Radio review: Coronation Strasse; Ella in Berlin; And Calm of Mind; Prisoner Soul


In 1982, German film director and producer Hans W Geissendorfer became fascinated by the effect soap opera, and in particular Coronation Street, had on its viewers. Indeed, he felt so inspired that three years later he introduced his own version, Lindenstrasse – a weekly look at the daily lives of people who live in and around an ordinary street in Munich.

While TV executives and critics were slow to see its appeal, it was no time before it became one of the most popular shows on television in what was then West Germany, getting ratings of 14-15 million every Sunday.

In Coronation Strasse, presenter John Jungclaussen, London correspondent for Die Zeit magazine, visited the set of this fictional German street and discussed whether, despite the shift from Manchester to Munich, there were still some similarities between the two soap operas.

The main conclusion was that Lindenstrasse had more in common with the older, kitchen sink-style of Corrie, when big dramatic storylines were scattered throughout a year’s worth of episodes instead of popping up on an almost weekly basis.

That’s not to say some of the German characters haven’t been through the dramatic mill. Tanja (played by Sybille Waury, who has been with the series for 26 years) began as a 15-year-old tennis star before seeing one parent commit suicide, the other turn to alcoholism and her sister die of cancer. Following a stint as an escort girl, she had a lesbian lover who tried to kill her husband, and later decided to take up hairdressing.

[pullquote]Germany's Lindenstrasse had more in common with the older style of Coronation Street, when big storylines were scattered throughout a year’s worth of episodes, instead of popping up on an almost weekly basis[/pullquote]

In Ella in Berlin, listeners discovered the real-life drama in the run-up to Miss Fitzgerald’s big concert at the city’s Deutschlandhalle arena on February 13, 1960.

American jazz impresario Norman Granz, who was promoting the great singer’s tour, did not accompany her to the gig. If he had, he might have dissuaded her from learning a new song – Mack the Knife – during the journey to Berlin. Thank goodness he didn’t, because what happened as a result became part of music history.

When lyrics or lines of dialogue are fluffed, it is normally a disaster for the performer involved and pretty cringeworthy for the audience, too. However, when Fitzgerald so brilliantly improvised, even throwing in an impression of her friend Louis Armstrong for good measure, she won herself even more admirers.

Thankfully for those of us who weren’t present, the whole shebang was recorded for posterity. That very album had a huge influence on the host of this feature, jazz singer Cleveland Watkiss.

Alongside Watkiss’ laid-back narration and amusing banter with Cleo Laine, one of his idols, the programme did a fine job of explaining what a significant role jazz played in post-war German culture.

For the Nazi regime, it was of course a form of music that couldn’t be tolerated, a decadent art form that encouraged freedom and improvisation. How incredible an event it must have been, then, for Fitzgerald to appear at a venue inaugurated by Hitler for the 1936 summer Olympics and to an audience of 4,000 West Germans and 6,000 from the communist east.

The power of music and drama as ingredients of therapy and rehabilitation was covered in two other compelling BBC Radio 4 programmes. In And Calm of Mind, Chris Ledgard spent time with ex-soldiers and members of the Combat Veteran Players as they took their production of Shakespeare’s Henry V from rehearsals in a community hall to a West End theatre. Having returned from combat in conflicts such as the Falklands, Belfast and Bosnia, these ex-military personnel had suffered from post-traumatic stress and had struggled to adapt to civilian life.

It was moving to hear their personal stories and what a difference acting had made to them, in particular the calming effects of the breath control required by speaking the Bard’s text. One commented: “Before now, there has been little I have looked forward to doing.”

For Prisoner Soul, author and broadcaster Gary Younge travelled to the state prison in Huntsville, Texas, where a bespoke recording studio was built in the 1960s as part of a groundbreaking music programme. Incredibly, prisoners were allowed to form bands and, on occasion, produce commercially available albums.

Former inmate John Indo, who served 17 years at Huntsville, was quietly eloquent about how the introduction of music had boosted prisoners’ morale, restored their humanity and prepared them for freedom.

Coronation Strasse, R4, Saturday, April 20
Ella in Berlin, R4, Tuesday, April 23
And Calm of Mind, R4, Monday, April 22
Prisoner Soul, R4, Saturday, April 13