IN NO area of its output is radio so challenged by the heterogeneity and ubiquity of contemporary broadcasting than drama. With epic television box-sets streamable on to screens the size of playing cards, and a series of bite-size podcasts available to download in one go, who is going to sit down to an afternoon play about domestic abuse set against the background of the Syrian refugee crisis, notwithstanding its egregious worthiness?
Radio drama has to operate in a culture that is so obsessively visual that almost every BBC radio show with ambition nowadays comes accompanied on the website by images and graphics to keep our eyes from straying to check our Instagram feed or Facebook likes.
Yet, as I look back over my reviews of 2017, I recall more than a handful of dramas that I would happily listen to again, and one or two that were exceptional examples of the art. So it is to this genre that I shall dedicate this end-of-year column.
There are three on my list which have ostensibly religious themes, the freshest in the memory being The Devil’s Passion (Radio 3, 3 December), Justin Butcher’s retelling of the life of Christ from the perspective of a Satan who is convinced of his own virtue. This was a Miltonic Beelzebub, whose wit and charisma were the perfect vehicle for David Suchet.
justinbutcher.co.ukNarrative virtuosity: in The Devil’s Passion (Radio 3, 3 December), Justin Butcher retold the life of Christ from the perspective of a Satan who is convinced of his own virtue
Arguably the greater challenge is to find a radio voice and persona for absolute goodness. In his retelling of the Passion, Oliver Park: The Easter riots (Premier Christian Radio, Good Friday), Nick Warburton skilfully avoided the problem by constructing a documentary structure in which we see the effect of the drama’s Christlike protagonist on events and people without ever quite meeting him.
For sheer narrative virtuosity, though, Michael Symmons Roberts wins emphatically with a version of John Donne’s whimsical tale of a soul’s transmigration: The Progress of the Soul of Lizzie Calvin (Radio 4, 26 April) had a script that fizzed with humour as the narrator described a journey from dog to flea to whale to mandrake.
The other outstanding dramas of the year were all, to a greater or lesser extent, inspired by novels. Radio 2 rarely ventures into drama, but on the basis of Alone on a Wide Wide Sea (7-10 August), an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel about the forced migration of children from England to Australia, the network might be encouraged to commission more. The mix of sentimentality, anger, and melodrama in Morpurgo’s work was perfectly matched by the production; and much the same could be said for Radio 4’s serialisation of Midnight’s Children, one of those dramas that makes you wonder briefly why you left the original book unread on the bookshelf all these years.
A Clockwork Orange has undergone numerous adaptations since its publication in 1962, but none pleased Anthony Burgess much; so he did his own in 1986: a “play with music”, which was broadcast as part of Hull’s City of Culture celebrations in October on Radio 3 (1 October). It was an exuberant, almost pantomime-ish treatment of the familiar story, as if reimagined by Brecht-Weil.
It was a reminder of how radio drama can, like no other medium, traverse the boundaries of genre, and of how the theatre of the ear can be at least as richly textured as that of the eye.