(Mon 28th April, BBC Radio 4)
Ever watched or listened to a half-hour sitcom and tried to imagine what happened after the credits rolled? The kind of improbable insanity that would unfold after the final twist or punchline set up one last ridiculous scenario just to make us chuckle? Well, thanks to Higher (Monday-Wednesday BBC Radio 4), imagine no longer! If episode one of this three part series is anything to go by, Higher hasn’t so much been stretched out to fill the 45 minute Afternoon Drama slot as had an extra quarter of an hour dumped onto the end, driving the already dull and uninspired jokes beyond breaking point.
Now, I’m aware that Higher is one of those recurring series for the Afternoon Drama schedules, and that this is actually the umpteenth season featuring these characters. Thus, I freely and gladly lay myself open to accusations of “you’ve missed the point.” So be it. I can only take what I hear. That said, I’m in no hurry to seek out any previous series…
It’s hard to say what the ideal programme slot or running time for Higher would be, because the script is so schizophrenic it’s hard to work out what it’s even supposed to be about. The BBC website has it billed as a “barbed satire of higher education establishments,” which is practically laughable. Yes Minister is ‘barbed satire’ because the characters, dialogue and situation are so realistic and observantly portrayed. The four leads of Higher, who make up the staff of the Faculty of Geography at the fictional Hayborough University, are so cartoonish, their actions so far removed from the day-to-day running of a university, that ‘barbed satire’ this aint. Higher is ‘feathered satire,’ at best.
The episode starts off vaguely promisingly, with an international student struggling to understand what is expected of him by a tutor who never answers emails or marks work, and who forces him to wait three weeks for a meeting. On a personal level, as someone currently studying at a uni that, quite frankly, does not deserve its good reputation, this scene was pretty near the knuckle. It’s a flimsy scene, and not particularly funny, but it sets up the setting and message that the series is going for.
…Except that this is supposed to set up our ‘plot’ for the next three-quarters of an hour, as this international student turns out to be the son of a North African dictator. The student is expelled on the grounds of disturbing the dean to complain about his course (which I’m fairly sure is illegal), just as Hayborough’s newest staff member, the subtly named Cherry Swot, is attempting to forge diplomatic links between the university and his father’s corner of North Africa. If, like me, you’re wondering what on earth Third World politics have to do with the running of a small university’s Geography department, then don’t worry too much. From about 15 minutes in, the episode ceases having anything to do with the thing it’s supposed to be satirising, and collapses in on itself in a flurry of bizarre racist jokes (Top Tip: if a joke is offensive, pointing out that it’s offensive won’t help you) and the insistent use of the puerile phrase “specialist missionary position.”
Cherry (played by Caroline Burns Cooke) takes the inept Professor David Poll (Jeremy Swift) to Africa to meet with the President (seemingly every Radio 4 announcer’s pronunciation nightmare Cyril Nri). While Cherry has the important job of bribing a major world leader to form a partnership with a minor English college- just roll with it- David is there to deliver a speech to the country’s leading academics about how they may one day stop stoning their wives and join the civilised world.
So, the joke is that our main characters are racist arses? Well, that seems the case, until we find the aftermath of this little speech is that his audience threw their shoes at him and formed a lynchmob. So… the stereotypes are true? Can writer Joyce Bryant hurry up and decide whether she’s being ironically racist or genuinely racist?
But never mind! Cherry successfully covers up the fact that the President’s son has been expelled, long enough to secure a deal to develop a research facility into coastal architecture or somesuch, and David is sent on an incredibly dangerous “research trip” into pirate-infested waters. Then the President receives a letter from his son complaining about the university, and the deal falls through. Classic sitcom punchline ending, apart from the total lack of jokes!
Except this is Afternoon Drama rather than a sitcom, so it just… keeps… going. David gets captured by pirates, who threaten to kill him unless their ransom demands are met. Meanwhile, it’s revealed that the President’s son is actually a lazy idiot who has been thrown out of every other university in the UK. Again, Joyce Bryant, who are your targets? You can’t make a joke about a student failing because of the negligence and incompetence inherent in the system, and then ten minutes later go “well, he would have failed anyway because students are morons, lol jks.”
This is where the basic practicalities of radio drama let the concept down: Bryant tries to do too much, and because the Radio 4 budget means there’s only six people in the cast, she uses the same characters to criticise students and condemn lecturers, the same characters to ridicule middle-class racism and the corruption behind wealthy international students. Neither side has a leg to stand on, and the overall feel is just of an unpleasant view of humanity in general.
Okay, so maybe I’m over-analysing just a tad, but the programme travels so far from its premise in its runtime that in order to write this review I really had to think to work out what the point of it all was. The “barbed satire” continues its mission to leap off our plane of reality entirely as the staff back at Hayborough refuse to pay David’s ransom money, abandoning him to be tortured and executed because he’s always annoyed them (or maybe it’s because they know he’s a sitcom stooge and thus won’t come to any harm. It makes just as much sense at this point).
Anyway, matters come to a head as it’s revealed one of the pirates holding David is actually the President’s son (dun dun dun!). Don’t worry if it seems ridiculously implausible that someone under as much surveillance as a national leader’s child could become a pirate captain without anyone knowing- it’s all part of the barbed satire! And I know I’m harping on about those two words far too much- I just happen to think you shouldn’t use a phrase if you clearly don’t know what it means.
Since our jolly Radio 4 main characters have decided to let a man die, the pirates prepare to execute David, and…
The President’s son can’t go through with it, and lets him go.
Oh, yeah, and there’s some guff about the President covering up his son’s actions and allowing the research facility to go ahead with David staying in Africa to run it, but that’s all covered in a garbled rush of exposition because it’s almost 3 o’clock and The Third Degree is on next (which, by the way, is brilliant).
This has turned into a lengthy plot recap rather than an analysis of Higher as a piece of radio, and for that I apologise- I’m going to try and make these posts shorter from now on. But, more than anything, I was trying to find a through-line for this show, something that tied together all the random threads Joyce Bryant introduces. Satirising middle class lecturers? Poking run at students? Laughing at Third World politics? Ultimately, none of these emerge as Higher’s main focus, and so the programme fails to deliver on any of them.