Saturday, April 18, 2015

“Beyond Endurance” and BBC's Drama of the Week Podcast

Dominic West plays Ernest Shackleton in Meredith Hooper's radio play "Beyond Endurance" on BBC's Drama of the Week

I'm writing this from Toronto, Canada. Many years ago, our national broadcaster (CBC) pulled the plug on spending for the production of radio drama. It was, in retrospect, the exact worst time to do so. Given the media landscape and the rising popularity of podcasting and archived content, interesting, relevant and new audio drama could have been a popular and important part of the CBC's content mix. This, however, is not a lament about the (mis)management of the CBC. It's a look at another national broadcaster's continued commitment to audio drama: namely, the BBC. And more specifically, since I'm writing this from the other side of the pond, I want to talk about the free BBC podcast Drama of the Week, which can be found in iTunes. 

A particularly strong radio play called "Beyond Endurance" dropped this week, which spurred me to write this. Based on letters and diaries of the men from Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated 1914 expedition across the Antarctic, writer and historian Meredith Hooper weaves a compelling story using the explorer's actual words. The (45min) production has a strong cast of seasoned (and recognizable) British actors including Dominic West (The Wire, The Affair). Subtle use of sound effects and ambient recordings help to transport the listener to the desolate locale of the Antarctic. The actual events are the stuff of a classic adventure story – a group of men in a claustrophobic setting, fighting for their survival against one of the harshest landscapes in the world.

If you're not familiar with the story of the Shackleton expedition, you'll learn a lot about it through this play. Let's put it this way: things do not go well. On their way to find the shoreline of the Antarctic, the boats are frozen into ice floes. They are stranded at sea, desperately trying to keep their vessels from becoming wrecks in the violently shifting ice. When they finally make shore, it's not clear how they'll ever get out. Struggling with extreme cold, diminishing rations and health problems the team does what it can to survive – like killing and eating thousands of penguins and using the pelts as camp fuel. When things are really desperate, Shackleton and a small crew leave the others behind and set off to try and bring help back. But will he make it? And what if he doesn't? You might just want to listen to this drama to find out.

The 'Endurance' drifted, trapped in ice, from January-October 1915.

Every podcast publisher can decide how long episodes will be available for. In the case of the BBC Drama of the Week, episodes are available for a month before they drop off the archive. Once they fall off the archive the only way to hear them is to buy them. So, if you want to hear "Beyond Endurance," you should get on that soon. It's also available for a few more weeks on the BBC website

As a Canadian it's hard to imagine the scale of a culture machine that can crank out so many radio dramas a week that they could even have a curated podcast called “Drama of the Week." (The producers select their content from among the several weekly programmes currently running on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4.) It is a system that is continually commissioning new work from writers and paying for full productions to go to air. The calibre of the actors involved in these productions also illustrates that radio in the UK is not seen as a lesser cousin of TV. It continues to be a respected and valued art form with a long tradition of its own – as well as a fertile creative place where writers can take risks without the burden of TV (or theatre) production budgets to worry about. 

I'll admit that when I turn to audio content I want something that has a strong story at the centre. I want to get sucked in and lose myself in a yarn. I don't care so much that it be important or challenging. Now, I am not sure what the selection process is that the BBC uses to pick a radio play for Drama of the Week, but workaday, yet entertaining, shows like detective stories, don't often make the cut. Actually, a lot of the stuff that doesn't make the cut is probably stuff that I would love to hear. 

But in a system that produces so many detective stories, content like that wouldn't stand out in the way that "Beyond Endurance" does. Or, say, a serious drama about surrogacy. Drama of the Week, as a podcast, for that reason, can be a bit hit-or-miss from an entertainment perspective. I wish there was a second version of this podcast called "Most Entertaining Drama of the Week." But beggars can't be choosers. When BBC's Drama of the Week is good, it is usually great. My recommendation is to subscribe to the podcast in iTunes and pick and choose – wait for the great ones to drop. Because they will.

Sean Rasmussen is a Toronto-based digital communications consultant, media enthusiast, and freelance radio producer. Twitter: @Sean_Rasmussen.

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