What I’ve Been Listening To: Four of the best (and one to avoid)

Spring has Sprung, and once again, we’re left trying to work out… what is TV and Radio’s problem with it?
Every year, the period from late February to early May becomes a cultural dead zone for drama and comedy. The post-Christmas boom dies away, and every channel or station decides to save its big hitters for late summer and autumn. What exactly do schedulers believe we’re doing in the intervening time? They surely can’t imagine we’re all outdoors enjoying the good weather; this is Britain, for heaven’s sake. We hate it when the weather’s good. Weather is there to be complained about; that’s what it’s for.

Stony ground

DCI Stone enjoys the British weather

Doctor Who at least used to be a big part of Spring TV, but even that’s been relegated to the ‘Back to School’ Autumn season, when everyone’s too depressed to notice the quality of the scripts has hit rock bottom. Instead we’re left with a very dry patch for drama junkies like me. I’ve even started watching Holby City, and, even more troublingly, enjoying it. There’s been precious little of value to listen to on the radio, either (apart from the brief joy of Radio 2’s annual Eurovision-themed popup station).

But hurrah! The beginning of Summer is here, and just as BBC television heralds it with the excellent Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (worth watching just for Marc Warren’s hairpiece), so too has BBC Radio launched forth with new series of some of my favourite shows.

Yesterday, I had a meeting with the agent of fear, misery and despair known as the dentist, leaving me with little to do that afternoon but suck soup through a straw into my misshapen, paralysed mouth, and more importantly, sit back and catch up on some great radio. Here is (in my smug little opinion) the best shows on the wireless at the moment:

LastSeenHearing’s Big Four

Stone (Thursdays, 2.15pm, Radio 4). Christ, but this was difficuafternoon alllt to find on iPlayer. Not content with completely crippling the site by making Radio programmes impossible to browse and TV iPlayer only useable with a touchscreen (thus alienating anyone with an older style of computer), the BBC have decided to launch an all-out attack not the afternoonon sanity by making everything about their catch-up service just that little bit stupider. So good luck trying to catch up on the Radio 4 Afternoon Drama slot because it really is anyone’s guess whether your chosen show will end up filed under “Afternoon Drama” or simply “Drama.” Listing continuing dramas that come back every year like Pilgrim or Stone under “Pilgrim” or “Stone” is, of course, out of the question.

Anyway, Stone. Radio’s answer to A Touch of Frost, only without the likeable characters or writing that offsets the grit with wit. Nevertheless, hackneyed and clichéd as it is (the main character is estranged from his wife and daughter, is constantly butting heads with his boss, etc., etc.), I do have a soft spot for Stone. I’m prepared to admit that’s probably because I’m a huge crime fan and am liable to watch or listen to anything with murders in it (except DCI Banks. I have some standards), but I do admire its basic premise, using the more introspective nature of radio to tell stories more morally grey than ‘bad man kills people.’

Where Stone has always fallen flat is in its main characters, DCI John Stone and his team, a bunch of cynical, prejudiced grouches, straight out of the ‘bad cop, badder cop’ school of gritty storytelling. It’s a shame, as Hugo Speer is a fantastic actor, but to truly enjoy Stone means ignoring its leads and the logical complications that come with three high ranking officers with severe personal issues being put in charge of numerous highly sensitive cases with apparently no junior detectives to support them. A further complication is the timeframe: the current series apparently takes place immediately after the cliffhanger ending to the previous run… which was broadcast about three years ago. But because this is ‘realism’, or at least Radio 4’s idea of it, we get constant references to 2015 and modern technology, creating a total muddle. I’m certain Stone’s daughter should be several years older than she apparently is.

Production-wise, it’s an interesting one. As the pictures on the BBC website attest, parts of Stone are recorded ‘on location’, with the corridors and roof of the BBC centre in Salford standing in for those of the police station. The thing is, though, that if it weren’t for those pictures, I’d never tell from listening. Audio drama has been conveying the sense of movement by actors simply stepping back from the microphone for decades. They didn’t need to go tramping through an office block to achieve it. Still, it’s good they’re trying new things.

