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Review: Zero Degrees of Separation

Simon Pitt | Radio | Monday 7th December 2009

Network: Radio 4
TX Date: Monday 7th December 14:15
Duration: 45 minutes
Writers: Carla Lamont, Derek Crook, Kirsty Lamont, Colin MacIntyre, Ballycastle Writer's Group and The Original Writer's Group, Battersea
Director: Lou Stein
Produced: Goldhawk Essential

My plan to consider the state of the afternoon play (rather a grand title for listening to a play every day), kicked off today, and I probably couldn't have picked a worse time to start. Today's Afternoon Play was an entirely non-standard piece by three different "community writing groups" (whatever those are). The forty-five minutes were divided into three fifteen minute segments: the first, "The Bank Van", by a writers' group on the Scottish Isle of Mull, the second "Crosswords" by a group in Northern Ireland and the final "Shame on You", by a group in Battersea.

The three stories had a "common theme" running through them (I'm being kind here for something that they shoehorned in at the last minute). This "theme" was a conservatory saleswoman who phoned during each segment offering a free conservatory. In the final story, "Shame on You", the phone was answered by a Big Issuer seller who explained she worked in "magazine distribution", and invited the conservatory salespeople round in exchange for a free gift "worth up to £25". Haha! How wonderfully original: a joke at the expense of nuisance callers! Why didn't they go the whole way and add a joke about American tourists being stupid? Oh wait, they did. Presumably, the cold-caller "theme" was meant to create a comic anticlimax to the running joke, but what it actually resulted in was a blatant interruption during each story that ended with an obvious joke.

The play had a much larger cast than I would have expected, presumably because the writers and actors were non-professional locals; usually, you're lucky to get more than six actors in a play, unless it's been filled with BBC rep actors. However, what the play made up for in quantity, it lacked in quality. "The Bank Van", in particular, had a rather questionable American accent (not to mention a rather unconvincing America name: "Hank Ketchup"; presumably another attempt at humour). In fact, the collaborative writing element was apparent throughout: names like PC Big Boots the product of a room full of people trying to think up "funny names". The whole thing had an air of something created by committee.

The first of the stories, "The Bank Van" featured a young boy oppressed by his surprisingly young-sounding "grandfather". The "twist", not to spoil it, comes with the revelation that the "grandfather" was, in fact, the "father".

The second story, "Crosswords" revolved around a librarian and her twin brother the landlord of the local. An undercover police officer assumes they're selling drugs by hiding them in library books and the whole thing ends in a farcical fight in a pub.

The final story begins, quite impressively, with a large crowd chanting "shame on you". Unfortunately, what promised to be a bleak post-recession drama rapidly turned into a banal wouldn't-it-be-better-if-people-weren't-so-greedy sketch. There was a Big Issue salesperson; guess what: she had a vaguely emotive back story (she'd been a war hero during the Gulf War) and she had a heart of gold (she saved some banker called Becky from an asthma attack). In the final minutes Becky, the fund investor, announced she'd change her ways and give up her affluent lifestyle for a healthier alternative and the whole trite thing unfolded with depressing predictability. There was a glimmer of ambiguous hope at the end with the suggestion that despite her good intentions, Becky could be swayed back to a life of greed by enough money, but by then it was too little too late.

The scripts of all three stories veered from the clichéd: "my fight's not with you", "one half pint of gnat's piss coming up", to the awkward "why would I want to turn on a computer when I could turn on a woman instead". Combined with the staid acting and predictable plot, the whole thing was a tedious mess.

I'll have to admit, I do have a soft spot for short, interlinked dramas. Yet even being predisposed to like this I thought it was a load of drivel. The stories were too weak, the characters too cliched and the scripts were rubbish. The link between the stories was tenuous and contrived (was the conservatory salesperson meant to suggest that there are "zero degrees of separation"? If so that was hardly brought out) and the eventual payoff was weak. Each 15-minute story was too short to create any emotional engagement with the characters. The regional accents made a nice change from the standard BBC RP voice and occasional hammed-up Irish that you come across on your average drama, but this was more than made up for by the awful American accent and the disastrously named "PC Big-Boots". Pretty much the "wittiest" bit of "crack" we got was this unimpressive patter when discussing a crossword clue:
Rosheen: Five down: running saw, four letters.
Local: Danny's great with four letter words
Danny: And you can four-letters off!
There were a couple of nice moments in "Shame on You" of relatively authentic vox pops, but even these didn't quite convince.

In its defence, the larger cast did give the whole thing a richness and the soundscape was impressive (albeit with occasional lapses into sound effect CD territory with the ambulance effects in "Shame on You" and the pub fight in "Crosswords"). On a technical note, one thing that's always interesting to look out for is scene divisions. Here they were marked with short musical riffs. This created a sense of richness, but, did begin to sound trite. Indeed, the BBC's radio drama department has ditched these for precisely this reason.

The production was made by Goldhawk Essential, a small independent production company based in London, which produces dramas and comedies in the 1130 and 2300 slots on Radio 4. I can't say I look forward to any future Goldhawk Essential productions. In an effort to provide some context for my listening, I thought I'd hunt around the Internet. After all, with these writers' groups and the number of actors, this was more likely to have a bit of extra buzz and advertising around it.

A trip to the BBC programme information page provided almost no extra information about the plays, other than a stock image of an empty theatre that pretty much sums up my feelings on it.

Googling the title revealed that the Stage had inexplicably marked it as a "radio choice", although they provided no commentary or reason for the decision, other than a rewriting of the DAB text.

The Bally Castle Writers group seemed so impressed by their effort that they don't even mention it on their website (and no offence to them but I can't imagine they have so many other major events going on that they can't spare space to mention getting a programme made on national radio). The original writers' group in Battersea seemed the most excited by it all: they mentioned that it exists on their page. Even Goldhawk Essential don't have a website, and other than a few mentions on websites aimed at writers, their internet presence is non-existent.

After this brief bit of research, you can see why radio drama is beginning to wane. After all, with no advertising for it, no interviews, no behind the scenes notes, no website and no other information at all, if you don't happen to be listening to Radio 4 at two fifteen on a Monday I don't know why you'd bother to tune into this. And even if you did, I don't know why you'd tune in again. After a week, the programme has dissapeared forever anyway. The BBC buys two repeats when it commissions dramas, so we may hear this again in a couple of years time. It's not going to get released by BBC Worldwide though, so after it's next eventual outing (if it gets one), it's going to go back into the BBC archive and sit there for the end of time (or until this happens. Which isn't looking likely now). Maybe in about 75 years when all the copyright has elapsed we might see this again, but by then it's going to be a quaint relic from the past. To be honest, it already is, and it was only on at lunchtime.

All in all, it was rather a depressing start to my week's listening, and this was on Monday, the day that the Afternoon Play gets up to 25% more listeners than usual. I await what the schedulers have in store for me tomorrow.

The State of the Afternoon Play

Monday 7th December 2009:Zero Degrees of Separation
Tuesday 8th December 2009: Winter Storm
Wednesday 9th December 2009: One in A Million
Thursday 10th December 2009: Getting to Four Degrees
Friday 10th December 2009: Number 10 5/5 Immortality at Last



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