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Radio Review – Drama

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Sometimes, I agree, I am slow on the uptake. Douglas Adams’ first series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was broadcast on Radio 4 in 1978. It became a cult and, at last, I got the joke. Three years after Adams’ sudden death, his last three books have been adapted for radio by Dirk Maggs, who also directs the series which unites many of the original cast. I cannot report on how old compares with new but I can attest that I was bowled over by its humour.

I am always suspicious when two genres are conflated. What next – Dr Who as stand-up comic? Here, the surreal context and loopy characters were by the by. Adams’ sublime comic riffs on the tedium of eternity and the inevitability of saggy bottoms and death explore existence as much as Shakespeare and Bechett did – the one relaying the pathetic and poignant in the human soul, the other the comic absurdity of it all – but Adams was the draughtsman of silliness.

Performances which made me giggle were from Simon Jones, Geoffrey McGivern and Stephen Moore, all old Hitchiker hands, while Maggs’ production flowed on a sea of guffaws.

Lemn Sissay’s search for identity, racial acceptance and love was clearly agonising. As a poet of repute, he can coin phrases. But his one-man performance of his 90-minute script, Something Dark, was pedestrian in style and content without a glimmer of the humour which lightens and enlightens.

Dirk Maggs’ new radio version of Stephen King’s Misery, based on Simon Moore’s successful stage adaptation, made gripping listening. I was held in thrall by Marion Nancarrow’s production, fine-tuned for maximum tension of the familiar story, with Nicholas Farrell moving with ease from sycophancy to desperation as the writer held prisoner by the lunatic fan played by Miriam Margolyes, showing her breathtaking range in a psychotic performance.

Graham Greene was a master of plot driven by moral imperatives. His manuscript, The Tenth Man, was written in 1944 when he was under contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer but lay in their archives for nearly 40 years. It is the story of a man in prison in occupied France during the last war, who offers a fellow prisoner all his wealth if he will take his place in front of a firing squad. Nathaniel Persker played the lead role with intelligent sensitivity but the build up of atmosphere as he returned as a servant to his former estate was dissipated in a headlong rush to tie up loose ends and brush over haunting ethical questions.

One of the charms of radio’s approach to Alexander McCall Smith’s best-selling The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is that it luxuriates in time to drink Precious Ramotsue’s favourite bush tea and pronounce on the world and its troubles. Claire Benedict is the personification of the Botswana sleuth and Nadine Marshall as her assistant is in perfect counterpoint in a series which is sheer delight.

Colin Hough’s tale of a pregnant 76-year-old, Three Minute warning, was far funnier than I expected. The subject matter was an excuse for a serious of hilarious one-liners and set-ups. I loved the helpline attendant, who didn’t allow callers to get a word in.

Mike Harris’ The Man Who Mistook His Life for an Organiser, starring Philip Jackson and Nicholas Merchant as two well-paired no-hopers, was similarly anarchic, although more successful in the plotting than the comedy.

Bill Nighy’s lightness of touch and air of melancholy was one of the delights of A Series of Murders, adapted by Jeremy Front from Simon Brett’s Charles Paris novels. Paris is the alcoholic actor who fancies himself as Hercule Poirot – not an easy accommodation. Yet this production by Sally Arens dispelled another of my prejudices – comedy and murder can get along together beautifully.


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

R4, Tuesdays

Something Dark

R3, Sunday, September 19


BBC World Service, Saturday, September 18

The Tenth Man

R4, Sunday, September 19

The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

R4, Fridays

Three Minute Warning

R4, Wednesday, September 22

The Man Who Mistook His Life for an Organiser

R4, Thursday, September 16

A Series of Murders

R4, Saturday, September 25

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