But all this is just window dressing for the mysteries, which are uniformly solid. And, like its obvious idol A Touch of Frost, it occasionally shakes things up: the previous series’ finale was a two hander between Stone and an unhinged gunman who had taken him hostage, and was one of the show’s strongest outings. If you like crime drama, check out Stone. If you don’t, probably you should give it a miss.

The 3rd Degree (Mondays, 3pm, Radio 4). Atake a puntnother iPlayer nightmare, as many anguished screams following failed searches for ‘The Third Degree’ will attest to. Irritatingly numerical title aside, The 3rd Degree is a much underappreciated gem of the Radio 4 schedules. Hosted by Steve Punt off The Now Show, it’s nominally a straight quiz show, although Punt manages to slip more jokes into his script with every new series. Each episode is recorded at a different university, where three students are pitted against three of their lecturers in a mixture of team general knowledge rounds and head-to-heads between each student and their lecturer in their particular subject of study.

finding the degree

So it can recognise ‘III’ and ‘Third’ as synonyms, but it’s too hard to do the same for ‘Third’ and ‘3rd’?

As you might expect from a quiz where all the contestants know each other, and indeed one team is responsible for teaching the other its specialist knowledge, it’s a very genial contest, with very little of an actual competitive element. Nonetheless, the show shouldn’t be underestimated: the questions are a fascinating mix of popular culture and surprisingly obscure classical literature and music trivia. This aspect is summed up best in a round always played near the end, ‘Highbow, Lowbrow,’ in which each player is given a clue, and must select whether they want an intellectual or a pop culture question based on that clue.

There are times in the more obscure moments when it becomes an unashamedly Radio 4 beast, but it’s never pretentious. There’s a lot to like for listeners both young and old. It’s already it its fifth year- surely it’s time for it to get the recognition it deserves?

Doctor Who (Saturdays, 6pm, Radio 4Extra). I love it when Big Finish agrees to loan some of their dramas out to the BBC for broadcast. So, far, though, it’s always been limited to their Doctor Who ranges (and one broadcast of Graceless a couple of years back which I missed). I think that’s missing a trick- airing some of the lesser known Big Finish series on 4Extra could bring in a whole new audience that probably only know the company as ‘those Doctor Who guys.’

Four's a crowd

I say it’s been forty years, but we all know he never REALLY stopped being the Doctor.

Although some of the earliest stories starring Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor had already been aired, the BBC-Big Finish relationship really began in 2006, when the first eight episodes featuring McGann and Sheridan Smith as new companion Lucie Miller were broadcast on BBC7 before being released on CD. It was a huge success, and contributed to the majority of Big Finish episodes now being made to fit a 30- or 60-minute timeslot, rather than just dragging on for as long as the writer felt like it. A few years ago, Big Finish made the bold move to kill off Lucie Miller and shift McGann over to annual boxsets, giving the monthly 60-minute slot to living legend Tom Baker, aka the Fourth Doctor.

The series currently airing on Saturday evenings is the first series made after the company finally managed to coerce Baker out of retirement, a good decade after all other ex-Doctors had revisited the part. Reunited with 70s companion Leela, as played by Louise Jameson, it’s a run of episodes that might not please everyone. The main issue is that, rather than take the franchise in the new and interesting directions they’ve become famous for, Big Finish have instead plumped for a more nostalgic feel, giving every story a gothic horror vibe mixed with a slower pace to try and recapture the show in its mid-70s golden age.

But storytelling has moved on. We’re no longer as in love with horror as we were in the immediate post-Hammer days, and certainly not the “scream at the hairy monster” brand of horror. Moreover, the actors have moved on. Jameson just about passes for a younger woman, but Baker is now in his eighties, and sounds it. I’m not saying he shouldn’t have come back to the part, but he’s clearly not exactly the same man as he was forty years ago. Baker’s portrayal is one of the most nuanced, fully realised interpretations of the character- why not explore his Doctor further instead of revisiting the past?

