God hears you better when you’re talking to yourself: I’m A Believer

There is a fundamental problem at the heart of I’m A Believer. It’s one that has nothing to I'm A Believer fancy dressdo with Jon Canter’s script, or any of the many doubtless talented individuals who worked on Tuesday 24th’s edition of the Afternoon Drama.

Because let’s talk for a second about the way radio drama is presented. About how it’s advertised to the general public. And about the relationship- or lack of- between the way a show might be described on the BBC website or in the Radio Times, and the actual programme that reaches our ears.

Take, for example, the synopsis for I’m A Believer from iPlayer itself:

“When Simon meets God in his dreams, he’s happy to tell Him to His face that He doesn’t exist. But that’s before Simon meets Birth, Death and a woman who thinks he’s a vicar… all on the same night.”

So, what kind of story can we look forward to here? Maybe I’ve been conditioned by years of listening to Radio 4 to expect things to be done, in, well, that very Radio 4 way of theirs, but that little précis gave me a very clear mental image, and, to be fair, I was intrigued. Simon meets God? As in, God will be an important character in the story? More than that, Birth and Death will be characters, too? I mean, that’s what you’d expect, from the way the words are capitalised, and the statement that Simon will “meet them”, isn’t it? And a substantial and important part of the action will take place in some kind of dreamscape? And the unfolding events will somehow change Simon, into a man no longer sure of his own atheism? What kind of mystical, metafictional format will this play take?

Well, of course I had to listen. Liberal, forward-thinking, cloyingly benevolent Radio 4 are going to do a play about some kind of Damascene conversion, about a man who comes to realise and accept the existence of the Lord? How are they going to pull this one off?

Well, they’re not. At all.

Mainly because the official synopsis is the biggest load of misleading, must-make-it-sound-like-the-Radio 4-house-style hogwash imaginable.

I'm A Believer cast

An honest synopsis for IAB would read: “Farce about a man on his way to a fancy dress party dressed as a vicar. Misunderstandings ensue.” That’s what the play is, and unashamedly so. There is no great epiphany here, no deep plumbing of the psyche of its main character. Yes, there are dream sequences, in which Simon comes face to face with a laconic, cheerful God with a line in terrible puns, but these have no impact on the main plot. They’re there because they’re funny. Just as ninety percent of the contents of Jon Canter’s script is in there because it’s funny.

So, what is the story here?

Simon (played by Stephen Mangan with that tinge of impotent hysteria he does so well) is a graphic designer and father-to-be who does not believe in God. We know he doesn’t believe in God because he never really shuts up about it. He complains about church bells ringing outside his new house, he rants about the futility of faith while walking along the beach, he argues with his wife after she gets them invited to a “vicars and tarts” fancy dress party.

Having just Googled that, I can confirm that that is indeed a thing, apparently, which tells me that I’m not as worldy wise as I might sometimes think.

We’re never really told what Simon likes to do or say when he isn’t railing against the evils of religion, which gives the first half of IAB a slightly disjointed feel, as if we’re fast-forwarding through his life in a mad rush to get to the angry bits (much like some Christians do with the Bible. Satire!). But again, once it finally clicks that this is supposed to be an out-and-out farce, that everything here is set up for a punchline, that the blunt characterisation begins to make sense.

It is while on his way the aforementioned party, dressed unwillingly as a vicar and bickering with his wife Jane (Claudie Blakley), whose costume is never mentioned (probably for the best), that they encounter the scene of a traffic accident. When Simon investigates, the shaken driver, Mary (Pauline McLynn) mistakes him for a real vicar, and he so he is forced to stay behind to give priestly support to Mary and her unconscious passenger Megan, while his wife drives off to get help.

This two-handed scene, around which the rest of the play is really only dressing, is where the script really gets going. Canter’s slick, wordplay-driven dialogue, which for much of the opening act felt unnaturally polished and over-the-top, suddenly bursts into life here, ridiculous lines and behaviour to match a ridiculous situation. Simon’s dual predicament of having to offer Mary spiritual guidance and spontaneously invent a backstory for himself in response to her questions about his faith are both toe-curlingly awkward and deliciously hilarious.

I'm A Believer irreverence

God knows. Actually, I hope he doesn’t.

From his introduction to Mary as “Vicar Simon” of the “Uncatholic Church,” to his attempts to recite the Nicene Creed (“you start”), which somehow segues midway into the Lord’s Prayer, it’s a terrific send-up of the way Christianity is viewed by people who have never been in a church in their life. Even with Megan trapped in the car with her pulse weakening (“What about her brain?” “I didn’t feel her brain!”), even with Mary’s belief that the crash was punishment from God for their lesbian relationship, there’s never really any serious side to IAB.

