With its sad monsters, brave heroines, fairground-style charlatans, scientists who are medieval alchemists yet lightning conductors of the latest research, The Gothic Imagination, in all its bejewelled, lacy, inky magnificence, has been one of my favourite ever BBC radio seasons.
Midnight Cry of the Deathbird, devised by poet Amanda Dalton, is a version of the 1922 German silent film Nosferatu – itself a reworking of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as the producers did not have rights to the novel.
While the themes are gothic, the style of the play is expressionist, like the film, evoking mood and emotion with layers of poetry, music (by Olly Fox) and dialogue. So you get two genres for the price of one.
This BOGOF mentality continues with the cast list. Count Orlok’s alter ego, Nosferatu, is a separate entity, played by Valerie Cutko, a seductive vamp of a vampire.
Dalton has a second narrative beyond the classic horror story. She taps into the spirit of the time the film was made to depict a Germany demoralised in the aftermath of the First World War and a killer flu epidemic. Enter Roger, the narrator (played by Roger Marlidge), initially an irritant who takes us out of these twin narratives to comment – in fussy, trainspotter style – about the play’s links to the film.
Then Roger starts sneezing. Deep in the grip of flu myself, I empathise, then swallow hard as we follow Roger to hospital, where a crash team straight out of Holby City mutters, “We’re losing him”. The vampire’s bite has nothing on the pandemic that comes quietly in the night. Nosferatu murmurs, in an accented English that recalls the Cheeky Girls: “Stop narrating, Roger.” And it is all over for him.
There have been plenty of times I’ve wanted a radio play to lose the narrator, but this is the first time one has bitten the dust in mid-narration. The role isn’t vacant for long, however – Nosferatu elbows her way in and takes the director’s seat as well. “Let’s have some music for the chase,” she says.
So, gothic can be funny. But Dalton retains a melancholic tone with the death of brave Ellen (Sophie Woolley), who lures Count Orlok to his own demise. This Ellen, however, is deaf – her silent world echoing that of the film, her disability representing a world filled with garbled messages.
Howard Brenton has the gossipy end of the media in his sights in his 1984 play Bloody Poetry. It recounts a summer of gloomy weather near Geneva, in 1816, where Shelley (Oliver Ryan), his soon to be wife Mary (Clare Corbett), her stepsister Claire (Sarah Ovens), Byron (a supercilious Patrick Kennedy), by whom Claire is pregnant, and his biographer Polidori (Gareth Pierce), are gathered.
Although set decades before the Daily Mail was founded, Brenton has the paper following the exploits of this licentious, radical group, and dubbing Mary and Claire “Shelley’s ball girls”. The posturing of the group is followed later by tragedy. A condemnatory headline would be easy to write, but the vibrancy of the characters’ lives and their literary heritage survive.
The summer Brenton depicts was the backdrop to the genesis of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was beautifully dramatised for BBC Radio 4 by Lucy Catherine, who retains much of the author’s vivid and detailed descriptions. With Shaun Dooley as the Monster – his skin yellow and translucent, with mud from the grave still on his feet – and Jamie Parker as Frankenstein in his “workshop of filthy creation”, Marc Beeby’s production glitters both as a classic horror tale and a warning of what humanity is capable of.
Midnight Cry of the Deathbird R3, Sunday, October 28
Bloody Poetry R4, Saturday, October 20
Frankenstein R4, Sunday, October 28