Nonetheless, the production values (particularly Jamie Robertson’s excellent incidental music) are a cut above anything else on air, and the opening two episodes leave me very confident for the weeks to come.

Just A Minute (Mondays, 6.30pm, Radio 4). Yes, it’s forty-eight years old. Yes, the current series is “Series 72”. Surely there’s no point in me promoting this distant forefather of all modern panel shows? Surely after so long, anyone that would enjoy JAM is already listening? Well, I think that it really is worth pointing out that this mighty half-century old beast, with its 91 year old host (yes, really), still feels incredibly fresh. And why not? Just A Minute really is one of the simplest shows in the world. All the players have to do is talk. That’s it. Just talk, and follow three insanely simple yet incredibly tricky rules while they do it.

But it’s a show that is constantly evolving, and has been since it started. No panel show before or since has supported such a wide variety of performers, and of such a huge range of ages. On no other show would you hear comedians, presenters, actors and former MPs from their 30s to their 80s bounce off each other in such a way as on theJust A Tennant mighty JAM. Just a few years ago, you could reasonably expect Paul Merton to win every episode he was in; now, though, there’s a real sense that he and some of the other stalwarts have stepped back, not picking up the newer generation for every mistake they make, letting them relax into the game. Merton and the other old hands (Gyles Brandreth, Graham Norton, Jenny Eclair) show a huge amount of generosity to their younger teammates, who in return have a palpable respect, even reverence, for the show and its stars, in particular its legendary host Nicholas Parsons. The special guest stars can sometimes fall way short of the mark, but for every Terry Wogan there’s a David Tennant, someone with both natural talent and a clear joy to be involved in such a legendary show.

If you think you’ve heard all that Just A Minute has to offer, I urge you to listen again. The banter and bickering amongst the panel has never been sharper, the contributors never so varied. It’s my favourite radio show of all time. I love it.

And one to avoid…

The News Quiz (Fridays, 6.30pm, Radio 4). Ah, the dear old News Quiz, another venerable Radio 4 comedy institution. The elder statesman of British satire, in theory- Have I Got News For You is supposedly an adaptation of it, though I can’t see the resemblance beyond ‘host asks questions about news, panellists tell jokes.’ But there’s a fatal flaw that, despite what a lot of people seem to believe, can actually be a very damaging thing in satire: its creators make their own political beliefs very obvious.

For all the BBC’s desperate attempts at political balance, somehow one of their flagship radio comedies goes on playing host to very left-wing people like Jeremy Hardy and Mark Steel, saying very left wing things, and grumbling about the recent election in a very extreme left wing, ‘how could the electorate do this to us’ kind of way. A number of years ago, Radio 4 ran a 45-minute ‘pantomime’, co-written by Cabin Pressure’s John Finnemore and with cameos from pretty much every Radio 4 presenter, which in a very rare and very odd misstep, portrayed News Quiz’s “right wing guest of the week” as an angry pig thrashing around in a wooden box.

Now, I really don’t want to bring politics into this blog, but I will say this: I’m not a huge fan of the Conservatives. I’ll happily criticise them when they do something I disagree with. But at the same time, I’ve never like Tory-bashing and the whole culture of “let’s attack the Tories because they’re the Tories rather than because they’ve actually done something specific.” I think a constant hate campaign both blinds people to the nuances of their policies and totally fails to get to the bottom of why people voted for them, and makes their opponents seem petty. And in the wake of the devastating (for them) election results, they’re coming off as very petty indeed.

Maybe the imminent departure of host Sandi Toksvig will shake things up enough for them to take stock and start covering things in a more analytical way. I’m hoping for Susan Calman as the next host: someone with very firm political convictions, but enough of a surreal, ditzy streak to make the show seem more irreverent and less… militant.

Stone can be listened to here (go to ‘Episodes’ and scroll down): http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04xxp0g

The 3rd Degree can be listened to here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01d0q86

Doctor Who can be listened to here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b009szrh

Just A Minute can be listened to here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006s5dp

Because I’m nothing if not fair, The News Quiz can be listened to here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006r9yq

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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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