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Review: Getting to Four Degrees

Simon Pitt | Radio | Thursday 10th December 2009

Network: Radio 4
TX Date: Thursday 9th December 14:15
Duration: 45 minutes
Writer: Sarah Woods
Director: Jonquil Panting
Produced: BBC Radio Drama London

What a week I've picked for listening to afternoon plays. Today's play was, according to the continuity announcer, "a speculative tinkering with" the future of the Williams' family. "It's December 10th 2009," said the narrator. "Last time we met the Williams..." and I began to worry. What was I listening to? Was this a sequel? The continuity announcer had made it sound like some sort of strange reality format, and within the first few seconds, I'd been introduced to about thirty names, none of which turned out to be characters. Before I knew it, the narrator was interviewing climate change experts and interspersing the narrative with their comments.

Yes, today's afternoon play was a documentary/drama, commissioned in response to the Copenhagen talks and scheduled to coincide with them. It was also, I discovered, a sequel to Getting to Zero which was broadcast in March 2009. Obviously, I couldn't listen to that (more than a week has passed), and there's so little information about it on the Radio 4 website, that I had to deduce what I could. It sounds like it was rather similar, a drama about a family living a carbon neutral lifestyle, interspersed with comments from experts.

The first time a scientist cut in with his comments it was a bit of a shock. We're all used to talking heads in documentaries, but interrupting a drama is unexpected. Can't we do anything now without cutting to an expert halfway through to provide some sort of 'commentary' about it? "It's hard," one scientist says, "for the Williams family to see what effect their carbon emissions are having on the environment". It was as if they were commenting on a reality TV show.

Later on, there was a discussion about all the journalists that flew to the Copenhagen talks. The suggestion was that there was something hypocritical about this. I can't help thinking that there was a bit of an elephant in the room: recording the play itself was hardly a carbon neutral act. Although this leads us round in circles, the play didn't embrace this, and left the experts seeming rather smug.

Soon the play was zipping backwards and forwards with suggestions about what might happen: "It's still December 10th 2009," said the narrator, adapting the initial opening statement. This time we were in a very different world, and the characters we had briefly met earlier were reacting to rather different circumstances. The play had a type of Sliding Doors, or Run, Lola, Run feel to it as we were presented with one possibility after another. Throughout, the knowing, controlling, slightly tongue in cheek narrator explained what was going on:
To solve the problem of Mohammed not really noticing the mountain, we've popped it in his back yard
When talking about a cartoon penguin she remarks, "luckily for Mumbles he's a tap dancing penguin in a cartoon". In an earlier article I said I had mixed feelings about narrators in fiction, but here it was one of the best bits.

There was a rather enjoyable narrative running through each reality, with the school trip varying each time, and granddad's behaviour similar but subtly altered. The piece was good fun, and the interviews with the climate change experts were nicely human; during one a minor argument broke out about exactly what things would be like, which added a more personal touch.

Of course, the thing is, it wasn't really a play. Maybe I just haven't picked a very good week to do this, but it seems to me that this has been a week of plays that aren't really plays. We've had a play consisting of three short stories, one that mainly seemed to be lecturing us about statistics and now this. Where are the "stories about life as experienced by our audience now"?

Today's play was, of course, the first drama we've heard from the BBC's in-house Radio Drama department. As I've been saying all along, although the climate change experts provided a number of extra voices, the cast was relatively small; even more so when you realise that Bruce Alexander, Melissa Advani, and Emerald O'Hanrahan are all on the Radio Drama Company (what used to be known as the rep).

I think I was just a bit thrown by this play because I wasn't sure what it was. There were nice elements in it; the recurring ideas, phrase and character traits that were present throughout each hypothetical reality worked well. The problem was it had an agenda that it didn't try to hide. In this cynical century, we've all become a bit dubious of agenda driven pieces. Years ago, we loved it; take Pope, for example. His poems were incredibly heavy handed at the time, but they lapped them up. Now, we're very quick to label things 'blatant'. It's tough to get that balance between being too obvious and too obscure, and maybe the only way is to do something like this. Either way, I felt cheated out of my day's afternoon play. If they wanted to do a play about climate change, I'd have rather it was just set in a world 4 degrees warmer. As much as I loved the wry narrator and the little flourishes, it ultimately felt a bit empty.

Having said all that, that evening I was walking across Waterloo Bridge. It was dark, and I was watching the National Theatre's neon notice board, flashing what plays were coming up. At the time, I was partly thinking about how the National has such a presence, while the afternoon play has almost none, despite having more listeners in one day than every play at the National has in a year. While I was looking across the river at all the lights in London I felt an overwhelming sense of despair. What are we doing with our world? For a few seconds I was giddy with the thought of all the fossils fuels we were burning, and our effect on the environment. The hopelessness of the situation really hit me. So maybe the play did achieve what it intended after all.

Nevertheless, I'd have preferred more of a story.

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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