Radio Shows – The Critical Review

Radio. A lost art. Violently murdered whilst sleeping in it’s bed, by something called ‘video’ in the eighties (much to the amusement of the subsequent ‘MTV’ generation). Now, a strange world, and a funny place to find yourself in.

Radio is a no-man’s land for me. It seems like something that older people would use. The reliance on the imagination, focus and intelligence of the listener also makes today’s radio shows seem like they’re aimed at middle-to-upper class demographics.

Over the summer, I was asked to write a critical review for both a radio comedy (Chain Reaction on BBC Radio 4 – Ronnie Ancona interviews Lee Mack), and a radio drama (John Buchan’s ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps on BBC Radio 7). Chain Reaction is a series, in which comedians interview each other. The Thirty-Nine Steps was a two-part drama, featuring Tom Baker in the lead role.

Both were recent productions, and both shows were introduced verbally by the radio presenter. The publicity for both shows was only ever aimed at radio listeners, however. With only a few exceptions, I never hear radio shows being advertised on TV or in the cinemas. There are only a few advertisements online, despite the audience the internet allows for. This suggests that perhaps radio is considered a detached medium of media, which you as a media consumer will either use, or won’t.

Once introduced, Chain Reaction went straight into cheesy music, and an applause from a live audience. The cheesy music was in similar vein to that of The One Show, setting the tone for a nice, gentle, good-humoured show. A voice over (not the radio presenter) introduced the interviewee and the recipient. After the clapping had died down, the interview commenced in earnest.

The language used was informal, friendly, and sometimes comedic. The questions that Lee Mack was asked at first appeared random, but as the interview proceeded, it was clear the questions had been constructed in a biography-style structure (ie: questions about Mack’s childhood were asked first).

Each question lead to an answer which told a story, often with Lee Mack’s usual tint of humour being used to make his answers more entertaining. Every joke was greeted by laughter from the live audience, which helped to a picture a TV show studio in the mind’s eye, and made me wonder why they hadn’t just made this series for TV in the first place.

The personalities were likable, with Lee Mack often communicating with the audience to add extra humour to his one-liners. These were in the forms of comments, or rhetorical questions. Both parties spoke clearly, and I also noted that the questions and topics were simple, and were answered with relatively simple words.  The show picked up more after the first ten minutes, as the duo seemed to relax into their roles a little more, and there was more ‘bounce’ in the two-way conversation.

The microphone had it’s ambience turned up to pick up the words clearly, but as a result, often picked up unwanted background noise as well (eg: a cup falling on the floor). Technically, the design was fairly simple, as it focused around two people talking.

I made an interesting observation in the way the interview was conducted. Lee Mack often went off on tangents in his responses. Being a stand-up, he is used to ad-libbing new material on the spot based on what he’s previously said. This meant that his answers probably often out-ran their original time. To combat this, the interviewee had to take control of the conversation back to keep it to the running order. She did this by simply stating the next subject area, and then elaborated on the topic by way of questions or commands. “eg. ‘ “Right, now. ‘Not Going Out’. Tell me about it.”

The contrast, ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’, was a drama and thus altogether different. There was a verbal introduction by the radio presenter, who warned of some of the content material (this was at 10:00am in the morning). The drama began straight away, with no introductory music or narration.

Immediately, you can hear the various sound effects being used. As this artefact is designed to tell a story that immerses the listener, sound effects are used in a different way to that of the interview. Sounds were used to ‘create’ the locations where the scenes took place – for example, a creaky old house or a bustling London street. In some ways, the sound effects acted as narration for the listener, as they informed the listener that the story was proceeding to a different location.

The vocal acting was very theatrical, and lacked the sincerity of the voices of the comedians in Chain Reaction. Accents were exaggerated almost to the point of comedic, somewhat taking the edge off what is usually a serious story. The theatrics were there to add life and emotion to the characters portrayed. Coupled with this was background music, which was used to add tension, or promote other emotions, dependant upon what the characters were saying.

An actual introduction to the drama occurred about seven minutes into the story. This helped me a lot as a listener – I felt that the drama had started so suddenly I was out of my depth. Despite knowing fully what the story is about (having seen three adaptations of the story myself), I still had difficulty differentiating who was who (another reason for the theatrical, over-the-top voice acting).

Narration then begun from the lead character (here played by the distinctive Tom Baker). I noted that occasionally there were pauses in the story, when there was nothing other than perhaps a continuation of background music. The pauses (sounds faded out and then faded back in) indicated a passage of time, meaning that the change of location was not a necessity to inform the listener that we were now further on in the narrative.

An observation here is that the conversations largely occurred between only two people at any one time, probably to avoid confusion. This also gave a rather by-the-motions mechanical feel to the drama, as two people would talk about stuff, the location would change, two people would talk about more stuff, there’d by some music and some sound effects, and then there’d be another two people.

This review teeters very close on becoming an essay on English Language, as I can comment on the vocabulary being more complex in the drama than it was during the interview (but keep in mind The Thirty-Nine Steps was first published in 1915). I chose not to do English Studies at degree level for a reason, so I’ll try to avoid any further elaboration here, although language is pivotal in both of these radio productions, as the spoken word is at the centre of both pieces.

Both artefacts featured some form of narrative, although looking around the BBC Radio websites, I found programmes that were merely topical shows (such as Stephen Fry’s English Delight). I would imagine the flexibility of radio shows is somewhat less than that of television shows, as it’s only really your ears and your imagination being used.

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