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Broadcasting Live to the Nation…

Ah, the telephone.  While single-handedly responsible for shrinking the world to the size of a SIM card, it can often be a crude tool for conveying information when truth so often lies in the things that aren’t said.  Had Telly Savalas simply made it up when he sang about pictures painting a thousand words?  No.  He may have had chronic dental caries, but his words were wise.

It was with some apprehension then that NOTBAd telephoned The Fitzrovia Radio Hour, the team currently charming theatre critics and audiences alike with their quirky stage interpretation of vintage radio plays.   Fans of the  Berwick Broadcasting Corporation might be interested to learn that it is, in fact, a bastard love-child of the Fitzrovia Radio Hour, sired by Miles Gregory, former Artistic Director and Chief Exec of The Maltings Theatre, Berwick-upon-Tweed.

You see, NOTBAd had arranged a telephone interview with Tom Mallaburn and Jon Edgley Bond – founding members of The Fitzrovia Radio Hour – and one of their visiting actors, Natalie Ball.  (Yes, the same Natalie Ball that delighted local audiences this Christmas as the unhinged Carabosse in Little Wolf Entertainment’s Sleeping Beauty.)  But we needed an angle, something that would give us a glimpse of all those important unseen bits.  So we shut our eyes tightly, breathed through our mouths and listened really hard to the pictures they created.

While we haven’t met either Tom or Jon in person before, we have been in regular email contact with Tom.  On this basis alone, we found it easy to attribute him with the amiable politeness, quiet warmth and equable nature of John Le Mesurier before he found himself roundly cuckolded by Hattie Jacques.  Jon, on the other hand, is a man clearly hewn from raw animal magnetism yet conflicted with inner fears of isolation.  NOTBAd bases this on the fact that he has a fairly deep voice and is a devoted cat owner.  And Natalie?  Laughs like a drain at any given opportunity, so obviously has firsthand experience of being locked up in an attic and being kept away from naked flames.

And tah-dah!  Here we have the premise from which the radio play springs.   The listener, furnished with lines and a plot, has to complete the picture using their own imagination.  This is why no two Ed Grundies will ever look the same, not even if Home Farm branches out into cloning.  The Fitzrovia Radio Hour has taken this fundamental aspect of a radio play and turned it on its head.  They’re radio, but in high definition.

Formed in 2008, the founding members of The Fitzrovia Radio Hour were Callum Coates, Jon Edgley Bond, Alix Dunmore, and Alex Ratcliffe.  Jon, Alix and later Phil Mulryne form a Bristol Old Vic contingent, with Tom Mallaburn introduced via guest director and the now dead-to-us Miles Gregory.  Tom and Miles had met at Durham University along with Martin Pengelly, who also joined the group.  Whether he was admitted because he let Gregory copy his lecture notes remains unclear.  Callum Coates left in 2009 but the others remain, with visiting actors stepping in when required.  Those with a Sunday-evening sensibility might like to know that Laura Carmichael – Lady Ethel in Downton Abbey – has served her time at the Fitzrovian coalface.

The Fitzrovia Radio Hour in action

The idea for basing a stage act around radio shows of the 1940s came about after Jon and Alex returned from touring the Far East together with a production of Peter Pan.   Alex took work as bar manager at the Bourne & Hollingsworth, a tiny cellar bar in the Fitzrovia area of London decorated with an elderly relative’s front room aesthetic.   With no motive but a sense of fun, the pair deemed the bar’s retro feel perfect for an affectionate re-imagining of radio plays from a bygone age, complete with evening dress, vintage microphones and gloriously clipped RP.

However, the Bourne & Hollingsworth could only seat thirty-five and the show quickly proved so popular that the team had to put on two performances a night to accommodate everyone.  Within six months they found themselves performing monthly to an audience of 250 at the Swan, the bar and brasserie at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.  The amazing Top Shelf Jazz provided after-show music, cementing the retro-anarchic feel.  Support continued to grow and a further six months on The Fitzrovia Radio Hour took to the stage at the 400-capacity UnderGlobe.  Word was definitely out.

Their popularity may have been on the up, but the Fitzrovians were by no means complacent.  Until appearing at the Swan they had sourced American radio scripts of the 1940s and ’50s from the internet.  Take a look.  There are hundreds of them floating  in cyberspace, ripe for spoofing.  Why bother then to write their own material?

