Can you remember rationing? Fondly? Do you perhaps have in your attic a lavender-scented aunt who likes to bang on about how good life was before the internet/microwave pizza/non-stick pans? Are you addicted to that BBC ‘dramumentary’ where a suburban family eats Christmas dinner of ox heart and potato peel pudding? Or a hipster vintage surrealist who frequents cocktail bars in disused air raid shelters in Soho or cafés themed like the station buffet in Brief Encounter. For you this show is perfect so get on that Bakelite phone and book The Fitzrovia Radio Hour Christmas Special.
For everyone else, here’s what it’s like: the basement studio recreates Broadcasting House in about 1947, if it had a cocktail bar and seats between which you can’t manoeuvre if you’re wider than Kate Moss. There are three microphone stands and a table groaning with the apparatus of sound effects. Literally, if you count the placard labelled ‘Groan’ held up to stimulate the audience. Three men, in dinner jackets soon removed to reveal ironic Christmas jumpers, two women in prawn cocktail frocks and a tier of three steps up and down which they all clamber relentlessly to access a mike. It has all so recently been done at the St James’s for The Phantom Raspberry Blower that ‘radio nostalgia’ is in danger of becoming a genre.
The Fitzrovia crew itself has been doing this for a while – since they enacted some genuine 40s radio scripts in basement bar Bourne and Hollingsworth in 2008 and while they’ve had success at Edinburgh, stretching the material to two hours across an interval reveals its flimsiness. They split each “ripping yarn” in to two parts to generate some suspense but you can see it all coming a mile off and the amusement of the home-made sound effects of someone bashing an iceberg lettuce to simulate a boxing match, or slapping Marigold glovs to evoke flapping wings soon wears thin as do the relentlessly interspersed spoof advertisements for ‘Soho Super Special’ Pipe Tobacco. This is doubly annoying because not only is it false memory for an era of radio drama that didn’t really exist in this stilted form, the BBC never had adverts.
There are four stories in all: “It’s A Passable Life” which is a nicely negative twist on Bedford Falls optimism, “The Woman Who Didn’t Prepare”, and “Boxing Day Champ!” all have salutory or cautionary endings and only “The (Christmas) Day they stole the Eiffel Tower”, an extended crime caper, manages a cheerful finish.
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