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Review: Winter Storm

Simon Pitt | Radio | Tuesday 8th December 2009

Network: Radio 4
TX Date: Tuesday 8th December 14:15
Duration: 45 minutes
Writer: Bernard MacLaverty
Director: Kirsteen Cameron
Produced: BBC Scotland

I can't say, reading the BBC blurb on the programme page that I was particularly excited by the prospect of today's offering:
On a Midwinter's day in Iowa in 1996, Scottish poet Andrew Younger steps from his office on a university campus and is engulfed by a severe blizzard. Lost and disorientated, Andrew muses upon the events which have led to him being stranded alone, so far away from home.
But what could have felt dry was, in fact, an engaging and lyrical description of one man's life.

Actually, at this point I feel I should reveal my biases and prior knowledge, so I'd better start with a list of my initial thoughts:

  1. I love non-linear narratives (although me liking a technique doesn't always pay off; note the case of yesterday's Afternoon Play and three interlaced stories)
  2. I've heard of Bernard MacLaverty before. He wrote Cal, a story about a young man who became involved with the IRA. It was, in fact, made into a film in 1984 starring Helen Mirren. In fact, MacLaverty has written dramas for Radio 4 before (although if you did enjoy this and wanted to find out what more he'd written, I challenge you to find it on the BBC website. Your best bet is to do this but this is almost impossible to navigate and leaves you no wiser about what plays he's written)
  3. I haven't heard of John Gordon Sinclair, but the way the radio 4 continuity announcer said his name made me assume that he was a famous actor, and hence be predisposed to think well of his performance.
So, onto the play itself: I'll have to admit, after yesterday's Afternoon Play, I was beginning to worry about what I'd let myself in for. From the opening of this play, though, it was clear we were in the hands of a controlled storyteller.

Andrew Younger, poet and professor, is writing and musing in a hotel in Iowa. I'll have to admit, I have mixed feelings about narrators in plays and films. They can be a mark of lazy writing; it's the old thing of show don't tell. But, conversely, they often give a play a unique voice and that was certainly the case here. The play started with Younger listening to a prerecorded interview with himself on the radio and commenting on his earlier answers. This isn't a scene without technical difficulties; but it worked. This is something I'm listening out for while I'm going through these afternoon plays. It's a problem fairly unique to radio; in film or TV, you rarely have to worry about your audience confusing characters for each other or losing track of what's going on. On radio this is quite a problem, particularly if most of your audience are only half listening. One moment of lapsed concentration and your audience loses track of where you characters are, how they got there and who is there.

I'm also acutely aware of the way the writer introduces his characters and provides information about them. Again, I'm in two minds about this. It's nice to have some background, and it can be quite slick if there's some conceit to introducing it. Increasingly, though, I'm beginning to think this can be a bit of a gimmick. This play was no exception: the radio interview with Andrew provided an opportunity to sketch in background, but as it went on, I began to think of it as a bit of a gimmick. There was also a bit of a hammy exchange:
Kris: Do you mind me asking your age?
Andrew: No.
Andrew: I really don't mind you asking, but I don't have to tell you
Andrew: Why is it important?
Kris: Creates a picture for our listeners

The last two lines, in particular, hammered the point a bit too hard. Speaking of being obvious the "native American" cleaner (she didn't even have a name) was very close to racist stereotype territory, particularly when she turned out to play such an important role. Other than this, the play had a strong and witty script. In particular, the exchange between Lorna and Andrew after he forgets to get the cat in is a wonderful moment:
Andrew: Cats don't shiver!
Lorna: You tell him! You are shivering aren't you darling! Your fur's all jaggered. That bastard of a poet cares for nobody but himself. Easy!
Andrew: I hate the way you utterly sentimentalise animals.
Lorna: Well then you can piss off back to your own place.
Andrew: It's chucking it down out there.
Lorna: I don't think you quite get the mood I'm in Andrew. Please get out of my sight!
Andrew: You can be so obdurate sometimes.
Lorna: Oh, obdurate! Well you know what you can do with your obdurate!

MacLaverty has caught the way domestic arguments develop; Lorna talking to the cat but really criticising Andrew, Andrew putting Lorna down by talking about her "sentimentalising cats" and being "obdurate" and then Lorna pouncing on the word and attacking that, avoiding the actual domestic issue at heart. It was a carefully crafted exchange and summed up all that was good about this play.

The effortless mixing between past and present was impressive too; especially since it's something that can be difficult to pull off on the radio. It's another case of how the form of radio does affect the way you tell the story. You have to be so cautious that you don't lose your listeners and leave them stranded, not sure what period you in or how old your characters are. Here, though, the subtle interweaving of past and future really drew you in. Ultimately, it was just good writing.

Interesting, Winter Storm started out life as a short story in the 2006 collection Matters of Life and Death before MacLaverty adapted it himself for radio. And I think you could feel that literary background to it. It felt like something that had been worked through on paper. Even if that is a misnomer, since all plays will be literary at some point, this felt like it had a richness that had come from prose being turned into a script.

Struck through with literary quotations and illusions, some of them obvious (a couple of them patronising), the play really did pull you into the poet's mind through his almost stream of consciousness mutterings. This became increasingly marked throughout, until the final section when Younger became lost in the snow. At this point, what had been gently present throughout the play, and drawn us in, became obvious and laboured. Unfortunately, the resolution with Andrew being rescued by a snow-shoe-wearing-Native-American, felt faintly ridiculous.

Having complained yesterday that I couldn't find any additional information about the plays, this play was the Radio Times' Today's Choice. "MacLaverty's play is both absorbing and enveloping. It's funny, sometimes stark and almost surreptitiously hooks you in," writes William Gallagher, who proceeds to give away most of the play "soon he is lost in a blizzard and in danger of dying". I find his use of "soon" a bit unusual; considering he is referring to an event that happens about 39 minutes into a 45-minute play. But then this is given away in the programme description as well, so perhaps I shouldn't complain.

Flicking through the Radio Times I felt a renewed interest in radio, and a real desire to listen to more. It's just a bit of a shame that most TV listings magazines don't bother with radio, or, if they do, compress it into a tiny fragment of a page. While you can find this all on the Radio Times website, the discussions about programmes are hidden away (the link for "today's choice" is in a section most people will ignore due to Banner Blindness). Even if you click on that, you then need to click through again before you actually get to Gallagher's "review". I can't imagine many people flick through to this. The physical magazine, however, still has the edge in allowing you to flick through and catch sight of programmes.

Interestingly, in these first two Afternoon Plays, there's been an overriding Gaelic feel: two of the stories in yesterday's play were from Northern Ireland and Scotland while today's play was recorded by BBC Scotland and written by a Northern Irish writer Accent-wise we've had two days of Scottish and Irish accents.

Having now listened to one independent production and one BBC production, there's one immediate difference: the casts are vastly difference. This play was almost a monologue and only featured five voices altogether. Of course, Monday's play wasn't a good comparison, but I suspect we will find that independent production companies use larger casts. One of the reasons for this is the deals the BBC has with equity. As a large public-funded corporation, the BBC is particularly keen not to be seen to be taking advantage of poor out of work actors. Consequently it almost exclusively employees paid-up Equity actors, and has to pay them the equity minimum. Independent production companies are, shall we say, less cautious, about giving their actors and writers a fair deal.

In summary, then: snowy showers, starting sunny but with a disappointing end to the day. I await tomorrow's play with interest.

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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