Review of 2017: radio

21 December 2017

Narrative virtuosity: Michael Symmons Roberts’s The Progress of the Soul of Lizzie Calvin (Radio 4, 26 April) had a script that fizzed with humour

Narrative virtuosity: Michael Symmons Roberts’s The Progress of the Soul of Lizzie Calvin (Radio 4, 26 April) had a script that fizzed with humo...

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. 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.

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