RADIO FOUR THE MUSICAL? ABOUT TIME TOO
Radio 4 announcers tend to have a dry, contained sense of humour, honed by years in their lonely hutches listening to that most literate of networks, observing its idiosyncrasies and reading both news bulletins and programme introductions without ever betraying their secret opinions (you had to know the legendary Peter Donaldson for decades before you could detect the undertones of satire in his bland deep-brown announcements. Even then it was uncertain.)
So there is a real buzz in encountering, in this tiny adventurous producing-house, a comedy musical written by Kathy Clugston, one of those announcers. It has music and additional lyrics by Desmond O’Connor, and a spirit of mischievous affection shared utterly by her first-night audience . You knew she was preaching to the choir as soon as the defunct UK Theme, axed by Mark Damazer, began its Rule-Britannia chords before the start and everyone went “aaahhhh!”.
In moments we were into the first number, with John Humphrys and Jim Naughtie (Michael Fenton Stevens catching the Humph with uncanny accuracy and deadly humour) and Jonathan Dryden Taylor, who actually looks more like Peter Hobday but who got the monologuous questioning style bang on. And as the weatherman (Neil Ditt) and newsreader (Helena Blackman) sparred with authentic dawn ill-temper as the romantic juveniles, we learned the engine of the plot: that the Controller (Louise Plowright) was threatening dreadful cuts to the network, reducing the pips and abolishing Woman’s Hour and the Shipping Forecast.
To be honest, the first number and early minutes made me wonder whether it would sink beneath the weight of insider affection (though the wealth of groanworthy punning programme titles from an invisible Alice Arnold was fun from the start “The Classic serial will be – muesli”.). It is really more of a revue for R4 lovers, sending up musical-theatre itself and disguising a slightly too-fey plot with quick changes and daft beards. But Clugston’s strength is in big numbers, and some of them are lyrically brilliant. A trio led by Naughtie sings of a sneaky male addiction to Woman’s Hour; a marvellous interlude in the Pronunciation And Grammar Pedantry department hits many grudges about language (“What’s the use of saying utilize? And impact is not a verb!”) . It should be played on the real Radio 4 daily. Another showstopper is Humphrys’ confessing his secret love for scented candles, petting zoos and Michael Bublé.
There are flashes of real wickedness, not least the downfall of the evil Controller (Plowright storming the role) as she accepts the standard management punishment of being “moved to a higher position in aa different department”. So I was won right round. And in the style of the Shipping Forecast, whose fate provides a running theme , let’s just say:
General situation: Plot fair, occasionally rough. Scilly, gags advancing , becoming strong. Cast good becoming very good. Intermittent puns, poor becoming adorable. Over-Forties: very happy with occasional singalong. Outlook: possibly moving Westward. Good.
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