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Review: Number 10 Immortality at Last

Simon Pitt | Radio | Friday 11th December 2009

Network: Radio 4
TX Date: Thursday 9th December 14:15
Duration: 45 minutes
Writer: Jonathan Myerson
Director: Clive Brill
Produced: Pacificus

Since the start of the week, I've seen this looming with the off-putting "Episode 5 of 5" sitting beside it. Now, I'll have to admit, a real bugbear of mine is starting programmes halfway through a series. I hate not knowing the full significance of what is going on. I hate hearing the end before knowing the build up; it just spoils everything. More than this, I know that this is the second series of Number 10; the first series consisted of five Friday Plays in 2007 Knowing that even if I'd started five weeks ago, I'd still been missing out on something really makes me feel out of my depth. Its quite a stumbling block to join a programme this far in, knowing that you're really going to have to run to catch up.

My preferred choice would have been to listen to all the episodes in order. Even better, I'd like to hear the first season first as well. Unfortunately, the BBC Trust, in their wisdom decided that only some series could be "series stacked", and this isn't one of them (in fact, I don't think any radio drama has benefited from series stacking yet). Since Number 10 was never picked up and released by BBC Worldwide on CD either, I can't even pay to hear previous episodes of it. (On the subject of BBC Worldwide, am I the only one who finds the purple/pink logo incredibly ugly? It clashes with pretty much anything they put it on; I can't think of a single product it would look good on, except perhaps Quality Street. On the red background of the website it makes my eyes bleed; what was the web designer thinking?)

Number 10 is produced by London based Independent production company Pacificus. As I've been predicting all along, the cast was huge: there were 13 of them; plus they had two political advisors on the credits as well. The episode opened with a real whack of modernity with the characters names and a soundbite from them (I thought at first this was a "previously on Number 10" type opening, but it wasn't. This is, after all, Radio 4; we can remember what happened, without being reminded!). In many ways, it felt more like a television programme than a radio play. Indeed, if you're thinking of something to compare it to, you're going to be mentioning, Yes, Minister, The Thick of It and The West Wing.

Coming into it this late, I felt a little lost from the statr. Adam Armstrong seemed to be a decent sort of chap, but I naturally sided with new PM Simon Laity. His slight confusion and desire for everything to be right was easier for a new listener than Armstrong's seasoned cynicism. Perhaps this was the same for new viewers of The Thick of It, who would be drawn to new minister Nicola Murray in the latest season. On the subject of The Thick of It, I wasn't sure at first if Number 10 knew it was trying to do. Was it following the ministerial wranglings of Malcolm Tucker or was it going for the drama and gravitas of Josiah Bartlet in The West Wing. At one point, ministerial aides are trying to avoid a moth being named after the PM because it is "a shit eater". Next we discover a suicide room in Downing Street for the PM and his family. As it turned out, these never existed, but were part of a lesson from the outgoing PM to his successor.

It's interesting to hear a radio series that has been inspired by TV programmes. Usually, the progression goes the other way; Little Britain went from radio to TV, as did The Mighty Boosh, 15 Stories High, On the Hour, Alan Partridge, That Mitchell and Webb Sound and Delve Special (to name but a few). Number 10 certainly had the feel of a TV programme; even the narrator reading out the location and time felt more like watching than listening. At the same time, though, there were moments when I felt the cast were delivering lines one after another. Don't get me wrong: Antony Sher as the Prime Minister was wonderful, but everyone took it in turns to have their say. Perhaps this is something of a limitation with radio drama since it's more important to understand what everyone is saying. Nevertheless, there were a couple of occasions when I felt the dialogue could have been freed up a bit; maybe comparing it with The Thick of It is a bit unfair, since the latter is partly adlibbed and improvised and cut very cleverly to create that breathless, "real" feel.

I've been listening out for this week for character names. I don't know if it's something about me, maybe I have to put names to faces, but I find it very difficult to remember names in Afternoon Plays. Perhaps it's because they're only 45 minutes, or maybe it's because the characters all have such bland names. In some ways, this was no exception (when it comes to names, Adam certainly falls into the category of bland). However, I felt there was more to these characters than just these 45 minutes. Perhaps this was because I knew this was a series, but I got a sense that things had happened to these characters that we weren't hearing. A Winter Storm had this effect a little and there I put that down to its adaptation from a short story. Here the characters seemed richer, and I remembered the names of the two PM's (Simon Laity, obviously, has the advantage of sharing a name with me). While taken on its own, the episode felt as if it was concluding things bigger than itself, it did inspire me to want to listen to more.

I have, now, another admission to make. Having said at the beginning of this review that it is impossible to get hold of previous episodes of this, I managed to get hold of the previous episodes. Listening to them, even out of order, the whole thing became much richer. The third episode, in particular, really passed the 'car park test' (or more accurately made me miss my tube stop. I ended up in Bank and had to use the fabled interchange with Monument). Whereas most of the episodes featured political sidestepping within Downing Street, this episode was different. There were only really three characters: The Prime Minister, the Angolan ambassador and the Prime Minister's spokesman.

Angolan troops had moved into the British territory of St Helena. Was China involved? Was this a modern-day Cuban Missile Crisis, with Angola working with China and Britain working with America? News came through that the Angolans shot down a British plane and injured the pilot:
You and me. We're going to sit here without all these people passing us notes, looking for reasons to say no. And we're going to find a solution, because if you don't let me go and in and pick up my airman hostilities will commence. If that man dies or is taken prisoner we will launch the military offensive we have been hoping to avoid. We will launch it instantly. No UN sponsored talks and immediate state of war.
The play was a tense, claustrophobic and powerful drama. There was a sophisticated, twisting plot, riddled with wonderful moments. Take, for example, the moment the PM stood up to the US Deputy Secretary of State for interrupting the negotiations:
But at least have the decency when you walk into my negotiations in my country when I am bargaining for the safe release of 4000 my citizens and 48 square miles of my territory to treat me like an elected head of state!
Things came to a head when Britain sent in an unarmed rescue helicopter, despite threats from the Angolans that they would shoot down anything in their airspace. I'll freely admit that I felt tears pricking my eyes as the PM ordered the rescue helicopter to keep going, despite the fact both he and they knew the Angolans had weapons locked onto it. The lives of the pilots depended on the two people locked in argument in the Swedish embassy.

This episode really showed radio drama at its best. Indeed, once you'd heard this, the subsequent episodes became richer and more meaningful. Over this week it's become apparent that your engagement with them depends entirely on your relationship with the characters. This isn't the biggest revelation ever, but it's amazing how true it is. Take Monday's disappointing mess: the real problem was that 15 minutes just doesn't give enough time to form a proper relationship with the characters. Compare that with 5x45 minute episodes. That space really allows the characters to grow and develop. Even if you don't hear every episode, you can feel that depth of character. So when you do listen to them all, you really end up with an engrossing and powerful drama.

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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