Tom smiles politely, flicking languid ash from an urbane lapel. “It was crucial for us to evolve and, to be honest, the quality of the majority of the scripts left a lot to be desired.  We’d exhausted all the decent ones in the first six months.”  So how do you see yourselves, as actors or writers?  Tom considers this as Jon, in a predatory and quite possibly pregnant-making way, growls from the background, “An actor known to write.”  Natalie says nothing but we can tell from her silence that she’s arguing with herself in her head.

Unlike the rest of the cast, Tom isn’t a trained actor, studying music before being hopelessly led astray by the others.  Consequently he is drawn to the writing side of things, as is Martin Pengelly, who prefers to lurk in the shadows and contribute to scripts when he’s not reporting on rugby union for assorted national papers.

In the beginning, team members would go away and write whatever script took their fancy.  These days the focus has shifted away from individual contributions as the Fitzrovians try a more collaborative approach.   Ideas get pitched and scripts circulated among the team, inviting ideas and suggestions.  The goal is quality control, ensuring they continue to deliver such gems as ‘Nazi Firemen in Westminster’, ‘Tin!’ and ‘Loki, Cat of Dracula’.

The Fitzrovia Radio Hour has been described as a “collision of comedy heritage” by The Independent, with Peter Sellars, The League of Gentlemen and ‘Allo ‘Allo being randomly ascribed.  Writers inevitably draw on personal influences, and the Fitzrovians volunteer many of the old comedy classics, from Monty Python to P G Wodehouse, Hammer House of Horror to, er, Roger Moore.

It is this wide sweep of influences that enable the team to put together a show encompassing sci-fi, romance, adventure and horror – typically three plays in a one hour show.  That is a hell of a lot of writing, not counting additional material in the form of ironic advertisements for such products as cigarettes and whisky.

Every month during their Globe residency the Fitzrovia Radio Hour ensured that they had new material.  They would refine this according to the reaction of the audience.  “Audience response is crucial,” Jon says, his cheek muscles buckling under the sheer weight of testosterone.  “We work around it.  What works one night, may not work another.  By listening to the audience we’ve got better at balancing the shows.”  Tom adjusts the affable crease in his trousers. “We’ve noticed,” he adds, “that if you have a lot of deaths in one play, the audience don’t tend to appreciate a lot of deaths in the next.”

Which is exactly the sort of quote we appreciate here at NOTBAd.

And obviously there are regional differences when it comes to humour.  Natalie throws her head back and cackles at the memory of a show in Eastleigh where at one point in the evening they were booed and hissed.  And it tickles all three that the play, ‘He Should Have Known His Place’ – about a Leeds lathe worker coming to a sticky end after having ideas above his station – receives such a warm response up North.

As we say, the reaction of audience and critics has been favourable, never more so than when the Fitzrovians first took the show to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2010 and then again in 2011, a necessary exercise in raising profile rather than, sadly, money.

Indeed, over the last few years The Fitzrovia Radio Hour has prompted publications such as Time Out, Fringe Review, The Guardian, The Independent, The Stage and The Telegraph to coo tender words – “attractive sense of mischief”, “enthralling and energetic”, “captivating”, “highly polished” and “witty”.  “Hilarious” is another epithet, although employed by the same journalists who believe exclamation marks convey depth and meaning.

Where do they think their broad appeal lies?

Tom delicately removes a flake of tobacco from his tongue.  “The older generation enjoy the nostalgia.  And in London at the moment amongst the  twenty-five to thirty-five age group vintage is in vogue.  You have the recent burlesque revival, the fashion for the ukulele, and just a general make do and mend attitude arising from the credit crunch and reminiscent of the 1940s.  We seem to cater for both worlds.”

Natalie halts in her rocking long enough to chip in.  “The joy is that people don’t need to know any historical details or have an interest in the period, because it isn’t specific.  We merely take elements of it.  You can go along and enjoy the stories and comedy for what they are.”

But much has been made of The Fitzrovia Radio Hour making wry social commentary on the social mores of that particular time.  How accurate is that?

Jon clears his throat, instantly dismissing Heathcliff as sexually ambiguous.  “We certainly deal in the ‘isms of the period.”

“So many ‘isms,” Tom agrees, “that an audience could get uncomfortable.”

Ah, yes. “Stella, stop being a woman this instant” is a particularly memorable line.  Is this the perfect excuse for men to get their own back, turn back time and put women in their place?

