Piper Alpha, Radio 3

A disaster drama in real time: creepy but compelling
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The Independent Culture

People who care for the welfare of this amiable man have sometimes wondered when the strain of running both the Proms and Radio 3 will get to Roger Wright. I think I have detected a chink in Radio 3's professionalism: the way that, so often, what is being played does not match up to what the website says is being played. It's funny. When listening to 6 Music on the computer, you might feel moved to check out the playlist, for often the dingbat DJs omit to impart this information. But the website refuses to tell you what's been played until the next day, by which time other concerns are preoccupying you.

Radio 3 does not treat its audience like babies, so you can see what's going to be on, what is on, as well as what was on. Only, last Tuesday, you couldn't. There was a fantastically insane piece of music being played on Classical Collection. What was it? Well, it wasn't Debussy's Musiques pour le Roi Lear, and it certainly wasn't Schumann's Piano Trio No 2 in F ... It turned out to be Schnittke's Faust Cantata, but I had to wait and be late for my appointment to find out. Get a grip, someone.

To put such suffering into perspective, I used the Listen Again feature to hear last Sunday's Drama on 3, Stephen Phelps's play Piper Alpha about the North Sea oil rig disaster, which had happened 20 years before, to the day. More chillingly, it happened 20 years before to the minute, as Phelps pointed out, and the series of explosions which destroyed the oil rig took place over 90 minutes; so the dreadful events of that evening were played out, in the drama, at the same speed as they occurred in real life.

Whether this willed coincidence is a good idea, creepy, or opportunistic is something I have not made my mind up about. I suppose if I'd been listening to it at actual time of broadcast I might have flipped out: it is certainly one way of grabbing the listener's attention. (Last October, Radio 4 did a drama based on the Windscale disaster 50 years before. Are anniversaries the only time we can think about such events?)

The play itself was finely done, but it couldn't be dramatically experimental or demanding in the way that Drama on 3 often is. (To its credit: an hour and a half is a long time to sit by your radio if you're not on a long drive, bedridden, or doing the washing-up after a G8 banquet, and we should be grateful that the schedulers make room for it.) We learned that the survivors lived only because they ignored their rudimentary safety training; that rescue vessels were cheaply fitted and inadequately equipped; that no one had given thought to the difficulty of picking out people wearing orange life-jackets when everything is being illuminated by a 600ft orange flame; and that a neighbouring rig was unwittingly pumping in oil to Piper Alpha, fuelling the inferno. Depressing, to put it mildly, but we have to know.

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