running the Star Guide app so I’d know where to look, and waited for the space station to appear.

Few things really impress me, I mean really impress me, but I watched the ISS nothing less than gobsmacked. It was a golden gem that rose from behind the houses and moved smoothly across the sky. To some this might have looked like an aircraft, but the speed – over 17,000mph – and colour of the solar panels were incredible. Yet these were not the things that struck me most.

This ISS is in orbit, in space, outside the Earth’s atmosphere. We know this. Yet the vehicle seemed so low. I know the atmosphere’s thin, but it was much closer than I’d expected, and as it described its perfect arc across the sky I was able to perceive not only the curvature of our planet, but also its size. It’s even smaller than I thought.

Some will question spending billions on the development of such a vehicle given the world’s multitudinous problems, but there is also the argument that the technological advances engendered by such endeavours can make contributions for greater benefit in the longer term. My belief is that we should push on beyond low Earth orbit – something not achieved since Apollo 17 back in 1972 – return to the moon, Mars and eventually beyond. In 2015 Tim Peake will begin a 6-month stretch aboard the ISS. I wonder if he’s open to visitors.

T’internet, lovely ladies, and know-it-all husbands

A conversation with Mrs S this morning brought to mind this post from a few years ago…

Right. eBay. It’s a blessing and a burden ain’t it? Availability of lots of items at bargain prices, rare stuff, bits and bobs you can’t get anywhere else, usually for good reason. And a helluva lot of old tat. Now, I’ve bought and sold a fair bit of stuff through eBay in my time: guitar gear, computer equipment, CDs. Usually, it’s relatively plain sailing. But there can be problems. Oh yes.

Last week, for example, my wife bought some Very Special Ladies’ Eye Stuff, which is highly expensive in the shops. She tells me that it’s usually about £30.00 for one thumbnail-sized pot, but this eBay bargain, dear reader, was just £9.99 for three thumbnail-sized pots.

Coo.

My missus was very pleased with this bargain. However, when the tiny tubs of Very Special Ladies’ Eye Stuff arrived, two of the pots contained a brown wax-like substance which looked neither special nor suitable for application to Very Special Ladies’ eyes. Rather Toxic rather than Very Special would probably be a fair assessment. The third pot contained a creamy white substance that looked considerably more as expected (although she says it still isn’t quite right).

I contacted the seller not expecting very much, but the two Rather Toxic pots were replaced with Very Special ones without question and, lo, my wife was happy again.

That was not the end, however. She’d also tried to buy some Lovely Créme for Ladies’ Faces, but hadn’t had much luck in finding the right stuff: there was Gentle Créme for Sleeping Ladies, Mild Créme for Ladies with Delicate Skin, Mild Créme for Lovely Ladies, and numerous other crémes, sérums and other things with “é” in them, but very few listings for Lovely Créme for Ladies’ Faces, which was what she particularly wanted.

I stepped boldly in, as know-it-all husbands the world over are wont to do. I promptly sought out, bid on and won on her behalf some Lovely Créme for Ladies’ Faces, at a price which, she tells me, is about a third of the shop price. It was the right stuff, the right size, the right box, the right price, the works. It arrived yesterday.

Or did it?

When I showed my wife the packet, her Lovely Lady’s Face dropped: instead of Lovely Créme for Ladies’ Faces, I’ve been sent some kind of Super Sérum! Rather than a Super Sérum, this is actually an Absolute Bugger for several reasons:

  • My wife is disappointed;
  • I look like a prize chump (even though I DID buy the right stuff – we checked);
  • It means I’ve got to contact the seller and faff around with an exchange.

So, what’s the point of telling you all this? Well, I’m not entirely sure, but I suppose for myself I should learn to mind my own business and stay out of my wife’s transactions (LOL, snicker, etc). As far as you’re concerned, make sure you exercise caution when buying products with “é” in them via t’internet, especially if you are the know-it-all husband of a Lovely Lady.

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