As much as I’ve been revelling in the recent rise of audio drama podcasts – in the diversity of stories and genres that this has also caused – I’ve rather been neglecting audio dramas from more conventional sources. Some of this has been for good reason – there was a definite need for new and innovative takes on audio drama that narrative podcasts have taken up and run with – but some of it was just because it had suddenly become much easier to find recommendations of things I would enjoy. Many moons ago, in an interview for a radio internship, I accidentally established myself as ‘the illusive Radio 7 listener’, I really don’t think the gentleman in question meant it as a compliment but nonetheless it was a distinction I wore with pride. So it makes me particularly wistful to think that since Radio 7 became Radio 4 Xtra, I’ve barely listened to the station. Occasionally I would put see a link to an interesting audio drama, bookmark it for later, but by the time I got round to it, it had expired.
In a happy confluence of events, I stumbled across a new one that took my fancy at the beginning of November – an excellent excuse to write about radio drama for Nablopomo if ever I saw one – in the shape of an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s How the Marquis Got His Coat Back which is the follow-up to Neverwhere a story that I love dearly already. Even better it was a stand-alone drama rather than a series, so no excuses there. (With sound design by Dirk Maggs! How could I resist.) And then finally a friend – who listens to screeds of audiobooks – has recently got into radio drama and was looking for recommendations, there was a time when I’d have been able to give her a list off the top of my head. All in all it was high time I got back into it.
On a purely performance basis, I was delighted that they got Patterson Joseph back to play the Marquis. My introduction to the strange and wonderful world of Neverwhere was the mid-90s TV series and the actor and the character are indelibly bound up together for me. (Whenever I read the book, I hear the Marquis’ lines in his voice.) To the extent that it would occasionally throw me off when listening to the recent Neverwhere adaption. I liked the way they handled the change in actors – both deft and knowing – and the way the voices of the two brothers complimented each other. Excellent casting work there. (For reasons unknown, Adrian Lester’s radio voice reminds me somewhat of Paul McGann – no bad thing in my opinion, as I could happily listen to the latter read the telephone directory – which I presume is stylistic thing, pitch and timbre and so on, given that Lester is from Birmingham and McGann from Liverpool. Either that or RADA does really odd things to Northern English accents.)
I think my favourite thing about Dirk Maggs’ radio drama adaptations is that he knows what to leave out. For all that I haven’t read the original short story that the play is based on – I understand its now often included with editions of Neverwhere, but my own copy was purchased nearly a decade before the sequel was published – I’m sure there must have been plenty of scenes cut along the way, but you don’t feels their absence. Like all of his adaptations that I’ve previously heard, it feels like a complete, even when I know where the seams should be, in the moment I cannot see where they are. A fealty to the essential essence of the original text; rather than the every word of it. This is reflected in the sound design, there’s a sparseness to the soundscape that conjures up perfectly the feeling of the locations the Marquis traverses, while leaving the aural foreground free for the actors to do their part. To let the dialogue sparkle and the performances shine.
All in all, it felt delightfully like stepping back into a familiar, if half-forgotten, world, not entirely unlike putting on a much beloved coat that you’d temporarily misplaced.