Review – Best Radio Plays of 1989

You start looking for radio scripts – and all roads lead to Penguin New Writing 11, which is all very well but…

The truth is, there are zillions of radio scripts out there, you just have to know where to look.

In the eighties things were slightly simpler because we had Methuen’s invaluable “Best Radio Plays of…” series, which ran from 1978 to 1989 and gave us the winners of that year’s Giles Cooper Awards for BBC radio drama.

Cooper is a thesis subject unto himself.  It is a disgrace that he is not venerated alongside his peers – and in radio drama terms I put him on a par with no less a luminary than Samuel Beckett.  So far as the awards go, what matters is that Cooper died young.  He was 48 when he fell from a train passing through Surbiton in December 1966.

To start at the end, which is a very Cooperish thing to do, what we have here are the last award winners before John Birt wielded the axe.

The Baby Buggy by Elizabeth Baines, Afternoon Play 16/8/89, producer Susan Hogg.

O Ananias, Azarias and Misael by Jennifer Johnston, Thirty Minute Theatre, producer Jeremy Howe.

The Stalin Sonata by David Zane Mairowitz, Drama Now (R3) 1/8/89, producer Richard Wortley.

Eating Words by Richard Nelson, from the Globe Theatre Season on Radio 4 and the World Service, 30/10/89, producer Ned Chaillet.

By Where the Old Shed Used to Be by Craig Warner, Drama Now 12/12/89, produced by Andy Jordan.

BRP89 Back

(The advantage of the hardback edition is you get pix of the writers on the back.)

Overall, the collection shows some falling off from previous editions.  There is something very 1980s and dated  about Eating Words and especially By Where the Old Shed Used to Be.  The Johnston monologue, on the other hand, was contemporary in 1989 – life in Northern Ireland after 20 years of the Troubles – but transcends its era because it is about character.   The Baby Buggy could be broadcast today.  We would be lucky to get a play as well written as The Stalin Sonata nowadays.

The Baby Buggy is a simple two-hander.  Two friends, Sandy and Di, talk babies.  Sandy is a seasoned mum, Di the professional who has deferred motherhood until now.  Di thinks she was be able to take baby in her stride, she comes to learn otherwise.  Both women’s attitudes to motherhood are the result of their own mothering.  Baby Sandy had her mother at her beck and call, Baby Di remembers being left in the rain outside a shop, guarding her baby brother in his pram while their mother went inside.  Both vowed never to be trapped themselves.  Both are now well and truly trapped.

A perfectly standard Afternoon Play, then – by a woman and about women and, frankly, all the better for it.  What sets The Baby Buggy apart is the skill with which Baines handles her material.  She uses radiophonic technique to slide in and out of internal monologue, in and out of flashback – sound effects in the former, crossfades in the latter, both perhaps counterintuitive and thus all the more effective.  Considerable use is made of letters from one woman to the other, a radiogenic form.  Both women have husbands but they play absolutely no part in the process.  They are not spurned or excluded, they are simply not there.  Baines is making a point, no doubt, yet it feels absolutely right.

Elizabeth Baines is a Welsh writer of plays and fiction.  She has written ten radio plays, a couple of radio dramatisations, and a six-part comedy series for radio, The Circle.  Surprisingly, the last original radio play was as far back as 2001.  Interestingly, her first two plays were both aired in August 1989, The Baby Buggy and Rhyme or Reason which was itself nominated for a Sony Award.

Jennifer Johnston is an Irish writer, born in Dublin but resident in Ulster, specifically Londonderry.  She is primarily a novelist and has done little radio drama.  O Ananias, Azarias and Misrael, being a monologue, could just as easily work as a stage piece or a short story.  There is nothing radiophonic, radiogenic or even particularly dramatic about it.  It is simply a beautiful and powerful character study.

Stella is preparing to leave the farm where she has spent, perhaps wasted, the whole of her married life.  There’s nothing to keep her there.  Her husband, Billy Maltseed, has died, and his father – who Stella has grudgingly nursed for years – died of shock half an hour later.  Stella is moving to Belfast to get a job, maybe in Marks and Spencer’s.  She and Billy never had kids, they would have like to, but…

It’s the little touches that bring the text alive.  The hint that it was Billy’s shortcomings that left them childless, but Stella never told him because she didn’t want to hurt his feelings.  The fact that Stella was raised Church of Ireland whereas the Maltseeds were Presbyterian.  Hence the splendidly baroque title:  Stella does know who Ananias, Azarias and Misael were (they’re Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, survivors of the fiery furnace in the Book of Daniel), but the point is the Prayer of Azariah, from which the quotation comes, is usually deleted from Low Church bibles.

The Stalin Sonata is a proper radio play – imaginative, expansive and, always a good sign, about radio.  Sometime in the late 1930s, in Moscow, the latest announcer and his mentor are ending their radio broadcast for the evening.  The phone rings.  It is Secretary Stalin.  He enjoyed the Mozart and would like a copy of the recording sent over in the morning.  Not the version they played tonight.  No, Comrade Stalin wants the Dzerinskaya version.  Unfortunately the radio station destroyed all copies of that version when Dzerinskaya was purged two years ago.  There is only one thing they can do (disappointing Stalin is obviously not an option).  They must spring Maria Lvovna from the prison in which she currently languishes and make a new recording.  It’s a straight narrative because the plot is complex enough, and it is great fun.

That is to say, it’s fun because it’s on radio.  If we could see Maria Lvovna’s condition we’d be appalled; on radio, played right, we are amused by the antics of the others who try and get her to function.  If we heard her pain or alarm, we would empathise; but her only communication with us is interior monologue, and she is recalling better days.

Mairowitz is an American writer, as are Richard Nelson and Craig Warner, authors of the two remaining plays in this collection.  Does that say something about radio drama in 1989 or something about British art in general at the end of the Thatcher era?

Nelson was to all intents and purposes the favoured playwright of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1989 to 1997.  His best known play for the RSC was Columbus and the Discovery of Japan in 1992.  I have a copy. which I found intellectually interesting (but then I hadn’t read Louis MacNiece in those days) but emotionally cold.  Emotionally I felt the same about Eating Words.  Sadly, I did not find it in any way interesting.  I generally find written works about writers smug and disengaging.  Eating Words is about two old writing bores on a jaunt round London eating houses.  I’m sorry, I couldn’t care less.

Craig Warner was only 24 when he won the Cooper Award in 1989, the youngest-ever winner.  He won again with Figure With Meat in 1991.  After a long time away from radio, he returned this year with Tosca’s Kiss on Radio 3.

In between times he became one of our finest writers of documentary-style dramas for television, notably Codebreaker about Alan Turing (2011) and the mighty The Last Days of Lehman Brothers in 2009.  This is interesting because By Where the Old Shed Used to Be is in no sense realistic.  Instead, it is a freewheeling fantasy with elements of the Cinderella story (complete with a magnificent pair of repellent sisters, Louise and Adelaide) and, to my mind, tones redolent of Edward Bond’s Early Morning.  As I said above, this sort of thing was popular in British radio drama in the Eighties – I was reminded of Angela Carter’s radio reworkings of her sexualised fairy tales.  It’s not to my taste but there is no denying Warner did it very well.


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