Radio Drama - Mythos by Julian Simpson

If it can be said that I ever cut any of my teeth anywhere, I cut my writing teeth in radio drama. Radio was my first passion. 

Taking possession of an old hand-held transistor radio from my parents, I listened to the Radio Plays on BBC Radio 4 from an untenably young age, investing in the Radio Times to mark up what was coming in the next week. 

When I wasn’t allowed to watch a grown up movie on television, I retired to my bed and listened to it on the VHF band of my radio instead.

Lately I’ve gone back to spec radio writing with a vengeance and I am loving the revisiting of that ‘unleashed’ feeling it gives me. I think my radio writing has coloured every other kind of writing I’ve done since. Certainly in the theatre work I find I have an ingrained aversion to the use of any kind of complex set, preferring instead a couple of stools or a single chair. In radio, as with books, the audience/readership brings its own sets, its own costumes, its own lighting. It’s quite different from cinema or television where the entire meal is spoon fed to you. In radio, theatre and books, you have to do some of the cooking yourself and the experience can often be all the richer for it.

In the midst of this renewed radio obsession, I was delighted to see Julian Simpson roll up with the second and third episode of his new ‘Mythos’ series on BBC Radio 4 this week. Tuesday started off with a rerun of the first episode then Wednesday and Thursday brought the new stories. If you want to hear it, I believe it stays on the BBC iPlayer for another twenty days or so. Here in Ireland, we don’t get the TV version of iPlayer but the Radio stuff works just fine so it is possible that these plays can be listened to all over the world. Here’s a link to the page. I can’t guarantee it will work for you, dear resident of Western Samoa, but it’s worth a shot. 

Julian Simpson is a writer I admire. He’s been kind enough to chat to me on the ‘Social Media’s for the last ten years or so and perhaps that’s given me a front row seat to his work. Still, though, I can’t help but feel if there was no connection, I would still be envious of the ambition, wit and intelligence he brings to all of his work. Even if you don’t know his name (you probably do) you will probably have absorbed his work when remarking that a particular week’s episode of Spooks or Old Tricks was  exceptionally clever. That will most likely have been him. One also senses that even greater plans are currently being hatched among the unsuspecting denizens of North London so watch that space.

Mythos is great fun and one senses that JS had great fun writing it. The rough conceit is one of a team of Government-affiliated guardians who try to hold a line between the world we all know and an endless stream of alternate worlds which are shaped and coloured by our collective mythology and folklore. That’s a mouthful but basically it’s a conceit that allows some contemporary, slightly world weary, characters to come up against the great and good of our beloved monsters and heroes of yore. 

It’s hard not to think of how Douglas Adams reached out to the stars and made such fun out of them. JS reaches in to our folklore and does the same.

For me, though, the series successfully evokes the original ‘Avengers’ series much more than ‘Hitchhikers’. And, no, I don’t mean Iron Man and The Hulk et all. I'm talking about the John Steed/Emma Peel version which I grew up with. Tim McInnerny’s ‘Johnson’ character has, for me at least, some of the Steed DNA in him. Tim does a super job in these plays as, of course, does Nicola Walker and Phoebe Fox. It’s a truly great cast which includes Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s Jana Carpenter who plays Libby in the second episode and who I like for all kinds of reasons, none of which need concern the writer/director.

JS is a damn clever fellow and although he wears that lightly on his sleeve he can’t help but showing it in his writing. As a result there is one hell of a lot of stuff going on here. At face value, it’s a ‘steampunkish’ romp through time and fable but scratch the surface and there is perhaps some deeper political punches being landed too. 

One of the things Julian deliberately does is to draw back the veil of the narrative structure to show us, the audience, some of the workings beneath. I wonder if this is almost a sub-conscious effort to show us how he understands, all too well, the limitations of the narrative structure he is working within or whether it’s an entirely conscious wink to the audience saying, ‘this is just a bit of a lark, let’s get on with it’. Whatever the reason, I found it a tiny bit jarring. Audiences have an ingrained knowledge of their stories and, deep in their, hearts, they know how these stories must unfold. To open those stories up, mid tale, is a little like a magician showing how a trick is done or some exotic dancer (male or female, take your pick) peeling back their skin to flash the glistening muscle and tendon that lies beneath. I realise this is the writer’s intent and that this ‘desire for story’ lies at the very heart of the concept. I just think that when this conceit is extended into the actual story being told, that may be even a little too ‘meta’ for me. 

The very nature of these plays brings challenges, particular in Radio, and nobody sees this clearer than JS. There is an immense amount of business to be done in the forty-four minute running time. As a result, the drama unfolds rather breathlessly. Super-smart lines which might have benefited from a split second pause and an invisible, virtual, nod to camera, can not be permitted this luxury. The narrative simply must barrel along. One could see this format convert well to TV, where an extra fifteen minutes on the run time would give JS enough room to add an additional beat or two or even a ‘middle eight’ pause before barrelling on again. It is clear that there just wasn’t enough space in the timeframe to do all that. Despite that, the often-frenetic pace at which proceedings unfold is really very charming and it would be a shame to lose it completely.

