Radio with pictures? That's television, isn't it? Well, yes and no, judging by the six short plays in this cross-media experiment for Radio 4's Afternoon Play.
Six radio dramatists were invited to respond to a scenario devised by the writer Peter Ackroyd, London's foremost "biographer", in which an ancient manuscript prophesies a manifestation of the Virgin Mary on Bread Street in the East End. The results were then aired on the radio, with films based on the texts "simulcast" (simultaneously broadcast) via the BBCi red button on BBC1 and 2. The results, inevitably, were mixed.
Some writers responded directly to Ackroyd's scenario – the heroes of Lin Coghlan's Pushing and Alison Joseph's Ayshe's Tale both experienced "miracles" on Bread Street – and some films simply illustrated the texts. Alnoor Dewshi's film for Colghan's Pushing, for example, showed 15 minutes of stills that matched the narrative exactly. Joe King and Rosie Pedlow (I Am Not You Are Not Me), William Raban (Ayshe's Tale, right) and Sam Brady (Make Your Way) synched dialogue to travelogue. There were some fine moments – the split-screen scenes and animation in Make Your Way, for example – but these films didn't add much to the radio texts. The films that worked best were those that responded indirectly to the narratives and used ambiguity.
Esther Johnson's film for Mehrdad Seyf's Yalda related to the text in the same way that a high-end music video relates to a song. Some key lines were actually pumped up on to the screen, while the dramatic climax – the revelation that Yalda's miracle was the surgical restoration of her virginity – was offset against shots of synchronised swimmers.
Inge Blackman went further with her film for Mark Norfolk's Broken Chain, including content not specified in his script. Who was that bloke in cellophane bandages? The veiled woman in taffeta who sashayed away from us through the market: the Virgin Mary? No, she was a character called La Diablesse.
So, was the experiment a success? Yes and no. Was it worth doing? Absolutely. The BBC produces more radio dramas than any other broadcaster, but virtually none of them are experimental. The experiment here was neither literary nor dramatic, but technological. If these radio films could attract new audiences, then let's have some more.
The films can be viewed online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/filmnetwork/A33301784
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