Yes, admittedly a recurring subject is the death of Simon’s father from cancer, and the uselessness of his devout faith in the face of the illness, but really that’s just another thing for Simon to rant about, not some dark origin story for his atheism. Canter does not attempt to wring a realistic tragic event for some kind of tortuous emotional meaning, and should be respected for that. And when it transpires that Simon’s wife, seeking a phone to call an ambulance, stumbled across a house containing a midwife (who helped her give birth), whose husband is looking for graphic designers (solving their employment problem), and everyone expect Simon praises this as “a miracle,” to his annoyance, we see that nothing has really changed. He’s still just as antagonistic to religion as ever, he just now has to keep up his charade for Mary, who inexplicably still believes he is “Vicar Simon,” and wants to have weekly prayer sessions with him from now on.

It’s an open, sitcom-style ending, the kind you might get in a half hour comedy that concludes with a bulldozer heading towards the main characters or something. Canter isn’t summing up his grand treatise on religion, it’s just a punchline to a set-up that contains such genius moments as when Simon, asked by Mary about the time he decided to become a priest, and mindful of his wife’s instructions to keep up the charade at all costs, says “I was on a journey… and a force greater than myself told me to become a vicar.”

With dialogue that slick, it’s a shame the rest of the production never really lives up to it. Scene transitions are always difficult on radio, without the time or budget for incidental music of their own. Charles Paris is a great example of working around that, its soundtrack of vintage rock giving it a unique identity. Here, the lengthy hymns, arias and organ recitals that separate the scenes begin to feel like padding very quickly. The sound design, too, seems straight off The Official BBC CD Of Common Noises- a particularly jarring scene comes early on, when Simon and Jane are having an argument in their kitchen. There’s an echo on their voices that suggests confined space, yet the pervasive ten second loop of birdsong that runs through the entire scene suggests that at the very least the builders have neglected to put any glass in the windows. But then again, you’ve got to have birdsong, haven’t you? It’s the countryside! Feel rustic! I’d much rather the producer had given the birdsong a break and given us stuff like the rustle of paper when Jane hands Simon the party invitation, or the rustle of fabric when Simon embraces Mary. You know, just something to at least suggest we weren’t listening to three people standing around in a tiny recording studio.

So, going back to that official BBC synopsis:

“When Simon meets God in his dreams, he’s happy to tell Him to His face that He doesn’t exist. But that’s before Simon meets Birth, Death and a woman who thinks he’s a vicar… all on the same night.”

Well, Simon is indeed happy to tell God that He doesn’t exist at the start of the play. He’s also happy to tell God that He doesn’t exist at the end of the play, because if anything, his experience with Mary only deepens his belief in the absurdity of religion. He doesn’t meet any interpretation of birth and death that would warrant the capitalisation of the words- more pressingly, he doesn’t meet ‘death’ at all that night, as Megan survives the night and ends the play on the way to a recovery.

So why do broadcasters and listings magazines do this to us? This is the iPlayer generation, where we rely on these short, catchy descriptions to help us decide what to watch or listen to. We don’t have time to be misled like this. Well, I think it goes back to that “Radio 4 style” I alluded to earlier. The belief that BBC radio drama, especially the Afternoon Drama, has to be about An Issue, because radio is the highbrow medium. It’s something that really annoys me, because it seems to suggest that you’re only allowed to listen to the radio to learn some great world truth, not to enjoy yourself. So when a radio drama like I’m A Believer comes along, with its sole and honest aim of making its audience laugh, it’s got to be covered up and disguised at all costs. And it shouldn’t be like that at all. Radio should be a home for drama of as much variety as any other format, and if the BBC learnt to stop playing up to their own stereotype and embrace that, they might find people would be a lot more interested in tuning in.

Jon Canter and the cast of I’m A Believer? Well done; laughed my head off. BBC? Grow up.

I’m A Believer can be listened to here:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04bryz1

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About lastseenhearing

MA Student in Radio Production at Bournemouth University. Listener of too much radio drama for my own good. I make snarky comments to relieve the tension. Also an amateur writer, and a fan to an unhealthy degree of Children's TV shows from long before I was born, but thankfully I don't think there's a place on the blog for a Grange Hill retrospective. Yet.
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