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Radio review: Tristram Shandy: In development, and More or Less

10 July 2020

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RADIO drama is “all abysmal . . . sterile, stagey, moribund, and stu­pid”. You have got to be supremely confident of your own product to plant such a criticism in the mouth of your fictional radio critic. Fortu­nately, Drama: Tristram Shandy: In development (Radio 4, Saturday) managed to pull off this and many more examples of alienating self-parody, as the underpaid the­spians of Awesome Sauce Studios work­shopped a version of the Lawrence Sterne novel in the hope of im­­pres­sing a BBC commissioning editor.

Tristram Shandy was meta at a time when people studied Greek and knew what it meant; the author was, as one of the characters here beauti­fully puts it, “literally making it up as he went along”. The book thus lends itself perfectly to treatment as a theatrical workshop, intended for podcast release; a piece of radio willing itself into existence as a real programme, just as the unborn nar­rator of the novel — and, for that matter, the novel itself — wills itself into life.

As a genre of radio and television drama, the mockumentary now has its own recognisable characters and tropes. The challenge is to maintain our belief in a team of characters who are all abject failures. Some char­­­acters are mere sacrifices to comic expediency. Nobody would, for instance, employ Johnny, the “voice artist” who has a rich array of celebrity impersonations, but not a single creative cartilage in his larynx. We have, however, to believe suf­ficiently in the producer Philippa that we stay with the dramatic conceit until the end of the hour.

What kept this radio reviewer with it were the revelations of the anxi­eties shared by those who keep the Radio 4 schedules replete with cre­ative work. In this respect, the climax of the show comes when the com­missioning editor arrives to splurge a load of jargon about BBC Sounds and its ambition to offer “bingeable product”: “Story, story, story — it’s in our DNA”; and, to that end, is there any chance of fea­turing some True Crime element in Tristram?

The writing, producing, and performance of radio drama is a thankless process, woefully remu­ner­­­ated and mocked by all of us at one time or other. As Philippa says to one of her actors in this doomed workshop, “It sounds a bit too like a radio play.” “That bad?” comes the shocked retort.

Even those who have spent the past three months trying to avoid the grim statistics of Covid-19 are encouraged to catch the final episode in the current extended series of More or Less (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), surely the most trust­worthy source of information on the subject. The current series opened, 14 weeks ago, with a “Coro­navirus Special”. Now the team offers its assessment of the UK’s performance. This is not to say the story is over. Indeed, the fat lady — as an alleged “superspreader” — doesn’t even know when she might be allowed to sing.

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