Currently 4Extra is broadcasting all the series of my favourite radio drama on the iplayer, Pilgrim written by Sebastian Baczkiewicz.  The series was nominated for a Prix Italia and won a silver Pix Europe with the actors involved also receiving nominations from the BBC.

The seasons make up part of the story of William Palmer who was cursed by the king of the grey folk for denying their existence, to live forever.  Palmer, also known to the grey folk as Pilgrim, now arbitrates between the modern world, the grey folk and all the supernatural beings which swirl between.  As ever with something I’m enthusiastic about on the radio it is partly to do with the medium itself.  The intimacy of radio is very seductive.

Baczkiewicz weaves a believable and atmospheric dark fantasy world where the legends of old England intruding on the lives of extremely normal modern inhabitants.   Baczkiewicz does not overly rely  on the well known supernatural monsters such as werewolves, which can create an overblown and predictable tale but delves deep into folklore.  Soon a thorn bush, a forest, the ringing of a church bell can all be sinister to the listener.  In fact when he does delve into a monster trope the results are not what we have come to expect.  It is the juxtaposition of the spectacular with the mundane which makes Baczkiewicz’s world so absorbing, always balancing precariously between horror and the everyday.

Ultimately though the tone of Pilgrim is one of weariness, as we see these fantastical and horrific events through the eyes of Palmer, who searches for a way to end his life.  While retaining his compassion, Palmer has also become detached, zen-like to the inevitability of conflict between the two separate worlds ever intruding on each other and his role in trying to limit the damage.  The listener wants Pilgrim to find the release that he desperate seeks, but also want to find out more about the intriguing world who’s surface has only just been scratched.  The listener pivots between these two desires as Palmer himself pivots between the two worlds he inhabits.

If you only listen to one radio drama series this year I would recommend this one.  If you are a fan of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell, this is a series that will help the long wait for Susanna Clerks’ sequel.



The Weir. Lyceum Theatre

Last night I went to see The Weir, by Conor McPherson, directed by Amanda Gaughan at the Lyceum Theatre. Before I get on to the meat and potatoes of the play I have to also say I sat in one of the worst audiences I have ever been in.

We were in the upper circle, and had a pretty good views of the stage.  Once the performance started though it was like at least 50% of the upper circle were conspiring to break any dramatic tension or concentration.  There was the woman who told someone off very loudly and aggressively for using a phone, and other people for talking, but thought it was ok for herself to turn round and comment to us loudly about the swearing in the play.  There were a group of school children, who I think maybe did not have English as a first language, who spent a lot of the time whispering to each other.  There were then the multiple times people got up to speak to the ushers and complain, move seats, come back to collect bags, the ushers (who were obviously having a tough performance) coming down repeatedly to ask people to switch off phones or to be quiet.  Then the school children left, loudly and slowly.  This was all in the first twenty minutes and completely ruined the part of the narrative where we have the place, character and relationships set up.

The play is set in a rural Irish pub.  I was with a Irish friend who commented afterwards that the Irishness of it was rendered accurately.  It is a wet and rainy night, and a new member of the community, a woman, comes to this pub populated by men, and the telling of ghost stories ensues.

The telling of ghost stories is just a vehicle though to say something larger about story telling itself.  What the play ultimately tells us is that when we tell any story (in whatever genre) we are really talking about ourselves.  Whether it is the self as an individual of the self of wider humanity.  It’s not just the telling of stories that gives us this information though, it’s how we chose to hear the story, how the hearers reacts, that informs that informs the continuing unvoiced dialogue between people.

The atmosphere was beautifully accomplished, with the splashes of rain in puddles visible to the audience, and a slow sunset and rising moon in real time creating the kind of attention to detail that is the foundation of the illusion of theatre.  The cast, while having a challenging performance due to the audience carried on professionally, and their skilled performances easily brought whole, and familiar, lives and characters of the pub customers to life.  Special mention has to go for Lucianne McEvoy’s gripping monologue, and to the whole cast, for one of the best silences I’ve ever heard.

