Radio that makes you feel the wind on your cheek

Kirsty Gunn’s spring walk for The Essay on Radio 3 was bracing, but is Radio 4’s commitment to drama on the wane?

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

After a walk in Richmond Park beset by rush-hour traffic, the Heathrow flight path and a strange swarm of flying ants (strange because so early in the year), it was unsettling to come back in and switch on and listen to Kirsty Gunn’s spring walk for this week’s The Essay on Radio 3 (which I heard as a preview but you can now catch on iPlayer). Gunn lives in Sutherland in the far north of Scotland close to the River Brora, and has a view from her back windows that stretches for 500 square miles with no other house or sign of human life in sight. ‘There’s nothing out there,’ Gunn told us, ‘except space and emptiness, light and land — and the weather.’ It’s a scene that’s unimaginable to those of us who live in south-east England — except that Gunn went on to describe her walk with such precision that it became more real in my mind than my own experience in Richmond Park.

Gunn steps out on her April afternoon, planning to walk until dusk. As she strides across the rough grass and heather into the emptiness of her view, the orange of a single leaf catches her eye. She finds herself tuning into the ‘miniature articulations of shape and petal and colour’ that bring life to this crushed landscape, savaged by winter cold but now springing back to green. She spots a clump of crimson moss, made more brilliantly red by its juxtaposition with the greyish rock and a trench of blackish water, surrounded by bright-yellow weeds. Such moments of vivid psychedelia remind her that she is walking ‘away from winter and into the summer solstice’.

Gunn, a poet and novelist, was talking from memory of that walk but she spoke with such colour, such invitation, that I could almost feel the wind on my cheek and see in my mind’s eye the subtlety of green, the burgeoning of life in small places. (The production was by Duncan Minshull.) Such moments of transference are why we radio keenies keep on listening, but for how much longer will time, money and resources be devoted to making radio of that quality in the quantity we have become used to on the BBC?

Drama budgets have been cut back drastically — and are still being cut. A quick flick through this week’s Radio Times reveals that almost half of the afternoon plays on Radio 4 are actually repeats. Short stories still feature in the schedules but in spite of the creation of the BBC Writers Room (which encourages young and undiscovered writers to produce new work, but not necessarily for radio) there is less new writing than ten years ago. In last week’s fanfare for future arts programming on the BBC, there was very little about radio, as if the BBC is already preparing to downgrade its audio output, recognising that you need to be at least 45 (and to have had a taste of children’s radio before it disappeared from the national networks) to have any interest in listening to drama, narrative, sound features on radio. Young and younger people do listen to radio but mostly to music, sport or chat, to the interactive experience.

You could argue that the daily edition of Hamlet in five parts last week on Radio 4 was a clear sign that there is still a real commitment to new drama productions, but Shakespeare’s plays are such a tough listen. They were written to be performed, and witnessed as a shared experience. How many unbelievers are likely to have been converted to radio’s rewards by listening to Shakespeare? How many will have kept on listening beyond ‘the skirts of Norway’ and Horatio’s detailed explanations of the state of Denmark?

At least The Divine Comedy, Dante’s epic poem and this week’s Classic Serial on Radio 4 (dramatised for radio by Stephen Wyatt), would first have been heard as an aural narrative. This makes it much easier to be drawn into, to keep listening. The single thread, the line of the narrative is compelling enough to hold your attention, the imagination held captive. It’s so easy, too, to identify with the story, that nightmare of being lost in the midst of life, of feeling at odds with the world, of being judged and found wanting. The younger Dante, who at 35 is ‘in the middle of the path we all must take’, finds himself lost in the middle of a dark wood. He is rescued by his hero Virgil, who turns up just in time to help his disciple find his way out. There’s rather a large snag, though. There’s only one exit and that is through the circles of Hell.

The production (by Marc Beeby and Emma Harding) created just the right amount of echoey vastness to take us on an audio journey into the nethermost regions, John Hurt gave us the older Dante as a gravelly voiced sage, while Priyanga Burford as the sultry Francesca di Rimini was all honeyed enchantment. Real radio at the touch of a button. We must fight to keep it.

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