The nightmares run the gamut from dystopian to fallopian in BBC Radio 4’s Dangerous Visions season. Packed more tightly than battery-farmed hens into little more than a week, the dramas are the stars, coming at us like the (Radio) Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Nick Perry’s London Bridge imagines the metropolis divided as Berlin once was, but with visions of hell cast on both sides of the partition, while Michael Butt’s Death Duty, set in a city-state afflicted by devastating drought, posits the ritual sacrifice of young men to encourage rain – a tactic not yet dreamt up by water companies.
Broadcast just as the G8 discussed antibiotic resistance, Philip Palmer’s Invasion places an astronaut in solitary confinement after picking up a virus on Mars. Biological terrorism is a favourite of post-apocalyptic visionaries, and The Testament of Jessie Lamb, adapted by Jane Rogers from her novel, is a deftly layered tale that also adopts this theme.
Maternal Death Syndrome is killing pregnant women and their foetuses. With 75 million women dead, medics co-opt young women into incubating IVF embryos, which are defrosted and vaccinated. The women are known as ‘sleeping beauties’, as they are kept alive artificially until their C-sections.
Rogers’ eponymous heroine is one such, a once-stroppy teenager obsessed with saving the human race. Holliday Grainger plays her with a fiery resolution, relishing the brilliant writing that takes us inside her head.
The best dystopian fiction tells us about ourselves, and Ed Harris’ Billions carves emotion and suspense from a story in which the bereaved can order replicas of loved ones.
Donna (Raquel Cassidy) has paid into such a scheme before she is left comatose by an accident. Her husband (Blake Ritson) and daughter (Lizzy Watts) initially resent the stand-in before succumbing to the technology’s potential and tweaking the replica to become less like Donna. It is a powerful reminder that flaws are human, and love should not be conditional.
The Dangerous Visions schedule was topped and tailed by Graham White’s adaptations of two novels by JG Ballard, who inspired the series. The 1962 story The Drowned World taps into current debate, with much of the world flooded after the polar ice caps have thawed.
Peter Kavanagh’s production brings alive a London caked in silt and seaweed, inhabited by gigantic beasts as the world regresses 200 million years. Scientists – including Hattie Morahan’s intelligently appealing Beatrice – slosh around in the tropical waters while Tim McInnerny’s Russell Crowe-soundalike pirate leads a band of scavengers. This is more than Jurassic Park underwater – as Darwin’s theories go into rewind, mankind mutates into a more primitive form.
Ballard’s 1974 novel Concrete Island is to be filmed with Christian Bale in the lead role, but radio got there first. Andrew Scott is mesmeric as the impatient, egotistical architect marooned between highways after a car accident, alternately taunting and flattering the residents he finds there. When it comes, his decision to remain in this underworld is entirely convincing.
Although not part of Dangerous Visions, both Mark Lawson’s Suspicion for 10 Voices and Lou Stein’s Mind Hackers could well have been included. The former is a riveting study of religious persecution, as composer William Byrd (doughtily played by Simon Russell Beale) is interrogated over claims his motets include Roman Catholic propaganda, though he is a favourite of Elizabeth I.
Mind Hackers stars Anthony Head as a slightly cartoonish villain and Jessica Brown Findlay as a husky-voiced, holier-than-thou lawyer prosecuting phone hackers even though, it is revealed, she has used the illicit technique herself. The play, commissioned pre-Leveson, is puzzlingly open to interpretation, but I side with the view that all sides are ugly in this primeval swamp.
London Bridge, R4, Wednesday, June 19
Death Duty, R4, Thursday, June 20
Invasion, R4, Tuesday, June 18
The Testament of Jessie Lamb, R4, Monday, June 17
Billions, R4, Monday, June 17
The Drowned World, R4, Sunday, June 16
Concrete Island, R4, Sunday, June 23
Suspicion for 10 Voices, R4, Saturday, June 22
Mind Hackers, R4, Friday, June 21