The week in audio: Siege; Archive on 4: Wonderlands; Backlisted; Headwaters; Absolute Radio Natalie

A new Radio 4 thriller electrified; Frank Cottrell-Boyce made a compelling case for children’s books; and a charming listener got to run her own station for the day

Limelight: Siege (Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
Archive on 4: Wonderlands (Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
Backlisted |
Headwaters (Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
Absolute Radio Natalie (Bauer Media) |

Well, shake up my prejudices and slap on my headphones, there was such a great drama series on Radio 4 last week. Modern, real, exciting; great acting, careful sound design, gripping plot. I know! No surprise, though, when you see the writers. Siege is co-written by Katherine Jakeways, who gave us the station’s meet-cute-then-what series Where This Service Will; Darragh Mortell, who wrote the Prix Europa-winning I Am Kanye West, also for Radio 4; and Eno Mfon, whose one-woman stage play about skin bleaching, Check the Label, was turned into a Channel 4 short. Their considerable forces created a five x 30-minute thriller, produced by BBC Cymru Wales, that zoomed straight on to my best of the year list. Bet you it’s still there in 10 months’ time too.

The plot is essentially a remix of the 1973 Norrmalmstorg bank robbery and hostage-taking crisis in Sweden that gave the world the concept of Stockholm syndrome. Siege moves the action to a contemporary London mini-market, where five very different people are doing a lunchtime shop when an armed robber strikes. From there, the drama doesn’t cleave too closely to the real event, but there are certain elements that chime: surprised hostages, rolling TV coverage, money demands, the hint of a gas attack. Oh, and sympathy for the bad guy. That sympathy isn’t just from the hostages either; as the tension mounts, we too start to feel for the captor’s plight.

It’s not the hostage-taker that we hear from, however, but the six people captured (the shoppers and a security guard). From the start, their characters shine; just the way they speak makes them realistic. You’re gripped by them, during the twists and turns, the jokes (there’s a great one about paper bags), the arresting imagery… right up to the end, which doesn’t do what you expect. Siege is a character study, a state-of-the-nation commentary and a white-knuckle edge of your seater, all in one. It’s part of Radio 4’s newish Limelight podcast strand, which has certainly pepped up the station’s drama, so hooray to the commissioners for that.

Frank Cottrell Boyce presented Archive on 4’s Wonderlands.
Frank Cottrell Boyce presented Archive on 4’s Wonderlands. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

Great writing is, of course, where all drama begins, and the writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce made a case for children’s books in Wonderlands, last Saturday’s Archive on 4. His contentions – that children’s books are as good, if not better than many adult novels, and that Britain is a world leader at writing for kids – were strongly made, and there were some lovely moments. Publisher Barry Cunningham started his career dressed up as a puffin, for the Puffin Club, from the children’s book imprint: “Actually, it’s a remarkably intimate activity,” he said. “Children tend to tell you their secrets.”

While we’re on book tips, Cottrell-Boyce has been a guest on Backlisted, the immensely popular podcast that discusses old books. I haven’t listened for a while, but revisited, to check how it’s doing. Fine, is the answer: hosts John Mitchinson and Andy Miller are as jovial and clever as ever, the conversation informed and flowing. Cottrell-Boyce (yes, I’m a FCB fan: listen to his Desert Island Discs to become one, too) was part of a moving discussion of E Nesbit’s The Railway Children. The other guest was Katherine Rundell, author of Rooftoppers, another children’s book that wipes the floor with most adult novels. She was moved to tears, more than once, during the chat. That’s what great writing can do.

The BBC has always revered writing (over, say, art or music), and Radio 4 has long been peppered with literary programmes. A glance at last week’s schedule gives us Bookclub, A Good Read, Poetry Please, Lemn Sissay’s Poetry Rebels, as well as the actual reading-out-loud of books at 9.45am and midday every day. More literature, too, in Headwaters, a one-off R4 programme about stream-of-consciousness writing, hosted by Rebecca Watson, author of the everything-in-one-day novel Little Scratch. Nice use of music and some excellent archive material, including Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot and James Joyce, made this an easy listen. While we’re on books, BBC Arts has a chatty new book offering, Turn Up for the Books, with some good guests such as Skin and the Rev Richard Coles. But the show isn’t quite there yet. Hosts Irenosen Okojie, Dan Smith and Simon Savidge need to perk up their presentation a little and be more specific in their opinions. At the moment, there are too many platitudes for this show to be useful.

Natalie Cole in the studio at Absolute Radio.
‘A radio natural’: listener Natalie Cole in the studio at Absolute Radio. Photograph: Absolute Radio

Enough bookery. Let’s talk straightforward radio, shall we? A few days ago, Absolute brought a brilliant idea to reality: Absolute Radio Natalie, where they gave an Absolute listener, Natalie Cole, her own station for a day. What a sweet concept, and Natalie was an excellent choice. Obsessed by singalong tunes, helped by the regular presenters, she proved a radio natural, especially great with guest Liam Gallagher: “I kind of want to have a swear-off.”

There are some interesting radio ideas out there at the moment. Ex-talkRadio host Iain Lee has a phone-in show on Radio Anywhere, an online station he’s started; and Shaun Keaveny, previously of 6 Music, has booted up his own, one-day-a-week station too, Community Garden Radio. Talented radio people creating not only the programmes they want to hear but the stations too: more power to them.


Miranda Sawyer

The GuardianTramp

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