Another great challenge of the concept is the large amount of exposition which must be imparted in each episode. Parts 2 and 3 were somewhat liberated, in this regard, as the world had been well-established in Part 1. Still, though, there is lots that has to be told and the characters take turns at telling it. In doing so, JS employs a knowing, almost-apologetic, tone which seems to say, ‘here we go again with the exposition, we know it’s a bit of a pain but it has to be done’. Much fun is had with this ploy although the fact that a number of characters employ it does sometimes lead to a touch of ‘tone-borrowing’ where the characters occasionally start to sound a bit alike.

For me, the biggest challenge in carrying off future episodes of ‘Mythos’ lies in the questions of Risk and Consequences. A great universe has been firmly established where almost anything can, and probably will, happen. However, there also appears to be infinite opportunities for escape and ‘do-overs’ within the rules of this new universe. The dead might be dead but not really all that gone. A universe can be destroyed but, wait, there’ll be another one along in a minute. Something I struggle with, in my own attempts at drama, is the ‘All is Lost’ moment where there really seems to be no way back (although somewhere/somehow there always is). With the three Mythos plays, due to a combination of an infinite number of options and the very pace of the action, there is always the feeling that everything will be all right and that it will be all right quite soon now. Knowing JS’s work, I know that if he had a little more time to work with, a greater sense of risk and consequences would quickly be instilled in the drama. 

I recommend you have a listen to the first of the plays via the iPlayer and see if you are engaged and entertained as I certainly was. As I said earlier, JS is a smart, smart fellow with a lot more to say and do. I feel that, in listening to these plays, you may find yourself on the fourth or fifth floor of an elevator that is very soon and very rapidly going all the way to the top.


Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve left myself a note to look for that play tomorrow. It’s the kind of thing I could do in the early hours of the morning when I’m on my own. I sometimes dip into iPlayer in the early hours—I watched Mark Kermode review Avengers: Infinity War a couple of hours ago—but we watch enough TV as it is during the evening and my nights are for other stuff. I just wish I could play music at night but I couldn’t enjoy it for worrying I might wake Carrie. And even the play if I get round to it I’ll listen to with one ear so I can hear if she gets up. We have our wee routines and whenever I hear the bedroom door I rush through to switch the hall light on for her, relieve her of her Kindle and glasses and put the kettle on. I mean she copes fine when she gets up and I’m still sleeping (it does happen) but these little fussies, if I can twist a word to my own end, matter to me.

I’ll be honest I’ve never listened to much radio drama. I don’t even listen to music on the radio these days. The only radio play I can recall going out of my way to listen to was a Canadian production of Waiting for Godot and all I can remember about it was the speed they delivered their lines. Way too fast. I, of course, have the CDs of all of Beckett’s actual radio plays. I listened to them once and that was me. I find radio plays demand a great deal of attention, far more than TV. I can’t do other things while I’m listening to just voices and the more characters the harder I find it. I have the same problem reading plays. I just struggled through Three One-Act Plays by Woody Allen and I really only enjoyed the first one because for the most part there’re only the two characters talking. Christ knows why I conceived Vladimir and Estragon are Dead as a radio play but it’s still my preferred version. I added the visuals to give me the option of a stage production and then—typical me—did nothing with it.

I think I might’ve listened to an episode of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy just out of curiosity but that’d be after watching the TV adaptation and reading the novelisation so it was so much easier having visuals fixed in my head. I say I’m not a visual writer but maybe I’m more of a visual reader/listener than I realised.

Julian Simpson is not a name that calls out to me though. I do pay attention to writers and directors but he’s not one I recognise although we did watch every episode of New Tricks faithfully and it was never less than entertaining.

Ken Armstrong said...

It sounds like you need a nice set of headphones, Jim. I have a good, wireless, Sennheiser set that I mostly use to watch telly when everyone else is in bed. I can rev them as high as I like and nobody cares. :)

Jim Murdoch said...

By sheer coincidence I did happen to buy a new set of headphones yesterday. My first foray into Bluetooth technology. But I still have no experience of 3G, let alone 4G. An early adopter I most certainly am not. The headphones were a pleasant surprise and it was nice to be able to wander back and forth to my office without the need for a long cable to get entangled in. I still only listened in one ear but that proved adequate. I’m not short of headphones by the way. I have a set within reach beside all the spots I work—so that would be four sets—but none of them are very posh. I really don’t have—I suppose the word for it would be ‘refined’—hearing. FLAC is lost on me but so is HiDef to be honest.

Anyway I listened to the play. Reminded me very much of Douglas Adams in tone—I’m thinking more Dirk Gently than Hitchhiker’s Guide mind—but that’s not a bad thing. There was no pussyfooting around was there? Straight into the action and woe betide the listener who can’t keep up but that seems to be the style nowadays, to hit the ground running. I expect I’ll give the second one a go later this morning.

Ken Armstrong said...

I think it's a quote for the poster "There was no pussyfooting around." :)