Based on Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel, Human Voices, this adaptation – with its fondly comic tone and towering personalities – has the unmistakable smack of truth.
Her earliest novels were inspired by personal experience: At Freddie’s came from her teaching at Italia Conti; Human Voices from working for the BBC: she joined in 1940 when it had become part of the war effort.
Adapting the novel, the vastly experienced radio dramatist Michael Butt paints the telling details with a light hand, while giving full rein to the obsessives and non-conformists who are almost as attached to the the BBC as they are to their own egos and pet projects.
Chief amongst these is Sam Brooks, a brilliant technician and programmes director, played by Toby Jones, an actor with an ongoing commitment to radio drama despite the calls on his time from stage and screen. His emotional vibrato, as he ranges from slightly crazed to euphoric or enraged, is mesmerising.
His new assistant, Annie, is entranced by him and learns the word ‘seraglio’ when introduced to his coven of female assistants. She is played with artful naivety by Helen George in an endearing portrait. Her Brummie grit – though openly despised by Geoffrey Streatfeild’s programme planner – provides the common sense off which a stalwart cast playing eccentrics bounce gleefully.
The sounds of period telephones and typewriters, of air raids and tense addresses to the nation, provide a pulsating aural backdrop while David Hunter’s direction moves adroitly from scenes of high comedy to fevered emotion.