Afternoon Play: The Ditch (BBC Radio 4 – 1st February 2010)
“Tom Saunders, a wildlife sound recordist, goes missing, leaving only a collection of recordings and a notebook. These fall into the hands of his radio producer, who tries to piece together what has happened. His quest leads him back to the disturbing aural landscape of Slaughton Ditch, where an obsession with hidden sounds has terrifying and fatal consequences.” A play teeming with ideas, this press-office synopsis cannot possibly hope to do justice to The Ditch—surely one of the finest examples of supernatural drama ever produced for radio.
Utilising the talents of internationally renowned sound-recordist, Chris Watson, few radio ghost story have taken such advantage of the aural medium. Given the nature of its topic, this is perhaps inevitable; but it is not just the excellent field-recordings on the soundtrack—the whole play could only work on radio. It makes use of “found footage”, weather reports, author-narration and wildlife documentaries to create something that is as much aural-collage or sound-installation as it is drama.
Meanwhile, the subject matter is an almost visionary fusion which includes ideas surrounding electric voice phenomena (EVP); T.C. Lethbridge’s theory of residual haunting (previously dramatised by Nigel Kneale in The Stone Tape); ornithological comment on the behaviour patterns of migratory waders; and landscape phenomenology that recalls the philosophy Alan Garner has often expressed in his work. The result is a unique example of radio drama; a highly recommended auditory experience.
Voices from the Grave: The Parson (BBC Radio 4 – 4th January 2008)
This final episode in the enjoyable Voice from the Grave series is sadly not as strong as some preceding entries, possibly because it has a somewhat predictable trajectory for anybody familiar with ghost-stories or folk-horror. The new vicar of the parish—who is suffering from post-traumatic stress connected with his experiences working as a missionary in some unnamed war-torn country—attempts to prevent “Bottle Kicking”—a local calendar-custom reminiscent of traditions such as Cornish hurling, the Jedburgh Hand Ba’ or the Haxey Hood.
Needless to say, the villagers are not too thrilled by an outsider interfering in their cherished sport; especially as the function of the ritual turns out to be something more than cultural preservation and community bonding. The “land needs blood” motif is scarcely unfamiliar, but it has interesting points to make about the propriety of the ritualised tribal conflict which many sporting customs represent. Similarly, moral questions are raised as the eponymous parson appears to be victorious, but at what cost to his own spirit?
However, these philosophical themes are not sufficiently developed, and the play is ultimately forgettable. It is ably produced and well-performed by radio veterans such as Geoffrey Beevers, but the script simply doesn’t offer enough of a new variation on the basic “folk-horror” formula or even enough action. The relatively happy ending is similarly problematic; it’s all wrapped up too neatly and consequently the play fails to haunt us as it should. As such, this episode of Voices from the Grave is worth a listen but it’s unlikely to inspire much devotion.
Voices from the Grave: Middlewitch (BBC Radio 4 – 2nd January 2008)
BBC Radio 4 claimed the dramas written for this series were “more than simply scary – they are studies of humanity, love, rage and despair, of passion, longing and pain”. Personally, I get quite irked by the patronising insistence that weird fiction must study the human condition and I am quite fond of stories whose metaphysical explorations require characters that are barely more than ciphers. Still, if mainstream media must balance the outer limits of supernatural fiction with “human interest” then at least one must be done well and preferably both.
However, it is a rare occurrence that both human and supernatural aspects work in harmony to the extent evident in Middlewitch—arguably the highlight of BBC Radio 4’s Voices from the Grave series. The story concerns an aged wise woman who sits watching the shore at a remote Welsh coastal town steeped in 19th Century Methodism, alongside a naïve under-age couple hoping to make love for the time and a new minister struggling to understand the hateful legacy of one of his Victorian predecessors.
The play handles the “new vicar trying to understand the curse on his congregation” motif far better than its series-mate The Parson; there is simply far more going on, and whilst it’s hardly an original plot, the characterisation excels. This is augmented by passionate performances which really convey the drama with conviction. This is especially true of the downbeat climax; you can really hear the urgency in the actors’ voices. As a result, Middlewitch is a profoundly haunting play whose implications will linger with you long after listening.
Solstice (BBC Radio 4 – 21st December 1985)
A curious piece, this one: its ambitions are certainly admirable, but it tacks too close to the two qualities with which BBC radio plays are so often damned in the public imagination—worthiness and pretension. It primarily takes the form of a monologue, delivered by “Father Christmas” as he explores the pagan roots of the midwinter festival and the shamanic origins of the character. It’s the sort of territory fruitfully explored by Robert Holdstock in Mythago Wood two years earlier; but whilst Solstice displays some of the same magic, it cannot really match that masterpiece.
The winter shaman’s narrative dominates—apart from a few interjections from a raven and the hag of winter—but too often the tone seems hectoring rather than forbidding (which I assume is what it’s aiming for). A reading of the poem Littleblood from Ted Hughes’ neo-shamanic verse cycle Crow only serves to demonstrate a lightness of touch that is sadly lacking elsewhere in the play. The drama only occasionally connects us with that primal, atavistic dread of the cold and darkness which pagan midwinter festivals were once a beacon against.
Inevitably, it contrasts the conspicuous consumerism and glib platitudes of our own Christmas celebrations with the harsh realities of the winter solstice for man at the end of the last ice-age. Taking full advantage of the aural medium, the sound of adverts jingles and cash registers are blended with crackling frost and howling winds. It’s an atmospheric stew and an important message, but sometime risks sounding like a self-righteous sermon at the expense of dramatic momentum. Solstice is ultimately a failed experiment—a polemic as opposed to a play—but there is beauty in it still.