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Radio review: We Forced a Bot to Write This Show, Drama: A Single Act, and Choral Evensong

05 January 2024


In We Forced a Bot to Write This Show (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), an AI device was programmed to come up with treatments of popular TV shows

In We Forced a Bot to Write This Show (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), an AI device was programmed to come up with treatments of popular TV shows

AS THE punchline of some especially heterodox nativity play, it is disturbingly credible: “The snowman melted for our sins.” Imagine the Janet Daley-esque outrage. But the perpetrator is an artificial intelligence (AI) — or, at least, an AI as comedically imagined by Jon Holmes et al.: the writers responsible for the series We Forced a Bot to Write This Show (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week). The conceit is that an AI device has been commissioned to come up with treatments of our best-loved shows: Question Time, The Great British Bake-Off, and the like. Having hoovered up all the information that the internet can provide, it spews out scripts that are surreal, hilarious, and, at times, brilliantly insightful.

As much as anything, it is the sheer concentration of gags which is impressive. Almost every line, garbled in translation into and out of digital code, is a quotable gem. An action-movie script is eviscerated: “Quick scenes flash; a helicopter dies; a lady wears a bra.” The pretensions of an army recruitment video are exposed: “In the dark, some camouflaged soldiers of all kinds of diversities are in a wood.” As for Songs of Praise, the bot looks on the congregation and declares: “Father, forgive them, for they know not why.”

The idea is at least five years old, and originated with an American comedy writer, Keaton Patti. We know this because today’s AI would be far more convincing, and less amusing. Indeed, one wonders whether AI should be credited for some of Radio 4’s more mainstream comedies, such as The Now Show and Dead Ringers. Jon Holmes is a writer for both of these. Is there something we should know?

Come to think of it, there’s many a Radio 4 afternoon play that might benefit from some original input from a computer — although it was heartening to encounter, on Boxing Day, Drama: A Single Act, which was as close to being a faultless example of the genre as one can imagine. Fittingly, the script, by A. L. Kennedy, was itself intended as a homage to radio drama, currently celebrating its 100th anniversary; and the chief character, played by Bill Nighy, was an enthusiast for the imaginative potential of sound.

But there was nothing either pretentiously self-knowing or technically elaborate about this production. There was, here, the perfect balance not only between form and content, but between literary elegance and ease of delivery. Aspiring dramaturges take note.

It was similarly heartening that a well-delivered Choral Evensong (Radio 3, Wednesday of last week) could pierce the gloom of motorway congestion, even on the neglected feast of St John the Evangelist. I sincerely hope, for the sake of the choir of Lancing College, that this edition was recorded in advance; but it was, nevertheless, invigorating to hear an ensemble of young singers, with a fine baritone soloist, declaiming so confidently Harold Darke’s Canticles in F. In our car of choristers, the singalong was just the sustenance that we needed.

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