Phonophone by Timothy X. Atack

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Phonophone by Timothy X. Atack. Dir. Marc Beeby. Perf. Priyanga Burford, Tracy Wiles, Erich Redman. BBC Radio 4, 16 Feb. 2015. BBCiPlayer to 18 Mar. 2015.

I recently came across an article from The Independent published in July 2014 that lambasted BBC Radio Drama output. "15-Minute Drama" was spoiled by "excruciating artifice and exposition," while the Afternoon Play slot was dominated by plays "invariably set in a zoo, or a doctor's waiting room, or an allotment, and contains a surfeit of daft accents and ostentatiously creaking doors." (

I wonder what this reviewer would have made of "Phonophone." Taking as its starting-point the idea that a phonophone was a device allowing for the transmission of speech on a beam of light (later called a radiophone), Timothy X. Atack's drama offered a paean of praise for music, both as an art-form and as a means of communication.

The action was built around a detective-story format in which Renwick (Tracy Wiles) and her sidekick Muxlow (Shaun Mason) investigated the murder of a musician, in which the only clue was a mysterious text-message that said "Phonophone Active." With a doggedness characteristic of most media sleuths, they pursued various leads in a picaresque adventure that brought them into contact with a variety of colorful personalities, most notably Grandma (Souad Faress), who bore an alarming aural resemblance to Meera Syal playing the grandmother in "Goodness Gracious Me."

The solution, if there can be said to be one, lay in the notion that "murder," understood as the deliberate taking of one person's life by another, did not really have any significance in this case. The detectives discovered that it was far more important to reflect on the spiritual (or should we say inexpressible) value of music and its effect on the soul. They were invited to consider ontological issues such as the purpose of life and how individuals might leave their mark on posterity.

Marc Beeby's production proved once more - if ever listeners needed confirmation - that radio has the unique capacity to create alternative worlds in which previously-recognized distinctions between "imagination" and "reality" have absolutely no significance. Listeners are invited to respond to the action at a subliminal rather than an intellectual level; rather than looking for easily identifiable "meanings," they are encouraged to let the soundscapes wash over them. The "Afternoon Drama" offers a cornucopia of aural experiences, if only we are prepared to give it a chance.