I like stories. Stories of the past, and stories of the future. Stories of real worlds and of fictional ones. Of flawed heroes and complex villains. As a child I experienced these stories through the books I read and the films and television shows I watched. Then, in my early teens I was introduced to yet another kind of storytelling–the audio play.
Audio plays are an aural form of storytelling that have been around since the 1920s. They were originally broadcast on the radio (they're also referred to as radio plays, audio dramas etc.) and were immensely popular in the pre-television eras of the 1930s and 40s. In an audio play stories are conveyed through sound alone i.e. through narration, dialogue, and sound effects. The rest is up to your imagination.
My first encounter with audio plays came via my friend Hannah. You know how in high school you have that friend? The one whose childhood was, in many ways, different to yours? Hannah was that friend. For example, when I was five years old I fell asleep at the cinema watching The Lion King. When Han was five years old she saw Alien for the first time. While I was being terrorised by an evil cartoon lion Hannah was witnessing the infamous chestburster scene. Like I said, slightly different experiences.
As our friendship developed she became my go-to friend for all things sci-fi, specifically the sci-fi of the 1970s and 80s, from Blake's 7 to Red Dwarf. One day she decided to introduce my sister and I to Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, an adaptation of the classic H. G. Wells novel (the official website calls it an 'album' but in my mind it will always be an audio play). It's a bizarre, fun concoction of progressive and symphonic rock, narrated by Richard Burton. Yes, that Richard Burton.
It would be another ten years before I encountered my next audio play–but once I was reintroduced I became hooked. Maybe you will too. Keep reading for some tips and recommendations for getting started.
First of all, BBC Radio 4* (and Radio 4 extra) is your new best friend. Their plays are available to stream free from their website (within a specific time period, often thirty days), and can be streamed from anywhere in the world. They have a range of categories, from period drama to science fiction to crime, all of which can be played on compatible smart phones, laptops, and tablets. There is currently a small range of Doctor Who episodes (starring the Fourth Doctor) available for streaming. They're also midway through a mini-series adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Eric (episodes one and two are currently available).
If you want to try the paid options, I recommend starting with Big Finish Productions, Audible.com, and iTunes**.
Big Finish produce both original and adapted content (including the previously mentioned Doctor Who episodes. They have a license to produce Doctor Who plays featuring many different incarnations of the Doctor). My favourite range is The Confessions of Dorian Gray, a series of plays based around the premise: what if Dorian Gray was a real (immortal) man whose life was the basis for his friend Oscar Wilde's famous novel? Some series feature Dorian recollecting select stories from his past–sometimes featuring famous fictional or historical figures–while others follow a serialised, present-day narrative.
If you think you like the sound of this series you can sample the range by purchasing individual episodes from the Big Finish website. I recommend the fan-favourite 'The Heart That Lives Alone' and, one of my personal favourites, 'Murder On 81st street', featuring the writer Dorothy Parker.
For a more conventional adaptation, you could try Neverwhere, How The Marquis Got His Coat Back, or Good Omens. All three were adapted by Dirk Maggs and are hugely enjoyable and impeccably produced works featuring star-studded casts. You can buy them from Audible or iTunes.
Finally, if you're a Pride and Prejudice fan you must(!) keep an eye out for the Radio 4 adaptation. Jamie Parker (the adult Harry Potter of The Cursed Child fame) makes for a swoon-worthy Darcy. Trust me (you can thank me later).
If none of these recommendations sound like they're for you don't be discouraged, there's a huge variety out there–just remember the golden rule, Radio 4 is your best friend.
Until next time,
* Sadly (for the author), this post is not sponsored by BBC Radio 4.
** It's also not sponsored by Big Finish Productions, Audible.com, or iTunes.