(Sat 19th April, BBC 4Extra)
It’s difficult to know what to choose from this week’s radio listings for this blog’s inaugural review- not least because the BBC’s new radio iPlayer makes discovering new programmes feel like the thirteenth labour of Hercules (hey, remember when the radio iPlayer used to be just like the TV one? Y’know, with easy browsing through genres, and plenty of eye-catching thumbnails, making it easy to find something you didn’t even know you were looking for? Thank God that’s all changed).
Indeed, there’s been very little to pique my interest on Radio 4. A new adaptation of P.G.Wodehouse’s Ring For Jeeves on Sunday, but Jarvis & Ayres Productions’ coverage of the Wodehouse canon is so dry and unremittingly bland in it’s faithful adherence to the source that I found very little to say about the actual story.
So, to Radio 4Extra, then, home of archived material, themed programming, and stifling individuality through station name-changing. And it was here that I stumbled across today’s overly-subtitled gem, DI Gwen Danbury- An Odd Body: Dead Heads and Chutney. Originally broadcast in 2008, DI Gwen Danbury is, as the name suggests, a Radio Crime Series (dun dun dun). As much of a whodunnit junkie as I am, transferring the genre onto radio often throws up some fairly uninspired results. Your typical Radio Crime Series will feature a moody, monotone detective played by a famous TV actor, with a real-word surname that makes for a snappy series title, like Stone or Craven. Their cases are depressing, gruesome, and almost always involve children (it’s a wonder Salford has any under 16s left). As if this didn’t make listening hard enough going, the characters usually communicate through a series of barbed insults thinly disguise as witticisms.
I’m not what you’d call a fan.
So, you can imagine my trepidation going into my first experience of Gwen Danbury, and, well… it’s not that. In fact, it’s about as far away from murky Manchester as you can get: this is sunny Suffolk, where the village vicar is a suspect and interrogations take place over cups of tea. If we’re looking for TV influences, the fingerprints of Midsomer Murders and Miss Marple are all over this one. Each of those two inspirations makes itself felt on one side of the show’s central relationship: the Midsomer-esque sedate yet thorough policework by Gwen herself, played by Annette Badland, while the Marple-like interfering little old lady is Joan, Gwen’s aged mother (Cabin Pressure’s Stephanie Cole). As well as being perfect casting, having these two investigate separately means writer Sue Rodwell can move the case along twice as quickly. Plus, these two are fantastically funny, especially when playing opposite each other. Completing the central trio is Sergeant Henry Jacobs, played by John Duttine (the sergeant from Heartbeat. No, not Derek Fowlds. The one after him. No, not the Welsh one. Not the Scottish one, either. The other one. Yes, him).
Dead Heads and Chutney’s mystery is of the precise level of bonkersness the series needs, concerning a little old lady who used to work for MI5 found dead in the pews of the village church, murdered by an undercover secret agent. Yes, it’s obvious who the murderer is, but the fun is in watching the travelling Danburys stumble to it. These aren’t your typical brilliant minds- in one scene, Gwen tries to pull a “just one more thing” on the vicar, who promptly tells her he doesn’t have time, and shuts the door in her face. It’s a fallibility far more engaging than making her an alcoholic divorcee pigeon fancier or something.
The show is offset by some great lilting music (although it does get a bit repetitive after about half an hour) and some simple yet pleasing sound design. Maybe I’ve been listening to too much bad radio recently, but the authentic echo on a scene inside a church really pleased me. And as if to prove that despite all these labels and influences I’ve slapped on it, if can still surprise me, the episode actually pulls off quite the depressing ending as regards catching the villain.
Strongly recommended. Here’s hoping the BBC can remember this gem and make their next thriller series more sleek and less bleak.
Can be heard here until Sat 26th April: