For most of the time during lockdown I have meandered in and out of radio: it is a constant, murmuring companion. Every now and then I have made a date. On Radio 4, with More Or Less to unravel the truth about Covid-19 statistics, and with Cabin Pressure for John Finnemore’s quick script and Roger Allam’s acid languor. And with a few programmes made by particular producers.
One of these is Jessica Dromgoole. Dromgoole has a genius for unzipping the familiar. She was the editorial force behind the mighty Home Front, which over four years dramatised the history of first world war Britain in 12-minute domestic episodes. Yesterday she triumphantly remade one of the most mysterious of 19th-century poems.
Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market tells of a girl who craves the luscious fruits sold by goblins, and is almost destroyed by them, and of the sister who guards and saves her. Dromgoole’s dramatisation manages to be, rightly, both jagged and voluptuous. Parrot-voiced, rat-faced goblins gibber. James Maloney’s music ticks throughout like a fever. Ellie Piercy is a fleet narrator with no touch of the hushed raptness that still passes for a poetry voice; as the sisters, Kathleen Cranham and Anjana Vasan are fresh and urgent.
Thank goodness the BBC still allows this: a model for all criticism, not only music
Dromgoole weaves another element into the verse. Pairs of real 21st-century sisters talk about the way addiction and their powerful affection for each other have governed their lives. One woman calmly, bleakly, remembers her pretty little sister, transfixed by alcohol, who died. Another looks back on the time when, low on drugs, living on the streets, wrapped in a white quilt, she saw her sister and niece glide by in a car. She recovered.
The production is the more remarkable as it was made in lockdown, with actors speaking from cupboards, BBC Singers recording individually then being edited together, and interviewees speaking from their phones. Rarely has this tale of obsession and love seemed so powerful. And never has John Ruskin’s verdict seemed more wrong. He proclaimed the work “a calamity of modern poetry”.
The Building a Library slot in Radio 3’s Record Review is indispensable Saturday morning listening: one of the most apparently simple arts ideas – and the most penetrating; during lockdown it has been rerunning earlier contributions.
A specialist plays and compares recordings of a piece of music. Observations are precise but not bafflingly technical, or swooning with adjectives. Katy Hamilton finds “anti-gravity phrasing” in Brahms; Tom McKinney discusses sibling piano players and flat tuning in Poulenc. Thank goodness the BBC still allows this: a model for all criticism, not only music, it goes against the grain of recent programming, which has run scared of evaluative discussions about works of art. Only an outcry saved Radio 4’s Saturday Review from cancellation.
The Archers should have been essential over these tranced weeks: its frequent dullness a comfort. But pretty much everything is wrong with the lockdown monologues. The cut-back from six to four episodes a week is disastrous: they should constantly rumble away in real time, insinuating their way into listeners’ ears.
Actually I’m not sure that I want these characters to have inner lives. I certainly don’t want unsuspected inner beings to pop out, like jack-in-the-boxes, leadenly perky. Ben Archer: “My Agony Over Gran’s Bees”. Freddie Pargetter: “My Struggle to Mend a Toilet”. Susan Carter: “My Anxiety Over Mispronouncing a Long Word” (in Ambridge hierarchy, Susan’s quest for self-improvement is self-evidently droll because she has a Midlands accent). David Archer should guard his inner mystery, not doggedly explain himself away.
The current cast, who have been recording from their homes, is strong, helped by an influx of new voices for the younger characters a few years ago. But the surreal quality of lockdown would have been more vividly conjured by drawing on an eerie aspect of The Archers: the substantial number of non-speaking characters, often referred to but forever silent. Step up the small and enigmatically tight-lipped Molly Button. And why stop at humans? Why not a grunt or two from Basil the low-libido boar?
Three podcasts that rescue the neglected
Almeida Theatre Podcast
One of the least celebrated of theatre arts provokes a sparkling conversation in these lockdown interviews. The composer Adam Cork is a master of sound design. He talks to director Rupert Goold about using music to move a play from the middle ages to the 21st century, and demonstrates how he evoked a 70s newspaper office with the clatter of typewriters and the ping of a carriage return. Elsewhere, Indira Varma reveals a passion for Marcel Marceau, and Noma Dumezweni explains why she isn’t angry about British theatre’s historic all-whiteness: “It is like a child growing.”
Each week, Ivan Wise’s guests choose six things they think deserve to be better known – and something they would like to be cast into oblivion. Any event, place or object is up for grabs. Christina Gascoigne introduces the music of Muriel Herbert and the Great River Race. The Observer’s Fiona Maddocks recommends Laurence Sterne’s Shandy Hall, local paper the Peckham Peculiar and Nottingham alabaster sculptures: iPad-size, “like portable altars”. I opted for grand dressing gowns and chucked out the American muffin. Geoff Dyer, who wants to junk Imagine, is an enthusiast for all things suede and puts in a strong plea for his Lomer shoes – blue with yellow laces.
The Pargetter Triptych
Who more neglected than characters written out of soaps? A ghost returns to The Archers, scripted by one of the series’ former writers, Helen Leadbeater. Nine years ago, posh Nigel Pargetter fell to his death from the roof of his stately home. The actor who played him, Graham Seed, asks whether this really was an accident: after all, David Archer, who was up on the roof with him, has enormous hands – and that family has contained several killers. As well as some welcome acerbity, there are a few essential facts for Archers aficionados. Who knew Nigel’s dog was called Jennings?