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Murder on Air/ The Theatre Royal Brighton

Murder on Air is an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of  Agatha Christie radio plays on air. It does not really work. Once you get over the interest of the effects being created by someone in the corner you are left with actors walking up to their microphones and delivering the lines. This inevitably is static as to create authenticity they read from scripts.

One of the joys of radio is that you have to use your own imagination and picture a character from the voice. The dramas themselves were actually quite clever. In Personal Call a wife from the dead calls up her husband; Yellow Iris featured Hercule Poirot at a restaurant dinner party solving a murder. Butter is Lordly Dish also examines retribution and miscarriage of justice. Tom Conti, an excellent actor, was able to showcase his talent as a rich businessman in Yellow Iris and then as Hercule Poirot, though Suchet has made the role definitive. In the final play he acts the role of Luke Enderby KC, a successful criminal barrister, off for a philandering weekend which does not go as planned. When I was a child I used to love the Paul Temple mysteries written by Francis Durbridge. A few years ago I heard one again and was still impressed. Each episode finished with a twist which made one yearn for the next. Writing a radio play demands great skill. Durbridge did so some television work but wisely he did not try to adapt a radio play to the theatre.

It’s much  better to go behind the scenes as in the Hancock spoof on the Archers called The Bowmen in which Tony Hancock wrote off Sidney James, as he did in real life. Hancock plays country bumpkin Joshua Merriweather so disliked by the  cast they kill him off. However the radio audience did not share this dislike, Hancock returns as long-lost twin brother, and the whole village fall  into a mine shaft to be replaced by Merriweather’s relatives, all played by Hancock.

The Frank Marcus play The Killing of Sister George is even more subtle. Sister George, a much loved district nurse, is away from her radio persona – a cigar-chomping cruel woman – who takes out much of her bile, when she is killed off, on her lesbian lover. The play in which the recently-passed Beryl Reid gave a marvellous depiction of George avoided any censorship issues as there was never any reference by word or act to lesbians but the film version directed by Robert  Aldrich fell foul of the censors. Sadly Murder on Air does not explore the hinterland of the radio drama but just goes for a faithful representation. The only real benefit I can see exists  for the Christie buffs, as the plays are relatively unknown since they were written by her for the radio, as well as others by the crime writers of the Detection Club, an invitation only association of detective writers that still exists today.

About Tim Holford-Smith

Despite running his architectural practice full-time, Tim is a frequent theatre-goer and occasional am-dram producer. More Posts