The Father, a play by the French dramatist Florian Zeller, translated by Christopher Hampton, jointly produced by Bath Theatre Royal, the Ustinov Studio and the Kilburn Tricycle Theatre, had wonderful reviews when it opened in London last October and is still running. It was on Radio 3 last Sunday night, introduced by Hampton and starring, as on its London debut, Kenneth Cranham and Claire Skinner in the lead roles as father and daughter.
It is a beautiful play, observant, funny, wise and true. Into 90 minutes it crams experience of things we recognise and things we dread, about growing older, losing memory, becoming a burden. It moves yet does not oppress because, in all its shifting moods, it shines with the honesty of great drama. When it opened the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish praised it highly – “super-smart,” he said, “finally heartbreaking” – and he was spot on. It’s also been called the best new play of the decade and I’d agree with that too. Did it translate to sound only?
It did, triumphantly, quite an achievement when you know that on the stage the set changes to reflect the growing confusion in the mind of Andre, the father. Here was Cranham at his very best, switching from tetchiness, to charm, to panic, making every word a message as if from a ship pulling inevitably away into the unknown, the piano music that separates the scenes fragmenting, sliding back into Bach again. Hearing it was marvellous because radio is so intimate a medium you really can see things through all the characters’ eyes.
This was a significant coup for Radio 3, a halo for radio’s drama department, a boon to anyone who doesn’t want to spend buckets of money on tickets. The drawback was it being on at 9pm, directly in competition for your attention with two of the best TV dramas in ages, The Night Manager on BBC One and Churchill’s Secret on ITV.
Yes, I know, these days you can shift time, go to iPlayer, catch any one of them or even all three in a row if you happen to have four hours and 50 minutes at your disposal and the sensibility of a rocking horse since good drama makes you live in its world and allow for its traces when it ends.
Here’s another grumble: when War & Peace was on BBC One in this same slot, there was a sadistic imposition on BBC radio of carrying trailers for it while, at the same time every Sunday, Radio 3 was putting on new productions of world drama (by Stoppard, Corneille, Solzhenitsyn and their like) without so much as a promotional murmur from BBC TV.
Ah well, radio does so many other things better than television that I should just calm down and count them. Films, for instance. There is no film review on TV that comes near to Kermode and Mayo (Radio 5 Live, Fridays) for informed engagement. There is no film history as pertinent and considered as Paul Gambaccini’s And the Academy Award Goes To… over the past three Saturdays on Radio 4. I note this last has been reduced to a run of only three Best Picture winners but, given that they were The Last Emperor (1987), The French Connection (1971) and Slumdog Millionaire (2009), and each programme revealed details of how they made it into production as well as why they won, I’ll just applaud.
Strangers on My Doorstep (Radio 4, Mondays) has been, for the past three weeks, revelatory. From Germany, Hungary and, this week, Sweden have come accounts of immigration, in what numbers, how societies have coped with registration, accommodation, schooling, social care, societal stress.
Each assigned reporter, Chris Bowlby, Maria Margaronis and Keith Moore, has carefully balanced fact against personal response. Their tone has been consistently even, the differences between each nation given due historical context. If you’re a fan of Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent you may have noted a similarity to that programme in these longer dispatches, a pinch of opinion to salt every pound of information. If you want to know how a small town in Sweden of 900 residents is trying to cope with 1,000 refugees this is where you’d find out.
PM (Radio 4, Monday) celebrated the leap year by asking back one of its original Eighties presenters Valerie Singleton to co-present with Eddie Mair and bringing back the signature tune George Fenton once wrote for the show. Thumbs up for Singleton from me for her clear diction and calm interviewing style, thumbs down to her on-air marriage proposal to Mair and, given the general gloom of nightly news, to that mercilessly merry jingle.