RADIO: Seamless drama goes underground to dig deep for victory

Written By: Tribune web editor
Published: April 30, 2009 Last modified: April 30, 2009

The Saturday Play: Road to Durham
Radio 4

DOUGLAS LIVINGSTONE’S Road to Durham, broadcast in The Saturday Play slot on April 18, was about Bevin Boys, the young men who were conscripted to serve their country in the coalmines during the Second World War, more or less when their names were drawn from a hat. Like military conscription, it affected compulsory recruits from all walks of life and their labours during the war effort contributed to the survival and success of the country during those terrible years of conflict.

This experience was a great social leveller. Undoubtedly, in the armed services, public school boys would have become officers while boys from state schools went to the ranks. Here they were all miners.

This was a very fine play and the kind of drama to which radio is so perfectly suited. Now in his 80s, Christopher, son of an insurance broker, who was a Bevin Boy during the war, decides on a whim to look up his old pal Benny, whom he has not seen for 63 years. Together they go to the Durham Miners’ Gala.

The play begins in a car journey up north where they are already refreshing their memories of those extraordinary years together. Their conversations link a series of powerful, emotional, comic and poignant moments from their past history. These strung out along the narrative of events in the present as the Gala takes place, ending with the march up the hill to the dedication of the miners’ banner in Durham Cathedral.

The audience experiences the lads’ first days of service and strangeness and terrors of hard work underground; the basic level of their accommodation (with bedding shared by various shifts of workers); the comradeship and breaking down of class barriers and the development of pride in what they are doing.

This whole seamless piece, deftly directed by Jane Morgan, was deeply atmospheric and very moving. It was greatly assisted by the careful use of recordings of miners’ brass bands taken at the Durham Miners Gala and singing by West Pelton Primary School.

The central moment was the brief romance between Christopher and the young daughter of fellow miner, Jim, culminating in a kiss in a pillbox at Seaham. In retrospect, this evoked historical memories of the terrible Seaham pit disaster and a trapped miner’s last message to his family scratched on his water bottle.

There was something very essentially English about this whole thing that is hard to characterise, but I was very much reminded of the tone of those poetic film documentaries by the great Humphrey Jennings: quiet but it spoke volumes. Confession time: we sat and listened and wept as we heard it.

Full credit to a stupendous cast. Christopher was played by Timothy West and young Tim by Fergus Rees; Benny was Douglas Livingstone and young Benny was Sam Fletcher. This was hour of intense, enthralling drama of the kind that can only be done in radio. It was truly glorious.

Robert Giddings