Obituary: David March

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The Independent Culture
THE DEATH of David March reminds one forcibly how dreary much of radio drama has become, writes Jack Adrian [further to the obituary by John Tydeman, 3 September]. Not necessarily in its subject-matter (though, God knows, there's more deadly earnestness around than at any time since Reith), but in the rotund raw material of audio drama: the voices themselves. Especially the male of the species. Thirty years of drama-school voice coaching has turned out a product that sounds like aural plain yoghurt: third-rate posh with just a hint of cockney whine. These days it's hard to tell the hero from the hero's best friend; even the villains lack vocal distinction.

In the heroic age of radio drama - roughly the 1950s through to the 1980s - Nigel Lambert did not sound like Nigel Anthony, and neither sounded like Geoffrey Beevers. To take but three. And no one sounded remotely like David March.

March had a voice that at times rustled like a panther padding through a drift of autumn leaves. It was fussy, irritable, sardonic, slightly creaky, mildly camp. It also had great power. It would not be at at all true to say he could play any part: a Wellsian milkman, for instance, or a Thames lighterman school of W.W. Jacobs would not have suited. But when it came to sinister academics, deranged clergymen, obsessed scribblers (he was once a surprisingly credible H.P. Lovecraft), frosty lawyers, doomed peers of the realm, crusty caballeros of surpassing haughtiness, ravening vampires - March was your man.

During the 1970s he struck lucky when Sheila Hodgson, a BBC staffer whose job it was to crank out excellent dramatic entertainment on virtually a nine-to-five basis, and who had had some success adapting the exploits of Algernon Blackwood's psychic sleuth John Silence (tellingly played by that fine actor Malcolm Hayes) into a series of radio plays, took it into her head to dramatise ghost stories by the classic English ghost- story writer M.R. James that James himself had never quite pursued beyond the ideas stage.

March - perfect casting! - became James: prissy, finicky, waspish, a "verray parfit" pedant, whose doom it was, in each play, to be put upon by fools and knaves, and pursued by demons.

In the end Hodgson wrote eight plays, all, but the last two, featuring March who, before the penultimate show, exhibited his cantankeous side: refusing to perform the pre-play "monologue", invariably written by Hodgson to set the scene. The play was "all right", the monologue wasn't. Heels were dug in on both sides and March retired bruised. Michael Williams took on the role of James and launched into the monologue with typical relish. The final Jamesian play, The Fellow Travellers, was, alas, never aired in Britain, since it was written at a time (the early 1990s) when radio drama directors were in the process of, quite literally, "losing the plot" - or at any rate any interest in such a concept as "plot". It was broadcast by RTE in 1994.

The M.R. James plays by no manner of means constituted David March's finest work, but they were enjoyable fare, enthusiastically directed and delivered. Compelling radio, in other words, that was common then - but all too rare in these arid, Birtist times.