The Week In Radio: The weird world of the wireless drama

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The Independent Culture

Iwon't deny it. Quite a big highlight of last week was judging the Radio Academy drama production awards alongside Charles Collingwood, who plays Brian Aldridge in The Archers. Whether this strikes you as sad, or whether you understand, depends entirely on your relationship with BBC radio drama. The BBC is currently undergoing a self-inflicted publicity mugging whereby reports of £600 taxi journeys, footballer-size salaries and bureaucratic excess dominate popular consciousness. But compared to the spending habits of TV, radio is like Iceland to America. It's windy Britannia to decadent Ancient Rome. A couple of TV's taxi rides would probably pay for a fair chunk of output from the radio drama department as it beavers away, producing huge quantities of original work for Drama on 3, The Afternoon Play and The Saturday Play, not to mention serials like The Archers. To an extent, the radio drama department represents the BBC we all like to believe still exists, where sound effects are made by someone rattling beans in a box and grand actors are still prepared to work for humble salaries. Where in the space of a month you can have Chekhov's The Seagull, Lenny Henry as Paul Robeson, David Tennant in David Hare's play Murder in Samarkand and series like Plantagenet.

It sounds dismissive to say Plantagenet reminded me of the kind of television drama you saw 30 years ago – but that's not in a bad way. Written by Mike Walker, who adapted the excellent Our Mutual Friend last year, and produced by Jeremy Mortimer, the trilogy features David Warner and Jane Lapotaire as Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose domestic life looks like one of those fly-on-the wall documentaries about dysfunctional families made by Channel 4. The early Plantagenets have always been a rich seam for drama, partly because in terms of family harmony they make the Tudors look like the Brady Bunch. In the first part, What Is a Man?, grumpy old Henry II is beset by plots from his own sons and a more thankless nest of vipers it would be hard to find. Richard, aka the Lionheart, sides with his father against the eldest, Hal, weaselly Geoffrey is disliked by everyone and matriarch Eleanor "loves liberty and England but she does not love her husband".

Everybody wants old Henry to divide his land and give the best to them, but as the sons complain, "He bends like a longbow to send a yard through our guts." The plots are Byzantine and there are moments when you haven't the first clue what's going on, but the score is thrilling and there are curses aplenty. As Hal puts it of his younger brother: "What do they call him? Lionheart? A complete arse for brains, whoreson, man-shagging leper-lover."

At first glance, Legsy Gets a Break could not be further removed from the affairs of 12th-century royalty, but on closer inspection this sustained, beautifully acted story of a 17-year-old making his way in a world of gang violence and drifting family ties, was all about complex fraternal relationships. Legsy, so called for his habit of escaping from care homes, becomes involved in a world of Brighton drug gangs, inspired by his search for his older brother, Ash, whom he hero-worships quite misguidedly. This play, written by Phil Gladwin, emerged from storylines based on real-life cases of young people in intensive supervision programmes and the authenticity shone through. It was gripping drama, notable for some superb performances by the young actors, including Josef Altin as Legsy, Darren Douglas as Brady and Gethin Anthony as John, whose demotic was just as rich and inventive as any 12th-century argot.

Somewhere in the gamut from royal drama to underclass violence there had to be a place for middle class angst and sure enough it surfaced in God Bless Our Love. In Ray Connolly's play a priest and a nun, Michael and Eleanor, fall in love and marry. Unfortunately, all does not go swimmingly, as you might have predicted given that they choose to honeymoon in north Devon in February. The first problem is the Valentine's Day upgrade emperor-sized four- poster and whirlpool bath. "But why's it made for two?" wonders the ex-nun, innocently. Then there's bedtime. "An early night?" asks Eleanor, as though being asked to stroke a tarantula. An excruciating Chesil Beach-style encounter follows. He wears new blue pyjamas, they kneel to pray. Needless to say, they skip the sex. This was billed as a romantic comedy, though there weren't actually any laughs as far as I could see and quite a lot of it made me squirm. But that's the thing about BBC radio. You pays your £2 a month (which is radio's proportion of the licence fee) and you takes your choice.

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