In 1997 a short radio drama brought swaths of the UK to a standstill. Spoonface Steinberg, by Lee (Billy Elliot) Hall, was the internal monologue of a seven-year-old girl fighting cancer: funny, salty, immensely moving, it had car drivers pulling over into lay-bys and listeners weeping in their kitchens. 

It was an example of what radio drama, at its best, can do: there’s a particular intimacy in listening in to a character’s thoughts with just their words and your imagination to build on. And radio drama, often seen as the less glamorous relation of all its screen cousins, has experienced an upswing recently as the growing popularity of podcasts and radio apps has both broadened access and raised the bar. The audio equivalents of box-sets — mammoth all-day broadcasts of classics — have allowed audiences to soak themselves in story. Meanwhile, more sophisticated technology means radio drama can play to its strength — the dramatic potential of sound — and use texture and binaural recording to plunge you deeper into the action.

And with live drama onstage brought to a halt by the global pandemic, radio is springing into action. Stephen Fry, Russell Tovey and Sheila Atim are among those recording a new fundraising drama for the theatre industry. Produced by Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre, this adaptation of David Nicholls’ novel The Understudy will be recorded by the actors in isolation and broadcast online on May 20 and 27. Meanwhile BBC Radio 3 is rescuing David Greig’s Adventures with the Painted People, originally destined for the stage and now heading for the airwaves. 

Recording ‘Schreber’ by Anthony Burgess
Recording ‘Schreber’ by Anthony Burgess

As we wait for them, and for live theatre to return, now is a chance to dip into what audio drama is already out there. There are plentiful independent podcasts, to which we will return, but let’s begin with a glance at some of the BBC’s output. You could try, for instance, The Shadow of a Doubt, a rare dramatic outing from novelist Edith Wharton (BBC R3 and Sounds). In an ironic twist, given that so many playwrights have just seen their work upended, Wharton’s drama was set to be performed in 1901, but never made it on to the stage. It finally had its world premiere, more than a century later, on the radio, after two sleuth-like academics (Laura Rattray and Mary Chinery) unearthed it in an archive. 

Tracing a wealthy family’s starchy response to their son’s choice of second wife, it’s a guilty pleasure: a melodramatic tale of social snobbery and hypocrisy, peppered with waspish Wharton one-liners. Beginning in Oscar Wilde territory, it suddenly swerves into something closer to Ibsen. And beneath the brittle surface lie serious debates about assisted suicide, women’s rights and social hypocrisy. Performed with crisp self-awareness by a cast including Phoebe Fox, David Horovitch and Francesca Annis, Emma Harding’s production is ripe but enjoyable. 

Phoebe Fox, who plays Kate Derwent in 'The Shadow of a Doubt'
Phoebe Fox, who plays Kate Derwent in 'The Shadow of a Doubt'

The Shadow of a Doubt was first broadcast in Radio 3’s Sunday evening drama slot — a good place to look for something meaty. It includes classic plays revived with eye-catching casts (Patsy Ferran in The Glass Menagerie, for example), significant world premieres (such as Christopher Eccleston in Schreber, a never-produced screenplay by Anthony Burgess based on a seminal memoir about mental illness), recent plays you may have missed in the theatre (such as Lucy Prebble’s The Effect) or substantial new work.

One such is The Likes of Us by Roy Williams (who co-wrote Death of England, recently given a blazing performance by Rafe Spall at the National Theatre). The Likes of Us (BBC Radio 3 and Sounds) draws on the playwright’s personal family history to explore recent topical issues such as the Grenfell Tower fire, the Windrush scandal and the persistent scourge of racism. But it demonstrates too his experience as a radio playwright. Williams also scripts The Interrogation, a regular series of 45-minute detective programmes for Radio 4’s daily drama slot, and The Likes of Us is a similarly tightly plotted family story in which two bereaved adult children discover a surprising secret in their mother’s papers. Her voice (Doreene Blackstock), heard by us but not by them (the sort of thing you can do so well on radio), urges them on from beyond the grave. 

Lolita Chakrabarti, who plays Dr Alex Bridges in 'This Thing of Darkness'
Lolita Chakrabarti, who plays Dr Alex Bridges in 'This Thing of Darkness'

That ability to take the audience into a character’s confidence plays a big role too in This Thing of Darkness (BBC Radio 4 and Sounds). A murder drama with a difference, it balances narrative with reflection. The tense unfolding story is interspersed with patient explanations from forensic psychiatrist Dr Alex Bridges (played by Lolita Chakrabarti), whose job is to unearth the psychological forces at play, both before and after the murder. Written by Anita Vettesse, in consultation with forensic psychiatrist Dr Gwen Adshead, it plays out in seven 45-minute episodes, keeping a taut balance between gripping whodunnit and a more meditative inquiry into why violence happens. 

It’s that flexibility that often attracts both writers and listeners: you can shift country, focus or time period instantly in radio drama. No mind-boggling location and special effects budget needed, even for James Bond, as the recent adaptation of The Man with the Golden Gun (BBC Radio 4 and Sounds) demonstrates. With Toby Stephens swashbuckling around the globe as 007 and Martin Jarvis interjecting as the voice of Ian Fleming (not to mention Janie Dee as Moneypenny), this is a highly entertaining, ever-so-slightly tongue-in-cheek dramatisation of the 1964 cold war thriller, which stick more closely to the original novel than does the film. The politics — and gender politics — are straight from the Sixties, but the semi-serious tone of the piece lets them get away with it.

Toby Stephens, who plays James Bond in a recent radio adaptation of 'The Man with the Golden Gun'
Toby Stephens, who plays James Bond in a recent radio adaptation of 'The Man with the Golden Gun' © Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

An altogether more contemporary and texturally ambitious thriller comes in the shape of Forest 404, an innovative, interactive, wraparound sci-fi eco-drama from the BBC, written by Timothy X Atack. Already an award-winning podcast, available on Sounds, it is set to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 soon. 

Set in the 24th century, it follows what happens to Pan (Pearl Mackie), a young archivist tasked with destroying lingering data from the time before the “cataclysm”. As she works her way through snatches of music and speeches leftover from the 21st century, she stumbles on a recording that haunts her. It is of a rainforest — something that in her time no longer exists — and, captivated, she determines to discover what happened to the earth’s forests. 

An audio play that in part reflects on sound as a repository of memory, Forest 404 can be a little earnest at times, but what makes it is the richly textured soundscape, which is mixed using binaural technology to help immerse you in the story. Each episode is accompanied by a talk on the questions raised and also by a five-minute wordless soundscape (created by sound designer Graham Wild and producer Becky Ripley). If listened to on headphones these plunge you right into the middle of a Sumatran rainforest, a frog chorus or a soothing woodland walk — this last bathing you in birdsong and the distant bleat of sheep. That alone is a sweet treat for anyone on lockdown.

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