The version of humanity that McPherson shows us in this play is one which at times is a little pompous, a little scared, kind and with a tender interior.  Most of all it is a humanity which is a little broken, a little battered, a little rough around the edges, but one where hearts can recognise and sing their sadnesses to each other – and this in itself is ordinary, mundane, and slightly beautiful.

The Weir: Four stars

Upper circle audience:  No stars



Black Velvet by Tony Ramsay

For a short time only Tony Ramsay’s radio play Black Velvet is on the BBC iplayer.  This is one of my favourite radio plays, and is also a great example of how incredibly the horror genre can work on radio.

The forty-five minute play follows Master Richard and servant girl Annie, as they are alone in Thoresbey Hall, where Master Richard compels Annie to play at being mistress of the house.

What Black Velvet demonstres so well is the real intimacy of radio, which has lead it to being an enduring medium no matter how technologically eclipsed it is.  It’s not horror’s sexualised intimacy as in the creepy vampire voice whispering temptation in beautiful virgins ear.  It’s intimacy of character and mind.  Because of the lack of visuals you have to make them up in your own head, and that is the snuggest place any story can ever fit.  It’s also the most scary.

In a few short scenes we gain a lot of knowledge about Master Richards psychological state, it’s frailty and his background.  Over the course of the play we become uniquely entangled in Annie’s plight.  It’s as though we have been welcomed into parts of these characters lives and predicaments that we could only witness if we were really there, really part of the story, as much as the characters within it.

When you come across a really well written piece of radio it always feels as though it is speaking uniquely to you, not at you, but speaking right inside of you.  Everything else fades away.  If you’re only going to listen to one piece of radio this week, this well measured, paced, characterised and structured piece should be it.  I recommend listening in the dark.

McLevy’s back!

I was very happy to find out yesterday that a new series of McLevy is on Radio 4.  For those of you not familiar with the radio detective, he is based on a real Victorian detective, who gained notoriety and fame patrolling Edinburgh, and who’s diary was published in 1860 and is still in print today.  The diary gives us a genuine glimpse of Victorian Edinburgh, and the mind of a man who is more compassionate and understanding of the circumstances surrounding crimes of poverty, than you would necessarily expect him to be.

The original diary has been adapted by David Ashton, who you may be more familiar with from his film and TV work, and published by Berlinn.  I once meet David when I was volunteering at Bloody Scotland and I found him more than willing to spend time with a fan talking enthusiasticly about the radio adaptation.  He came across as a genuine, authentic man who loved his work.

For me, radio has always been a powerful medium and McLevy is one example where radio and drama work together so well.  The main strength of the series is Ashton’s superbly drawn characters.  There is gruff, but tender McLevy, his well meaning but bungling partner Mullholland, his pompous boss Lieutenant Roach.  However, the most important supporting character is McLevy’s foil, the elegant, sharp and savvy Madam, Jean Brash.

It is in the interplay between Brash and McLevy where much of the delight of the series comes from.  They are natural enemies, Brash runs the most popular brothel in Edinburgh and is knee deep in criminality. McLevy has dedicated his life to the opposition of crime.  Yet Brash, is the only person in Edinburgh who could be called McLevy’s equal.  They are both intelligent and compassionate, and most of all savvy, like chess masters they plan their game several moves ahead.  For a lonely and complex man Brash is a strong pull and the will-they won’t-they question in the centre of their relationship is compelling.

Of course, you can’t talk about McLevy and Brash without talking about the actors.  It is almost impossible to imagine them without the skill of Brian Cox and Siobhan Redmond, who bring the nuance and humanity of the characters, and Ashton’s writing into full view.

Two years ago I heard Ashton talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. One audience member asked the question which so many McLevy fan’s ask again and again, “Why has there been no TV adaptation yet?”  Ashton replied that he didn’t know.  So we still ask.

In an age which is obsessed with both Victoriana and crime fiction, with proven writing and big acting names behind it – it would be bound to be a hit.  Perhaps downtrodden McLevy, his intelligence overlooked by superiors, his compassion for lower classes distancing himself from “polite society”, and his position distancing himself from the woman he cares about – will always be too overshadowed in TV by another, better known Victorian detective.  And this is what is at the heart of McLevy, wherever he lands, he will always be an outsider.