“Well, we certainly have less need to employ girls,” Jon jokes, before rushing on to say that the girls in the company are the ones who hold it together and without them the whole thing would fall apart and that guest director Phoebe Barran is a girl with boobs and everything.  Just so we’re clear.

“Through the archaic, stupid attitudes of the time, we have a licence to explore issues [of sexism, racism, jingoism, etc].  To show how far we should have come and haven’t.”

At the moment The Fitzrovia Radio Hour are in the middle of preparations for their return to the West End in February when they appear at the Ambassador Theatre.  We say “return”, as following their successful Fringe debut in 2010 they transferred to Trafalgar Studios last January as part of a double bill with Barbershopera.  This year their management company, Seabright Productions, has secured them a four-week run at the Ambassador in the middle of their national tour.

Surely after all this time the cast are experienced enough to go off-script,  they can start to relax?

Natalie disagrees.  “It’s not like a traditional play, where once you’ve learnt your lines and have a few performances under your belt you can relax.”

“There’s no relaxing,” Jon broods.

“There are five of us creating fifty characters with 150 props that have to be in the right place at the right time,” Tom explains.

“I remember when I mislaid my melon,” giggles Natalie, scratching at her face.  “And then the time for it came and – poof!– went, just like that.”

Natalie Ball - funny AND a girl

And here is the hook the Fitzrovians hang their hat on – the visual creation of sound effects.  When they first started at the Bourne & Hollingsworth, space restrictions limited the number of effects they could produce.  Now each performance is punctuated by a rapid-fire succession of improbably created noises.   A reversing space ship,  horse decapitation, lathe disembowelment, flying bats – today the Fitzrovians can draw on a library of sound effects that they’ve put together over the past few years.  In the early days, however, it was a question of trial and error, breaking each sound down into its component parts and going from there.

They achieve maximum comedic impact by ensuring the object making the sound looks nothing like the thing it represents.   A melon, rubber gloves, a bicycle pump, an umbrella – the team put just as much wit and ingenuity into this aspect of the show as they do the dialogue, and Jon relates a happy tale in which he spends an entire afternoon with the director trying to recreate the sound of a blowpipe by throwing Smarties across the room.  NOTBAd is more than a little impressed that this passes as a job.

But you have to see these actors at work to believe it.  Incredibly fast and slicker than a buttered porpoise, every move is choreographed to ensure the breakneck pace never falters;  all the more impressive when you consider that they have only a week to ten days rehearsal time, two-thirds of which is spent on this technical side.

At this stage in the game it seems petty to bring up ugly accusations, churlish even.  Heigh-ho.

Although only scant criticism has been aimed at The Fitzrovia Radio Hour, they do have their detractors – Lyn Gardner of The Guardian being one, accusing the team of being a ‘one trick pony’, a sentiment that has been echoed by others.  How would they respond to this?

Ngrhh!

“I’ve got this, Jon,” Tom soothes, dunking an elegant digestive in his tea.

“Ngrhh!”

“The thing is, Lyn is an incredibly experienced theatre critic.  She’s seen most of the very best and biggest productions theatre has to offer, then compares us to them.  We have to respect her opinion.”

Jon tries to suppress his manly ire which has set an oriental cat mewling in distress and undoubted arousal in the background (despite being male and neutered).

“Well,” he manages at length.  “If she wants to call constantly writing new material, performing it, and devising your own sound effects a ‘one trick pony’, then, well…  I guess we are.”

And to be fair to The Fitzrovia Radio Hour, they have a point.  They’re not something readily comparable, and it’s not as if they’re standing still or failing to evolve.  They’re hoping to up the touring game, including taking the show to America and Ireland. They’ve performed on several occasions on BBC Radio London and appeared on BBC Radio 4 – both on the Today and Loose Ends programmes – in addition to featuring on BBC2’s The Review Show.  Talks are afoot with Radio 4 regarding a potential project, and there has been speculation about adapting their show for television.

This latter development raises the question of whether video will finally kill the radio star once and for all.  Somehow we doubt it.  The Fitzrovia Radio Hour is merely pumping up the volume, and if you don’t believe us then we suggest you come and hear them for yourself and paint a picture all of your own.

The Fitzrovia Radio Hour, The Maltings Theatre, Berwick-Upon-Tweed, 12th February 2012, 7.00pm. 

(Details of further dates and venues can be found on their website.)

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