Radio review: Licence payers play a key role in drama

Round of applause for Drama on One putting the spotlight on homegrown plays that might not get a hearing on commercial stations

Clare Dunne is excellent in Mixed Future. Photo by Kyran O’Brien

Darragh McManus

The TV licence fee and public service broadcasting get a bad rap at times — often justified — but the likes of Drama on One (Radio 1, Sun 8pm) make a decent counter-argument.

Simply put, this is the kind of thing that wouldn’t exist outside of a state-funded broadcaster. A stage play, on radio. Think about how plays on actual stages in struggle to support themselves financially, and you get some idea of how important shows like Drama on One are to giving a radio platform to Irish playwrights.

RTÉ aren’t the only ones, in fairness; Newstalk periodically air original dramas for radio, including the recent provocative How I Murdered Lucrezia. But it’s mostly Radio 1, and Drama on One.

Lyric FM, documentaries on obscure subjects, programming on philosophy, religion or avant-garde art and culture: these don’t have a big audience. If they did, they’d be on commercial channels more often. They aren’t, to use that hideous term, “economically viable”.

The independents, reliant on listenership-linked advertising for their existence, can’t be blamed for avoiding them. Just pointing out that, if we want them to exist — personally I think they make the world a richer, less boring place — it needs the public service broadcaster to step in.

Drama on One mixes fresh and repeat material, and as it happens is just beginning a series of new plays, the winner and runners-up of the prestigious PJ O’Connor writing competition. There’s also a season of Beckett adaptations on the horizon.

We kick off tomorrow (Sunday) with the winning entry, Patrick Fogarty’s The Last High King of Ireland. Next week welcomes the second-placed drama, Mixed Future by Arthur Sheridan. Through the wonders of technology, I’ve metaphorically leapt into the future and listened to both.

Did the judges get it right? Going against every contrarian bone in my body, I’d have to say yes. The Last High King of Ireland feels like a classic small-town Ireland story, that kind of realism-with-a-tinge-of-magic that we do well here.

Veteran actor Pat Kinevane plays hard-drinking Tapper, the eponymous High King — a self-awarded title — a tragicomic sort of character shambling through the day in a fictional village. It’s drama with some hard edges but also an air of Flann O’Brien-esque surreality, ending in a beautifully judged coda of breaths, notes on a harp and, finally, silence.

Mixed Future is a “straighter” affair, at least in that there’s less music and atmosphere, though the structure is more complex. Three connected playlets, in monologue, weave in and out of each other’s timelines to tell a story of three generations of women and their relationships.

A lot of it is downbeat, dark even, with themes of abuse, regrets and lost love. But it’s leavened with optimism, the ending is very sweet, and the cast — including Clare Dunne, currently lighting up the telly in Kin — are excellent.

The PJ O’Connor series continues on Drama on One until April 23, with all plays available online after broadcast.​