Radio review: GF Newman’s The Corrupted; The Outsider; Queens of the Coal Age

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GF Newman, creator of TV’s Law and Order and Judge John Deed, came to radio and caused the kind of furore normally reserved for upsets in The Archers. His 10-part gangland saga The Corrupted was broadcast every weekday in BBC Radio 4’s Afternoon Drama slot to November 1 and, according to the channel’s Feedback programme, attracted cries that its full-frontal approach was all too much, especially at half-term.

Set mainly in the 1950s and 1960s, the series is magnificently detailed, pungent with the stench of bent coppers, judges and society figures climbing into bed – metaphorically and literally – with villains.

While I’m not suggesting that young children should be invited to listen, I think the era described here – with such imaginative power and historical accuracy – might almost appear quaint in a world in which children are groomed by gangs for sex, knifed or shot on the streets and pursued to tragic effect by cyber-bullies.

Not that I am accusing hard-hitting Newman of being twee, for he doesn’t bow to sentiment when delineating the east London mobsters based on the characters in his novel Crime and Punishment. In episode two, one sums up what may be the writer’s view of the origins of crime: “A bit of nature and a lot of nurture.”

There is a fondness, though, for Joey Oldman, the Jewish immigrant who spawns a criminal dynasty after marrying into another. He is played by Toby Jones with a slightly whiney top note when riled and equal helpings of anxiety and determination.

Our perspective is through the eyes of his son, Brian, played by Rory McMenamin, when young, and Joe Armstrong as an adult. As the retrospective narrator, Brian is voiced by Ross Kemp, resonant and supercilious from the vantage point, decades later, of having done time and discovered Freudian analysis.

In the opener, Brian witnesses his mother (Denise Gough, as an embryonic gangland matriarch) kill her sexually abusive father. She then sows the seeds for the boy’s need for therapy by encouraging him to cross-dress as her in a shades-of-Psycho twist.

I held off reviewing this until I could listen to several episodes from each end of the series, but this doesn’t allow me to opine on the controversial block scheduling. On Feedback, Jeremy Howe, R4’s drama commissioner, hinted that the jury was out on a second series, although Newman tweeted that episodes 11-20 will air in 2014. These will take the family into the Thatcher era, and see Joey “become the respectable face of banking”, according to its author. Bring it on.

The centenary of Albert Camus’ death was marked with John Retallack’s sensitive dramatisation of The Outsider, directed with a melancholic quality by David Hunter. Alex Lanipekun, as Meursault, the detached murderer, is hypnotic.

This was paired with The Insider, in which Leila Aboulela tells the story of the Arab prostitute and her brother, the unnamed pair in The Outsider who are the catalysts for murder. Aboulela was inspired by Jean Rhys’ immortalisation of Mrs Rochester in her Jane Eyre prequel Wide Sargasso Sea. The Arab siblings go from anonymity to being given two incarnations each, past and present, in a play that brims with fashion, sex, racism and a welcome optimism.

Maxine Peake’s second radio play, Queens of the Coal Age, recounts the true story of how four miners’ wives occupied a threatened pit in 1993. With Peake as the straight-talking Anne Scargill and Julie Hesmondhalgh as the comic heart of the group, the play successfully fuses confrontation with female intimacy, and grit with comedy.

GF Newman’s The Corrupted  R4, Monday, October 21 to Friday, November 1
The Outsider, R3, Sunday, November 3
The Insider, R3, Saturday, November 2
Queens of the Coal Age, R4, Monday, November 4

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