Beyond Milk Wood – The best radio dramas

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Last week marked Dylan Thomas’s 100th birthday. Predictably, commentators have taken the opportunity to wax lyrical about his 1954 radio piece, Under Milk Wood. This is a good thing, for two reasons: firstly, Dylan Thomas’s magnificent play is back on the cultural agenda. Secondly, it means I now have an excuse to write this article.

There’s a popular joke among BBC producers; “Radio – it’s the most visual medium.” This may not be quite true, but radio does have the best special effects. Fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (originally a radio-series, before becoming a trilogy of novels) will remember the Dali-esque landscape of the Infinite Improbability Drive; a coast where the waves stay still while the beach rolls up and down. Trapped in this trippy un-reality, our hero Arthur watches his arms and legs drift away from him, whilst his friend Ford slowly turns into a penguin. Try doing that on a TV budget.

Radio drama often commands the kind of star-power that TV producers can only dream of. If you had your ears open last summer, you might have caught Bill Nighy in Tom Stoppard’s Darkside on Radio 2, a philosophical comedy timed to coincide exactly with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. At the nerdier end of the spectrum, the cast of Neverwhere (Radio 4) left geeks drooling visibly: Sherlock, Saruman, Professor X and Giles from Buffy all in the same room? Surely not! But it happened. Benedict Cumberbatch, Sir Christopher Lee, James McAvoy and Antony Head all leant their talents to Neil Gaiman’s fantasy-thriller, set in a secret city below London. (Listen online: tinyurl.com/saintneverwhere).

Good radio-drama can, however, be hard to track down. While the worst 90s TV shows are still out there on the internet, some of the finest recent radio-plays have sunk without a trace. Are you a fan of Mercury Fur? Want to check out Philip Ridley’s early masterpiece Shambolic Rainbow? Fat chance. The script has never been published, and (without seducing a BBC archivist) the only way to hear it is at a special ‘listening station’ in the British Library. Want to hear Harold Pinter acting in Samuel Beckett’s Rough for Radio? You’d better fork out forty quid for the boxset. (However, the Waiting for Godot playwright’s two biggest hits for radio are available online: listen to Embers at tinyurl.com/saintembers, and All That Fall at tinyurl.com/saintallthatfall)

Nonetheless, there’s still plenty of great stuff out there if you know where to look. To point you in the right direction, The Saint has compiled a list of 5 radio-plays we’re sure Dylan would have loved:

1. The Dark Tower

Dylan Thomas isn’t the only poet to have written for radio; bards as various as Ted Hughes, Don Paterson and Tim Key have all authored radio-plays, but no-one’s done it as well as Louis MacNeice. His work in the 40s was hugely influential; if it weren’t for him, it’s possible there would be no Milk Wood. Besides famous poems like ‘Snow’, MacNeice wrote almost a hundred features for the BBC. The Dark Tower is his best; a surreal, haunting allegory of love and sacrifice, inspired by Browning’s poem ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’. The shadow of fascism hangs heavily over its landscape – the play was first broadcast in 1945. Benjamin Britten’s score will send shudders down your spine, as will the endlessly creepy dialogue. Available now on BBC Iplayer, at tinyurl.com/sainttower

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2. In the Depths of Dead Love

richard e. grantPhoto Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Richard E. Grant gives a Withnail-beating performance in this weird, wordy slice of the absurd. Grant plays Chin, an exiled poet living on the outskirts of a distant Asian empire. As the owner of the world’s only bottomless well, Chin now earns his living by charging potential suicides to fling themselves in. Funny, disturbing and beautiful, it’s on iplayer, but not for long: tinyurl.com/saintdepths

3. Spoonface Steinberg

One afternoon in 1997 something extraordinary happened. On motorways across the country, cars and lorries were seen pulling over to the hold shoulder, their drivers’ faces wet with tears. People’s lives were brought to a halt by the small, frail voice of a seven-year-old autistic girl dying from cancer. It’s since been adapted for the stage and TV, but the original version remains the best. You can buy the MP3 from amazon: tinyurl.com/saintspoonface

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4. Floating.

“On April 1st 1982, the Isle of Anglesey floated away from the mainland of Wales. Those of you interested in plate tectonics will be aware of this event.” Halfway between Milk Wood and the Goon Show, Floating has more in common with Thomas’s play than anything else on this list. Tiny Welsh community? Check. Quirky humour? Check. This offbeat musical-docu-drama-spoof packs a serious emotional wallop. You’ll laugh for the first forty minutes, and cry a little for the last five. (Not currently available online; if you’d like a listen, tweet me @TATFS).

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5. Welcome to Night Vale

welcome to night valeCecil Baldwin, narrator of the show. Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons.

If you want proof that audio-drama is alive and kicking, this is it. Last year, Welcome to Night Vale became the most downloaded podcast on iTunes. It’s been heard by tens of millions worldwide, and has introduced a new generation to the terrible closeness of radio. Night Vale is a tiny town in the American Mid-West, filled to the brim with eldritch horrors. Imagine a cross between Twin Peaks and HP Lovecraft’s Innsmouth. Welcome To… is the local radio news- bulletin, presented by the smoky-voiced Cecil Palmer; his accounts of each day’s unspeakable evil blend freely with the traffic, sponsored advertising and the weather. It’s dark, crazy and utterly addictive. It will claim your very soul. Download it free from the iTunes store, or stream via Podbay (tinyurl.com/saintnightvale)

1 COMMENT

  1. Your fascinating post has sparked my interest and inspired me to follow up these radio plays. I m a big MacNeice fan (The Sunlight on the Garden my favourite) and I’m planning to start with the dark tower. Thanks 🙂

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