The week in radio and podcasts: The Piper; Tracks: Abyss; High Strangeness – review
Here are not one but three surprisingly great, subtly spooky British audio dramas to take you through lockdown
The Piper BBC Sounds
Tracks BBC Sounds
High Strangeness Audible
We all need a break from the real world of rain-lashed walks and watching the US smash itself into little pieces, so I am very happy to say: I have some great UK audio drama series for you.
I know! A sentence that, from start to finish, I never imagined I could ever write. British audio drama has been crocky and old-fashioned for years (was anyone surprised that The Archers’ first lockdown was so immensely switch-offable?), but recent podcast drama series have given the medium a kick up its hoo-ha. Especially spooky podcast dramas. Audio means you don’t have to use special effects to create a terrifying other world, merely the right sounds and the listener’s imagination, and from Alice Isn’t Dead on, it has been the off-kilter shows that have worked the best.
For anyone who likes creeping dread, The Piper, just out on BBC Sounds, is excellent. I listened without reading anything at all about it, and found the first episode a little hard to follow. But once I’d sorted out all the characters’ relationships to each other, I was away. (Anyway, it’s nice not to have every element spoon-fed; it keeps you concentrating.) Set in Kent, it’s a tale of disappearing children, with Tamzin Outhwaite as Ali, a detective who’s trying to work out who, or what, is taking them. Outhwaite is very good, as are all the actors (the kids are great), and, though there are a couple of yeah-right moments, there aren’t many.
Writers Vickie Donoghue and Natalie Mitchell know how to keep things real-but-unreal, and the acting, plotting and atmosphere keep everything lickety-splitting along. Music is important – there’s a piano riff that the children keep hearing – and the producers have cleverly got Natasha Khan, AKA Bat for Lashes, to compose the moody soundtrack. Actually, the repeated piano motif reminded me a little of the scary TV shows of my youth, and there’s something of Tales of the Unexpected about The Piper, though it’s far slicker and more detailed (we know it’s a weekend evening because we hear the Strictly theme tune). The pacing of information is interesting: the kids, and the listener, work out what’s happening far earlier than the adults. This keeps you engaged, in that “Don’t do that, you wally!” manner of horror films. The fear of losing children is one that will twist any parent’s stomach, and the “He’s here…” element is one that never fails to frighten.
Another longer but no less excellent drama is Tracks. The first episodes of the fifth series, Abyss, started a couple of weeks ago, and, as ever, this is a gripping tale of weirdness, coincidence and conspiracy theories. Written by Matthew Broughton, this show started in 2016, with Romola Garai as Helen Ash, a GP with a less than sensitive bedside manner who gets involved in a plane crash that sets her looking for her father.
Tracks is one of the dramas that thoroughly bum-kicked the old school, and previous series won British podcast awards and were a hit on iTunes, while dragging listeners all over the shop. (The second series, Strata, which I enjoyed, though others rated less highly, gave us a prequel, with a small boy being swallowed by a Welsh hillside.) We’ve had impossible pregnancies, fishy car crashes, bad government workers and much sea involvement, as well as an uneasy sense of time shifting and dark forces at work (they’re always “at work”, aren’t they?). In series three, Garai was replaced by Hattie Morahan, before returning for series four; this series has Olivia Poulet as poor old Helen, now with only a few months to live and getting strange email messages from her dead father. The sound, characterisation and ambience of Tracks, as well as the brilliant storytelling, makes this one of the best long-running audio dramas ever.
Still on a spooky note, but this time with added laughs, Audible’s High Strangeness is a daft paranormal drama that has Cassie, played by Sophie McShera, chasing weird events for her sci-fi/strange happenings vlog. She hooks up with Glen (Adam James), a worldweary US agent whose job is to close down any paranormal events. McShera gives it a lot of gusto and this is a funny show that plays on familiar stereotypes (country bumpkins, mad cults). It’s like Doctor Who for your ears: upbeat, quick-witted, not really scary, but immensely enjoyable.
Content retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2020/nov/07/the-piper-bbc-tamzin-outhwaite-natasha-khan-tracks-abyss-review-high-strangeness-soundhouse-intimacy-and-distance-resonance-extra-radio-lento.