Aberystwyth Noir: It Ain’t Over till the Bearded Lady Sings

45 min. BBC Radio play from 2013 written by Malcolm Pryce using the characters and milieu from his series of humorous detective novels. It’s a comic private eye mystery set in a kind off-kilter alternate reality of the Welsh tourist town of Aberystwyth, involving the drive by, gangland murder of a local carnival owner, with suspects ranging from the misfit entertainers to the local gangsters — The Druids (who’ve changed a lot since the days of Stonehenge).

The hero is Louie Knight (Phylip Harries) a crusty private eye who finds himself joined by a spunky young girl sidekick, Calamity Jane (Catrin Stewart) — who’s been taking correspondence courses in being a detective.

The joke is partly taking the traditional, hardboiled American private eye story and transplanting it to the (supposedly) incongruous and innocuous setting of Aberystwyth, with the folksy Welsh accents, and where the local watering hole isn’t a sleazy bar — but an ice cream shop! Except it is a noir-ish Aberystwyth, with crime lords and murder around the corners. Admittedly, one could see the joke being a bit patronizing (I’m sure Wales is just as capable of being a setting for a serious private eye tale as anywhere else) but nonetheless works as a quirky spoof of the genre, with engaging characters/actors (particularly Stewart whose character might not even be in the novels), witty dialogue, and eccentric twists, while wryly having fun with the conventions of the genres (voiceover narration using overwrought metaphors).

An enjoyable, and oddly atmospheric, romp, set in this parallel universe Wales.

The Owl Service

90 min BBC Radio drama from 2008, it’s a sort of supernatural drama involving Welsh characters in modern times (more or less) but with its roots in old mythology. It’s a hard story to describe because, honestly, it’s hard to really get a grip on it, some of that relating to the material (it’s supernatural, with strange things occurring and people acting oddly — but I don’t think it’s really meant to be “spooky” or “scary” per se, more a soap opera/character drama with a subtext about class) but also to how it’s told, being kind of confusing (there’s a number of characters interacting but it took a long time to really figure out their relationships to each other, and even the age of the characters is unclear at first). The time span between scenes can be vague, and characters act odd and erratically, sometimes because of the supernatural stuff (maybe) and sometimes just because the writing seems inconsistent.

I had assumed the protagonists were adults but then, as the story progresses and they seem answerable to their parents and talk about school, I realized they were presumably teenagers (in radio you can’t see actors, so you’re just going by voices and clues in the dialogue).

Apparently it’s based on a 1967 young adult novel by Alan Barnes (knowing that, it makes the age of the characters more clear, and maybe explains the mildness to the supernatural stuff) which itself had been turned in to a TV mini-series decades ago. And maybe in a long form presentation, where you have time to get to know and like the characters, it works better. But here it was just something where, as I say, initially I was having trouble deciding what type of “genre” it wanted to be, and who the characters were…and then, once I had a better sense of all that, I realized I just didn’t care!

The Devil’s Music

BBC Radio drama from 2008, written by Alan Plater in three 45 minute episodes. The description can be a bit misleading, being about a modern day Welsh jazz musician who is told a tune she believes she is improvising actually dates back generations — a hook suggesting (at least to me!) maybe some sort of supernatural mystery (particularly with that title!) But it’s actually a sometimes light-hearted generational drama, the tune simply turning out to have been passed down through the family (so she realizes she must’ve just heard it as a child). And so she ends up learning about her unconventional family line (each woman in the family named Meghan — she’s Meghan V), and their association with music.

It’s basically a way of touching on 19th/20th Century history (post-slavery, suffragettes, unionism) and the roots of jazz as it relates to these women (the credits even acknowledge the script is based on historical research!) even getting into discussions of modern race relations. Funnily, Rakie Ayola — who appealingly voices Meghan V — is black but I was beginning to assume she was supposed to be playing a white character (being radio) since there was no mention of colour — until the final act when it is mentioned she’s black.

Despite some obvious, self-conscious earnestness, and quasi-educational aspects — it actually works as a kind of charming, low-key, quirkily light-hearted multi-generational drama, with a denouement that effectively brings things full circle. It actually held my attention better than some more obviously “dramatic” stories — perhaps helped by a good tempo and pacing and, as I say, a good-hearted charm. The likeable cast also includes Margaret John, Don Warrington, and others.