Radio review: The Masque of Anarchy, 13 Minutes to the Moon, and The First Man on the Moon

19 July 2019

Kevin Cummins

Maxine Peake performs The Masque of Anarchy at the 2019 Manchester International Film Festival

Maxine Peake performs The Masque of Anarchy at the 2019 Manchester International Film Festival

“RISE like lions after slumber” — not a newspaper headline after last weekend’s sporting achievements, but Shelley’s appeal to the English democratic spirit in the wake of the Peterloo Massacre. In The Masque of Anarchy (Radio 3, Sunday), the full poem was read expertly by Maxine Peake with appropriate anger, tenderness, and bravado. Here are lines which must surely stir the hearts of any English communitarian: “Ye are many, they are few!”, and for ever mark the Establishment with the number of the beast, as the apocalyptic figure of Anarchy rides in, bearing the motto, “I am God, and King, and Law.”

Shelley was, at the time of Peterloo, many hundreds of miles away in Italy, living the life of a self-abusive Romantic poet; and his “Masque”, for all its thundering rhetoric, is of marginal interest as a historical document. So, the director Sarah Frankcom’s strategy of balancing Shelley with eyewitness accounts of the massacre was a sensible one: to ground the poetic outrage with the vivid and largely unsentimental words of Samuel and Jemima Bamford. These, and the inclusion of contemporary ballads, gave this production a texture which Shelley voiced by a celebrity actor could not achieve; and the result was a powerful hour’s-worth of radio.

While the anniversary of Peterloo will resonate with only the more historically sensitive of listeners, few will be entirely unmoved by the programming marking the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing. On Sunday, the World Service documentary 13 Minutes to the Moon reached its nail-biting climax: with fuel running out and the planned landing spot missed by miles, the crew are negotiating the final minutes of the descent. The cross-cutting of commentary and archive is here expertly done, and Hans Zimmer’s score provides an aural backdrop which is at the same time static and anticipatory. You will have heard the story before; but never told with such finesse.

By contrast, The First Man on the Moon and How They Done It (Radio 4, Saturday) tells the story in the trademark cack-handed style honed by the National Theatre of Brent. All the parts are played by Desmond Olivier Dingle and Raymond Box, and much of the humour derives from the duo’s utter failure of literary imagination when confronted with momentous events, or when famous people talk to one another.

Thus, Buzz Aldrin is recruited by Neil Armstrong into the team by telephone: “Would you care to join me in the Moon landings?”, and Richard Nixon, sitting in his Oval Office drinking Ovaltine, confides in Henry Kissinger: “We’ve got to stop the people looking at our shenanigans.” It is the “shenanigans” of the Nixon administration, however, that also provide the one moment of dark irony in this otherwise wonderfully sunny piece.

The sporting dramas over the weekend left the professionals floundering in the face of what Dingle might have described as “maybe the most amazing games in the entire history of the universe — ever”.

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