Fiona Sturges: Portrait of the artist that's no brush with genius

 

For me, radio drama has always been a special form of torture. There's the tiny shoot of optimism that comes with the opening credits of a new play that invariably wilts into disappointment as the action unfolds. This will later give way to irritation at those who can pack the schedules with such reliable treasures as From Our Own Correspondent or Just a Minute and then commission drama after drama of such depressing inanity that they might as well be performed by sock puppets.

On the other hand, perhaps it's simply a lack of imagination on my part. As producers strive to replicate the background noise of a doctor's waiting room or an inner-city pub or a Victorian boudoir, I just hear some poor sap standing in a BBC studio creaking door hinges next to a microphone.

If the sound effects aren't bad enough, there's the expositionary dialogue. You know the kind: "Remember, Bethany, that time when our sister Nora was found in the rose garden with a knife in her hand, and then the servants found mother dead? And now our father's eloped with the chambermaid. Will we ever know what happened to dearest mama?"

And so it was that I approached Waiting for the Boatman, Radio 4's Afternoon Drama, with the dread and apprehension that is reserved purely for playwrights trying to tell a story through dialogue without the help of visual aids. It was about a painter Mario Minniti's trip to Naples to see his friend and mentor Caravaggio, only to find he has left for Rome and, according to rumour, been murdered en route. Minniti, played by David Tennant, visits a series of Caravaggio's acquaintances, from patrons to models, in a bid to retrace his final steps. Each of them gave Minniti their impressions of the painter – wayward, self-absorbed, brilliant, duplicitous – thus building up a photo-fit for Minniti, who was essentially playing detective.

It was, inevitably, the background noise that first made my concentration waver – crying babies, the sound of arguing and glasses breaking all pointing to stereotypical Italian temperaments. Later came the echoing footsteps and creaking doors of the Church of Santa Maria where Minniti met a monk (Anton Lesser) who said: "You've come from Sicily to see him, I'm sorry I can't help you," because apparently Minitti had clean forgotten where he lived. And lo, the spell was broken.

Radio 3's The Wire (no, not that one) is a showcase for new writing based on true stories, and this week's drama was Tony Teardrop by Esther Wilson. Following the experiences of people living on the streets of Manchester, it began with the sound of two men trying to set a sleeping homeless woman on fire. The woman was Roz, a drug addict with a personality disorder whose four children had been brought up by her sister. Roz awoke soon enough to avoid injury and, taking the incident in her stride, decided it was time to move on. The next day, she found herself bedding down next to Tony – "I'm a lesbian," she warned him, fearful of his advances. "I'm impotent," he shot back. Tony had a tattoo of a teardrop under his eye and was awaiting a court order to see whether he would be allowed too see his children. Their stories of Tony Teardrop programmes, spells in shelters and cyclical self-abuse were desperately sad, but were told in a way that made them appear unremarkable among the ranks of street sleepers. It was a masterclass in storytelling without recourse to creaking doors and narrative signposts. Crucially, I believed every word of it.

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