Rush, rush, rush to the BBC iplayer and listen to Nothing But Blue Skies by Dominic Power. It was easily the best thing on the wireless last week, bar none.
I was noodling about on the listen again facility last night, and stumbled upon this. It is an afternoon reading, which is not a category of Radio Four that I hold much love for. Sometimes, even the mighty BBC falters, and its choice of short fiction often seems determinedly mundane, as if there is some kind of quota that must be filled - the 'we simply must have more about elderly Sikh ladies living in Bolton' school of thought. There is also a peculiar subset of single women talking to dead boyfriends (to be fair, I might be making this one up, but I seem to remember a season of that kind of thing which almost entirely removed my will to live).
It's not just that the short stories chosen for broacast are so often so uninspiring, but there is the granite problem of the readers. Reading for radio is a very particular art. There is nowhere to hide, no television pictures to distract the listener, so every tic, affectation and hint of phoniness is amplified. Actors often make the elementary mistake of trying to perform the thing, all breathiness and misplaced emphasis and special voices. There is one particularly maddening actress who is always rolled out whenever any poetry needs doing; someone obviously once made the mistake of telling her that she had a well-modulated voice, and she does so much damn modulating, carefully pronouncing every single syllable, delicately hitting each consonant in a 'look at me I'm reading POETRY way' that I think my head is going to explode.
In Nothing But Blue Skies, all these dangers are brilliantly, gloriously avoided. It is a perfect, polished jewel of a story. It has everything you want in short fiction: it is human, unexpected, oddly lyrical, faintly mysterious. And like a huge fat cherry on the top of a luscious cake, it has Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio giving a platonic masterclass on how to read. I have never heard her do anything like this before, and she is rather a famous actress, so you could imagine the whole thing might be a car crash of misplaced ego. But she knows absolutely that fiction should be read quite flat - too much light and shade, too much expression and intensity, and the thing becomes about the reader and not what is being read. She lets the story take centre stage, without self-consciousness. She has a beautiful lightness of touch, and her voice is so natural and beguiling that I think there should be a law passed saying she should be made to read everything. (Along perhaps with Sam West and Alex Jennings, two other actors who are glittering stars in this field.)
So there you are, that is your present for today. I apologise to my international readers - I know that sometimes I taunt you with the wonders of the iplayer, and cruelly, it is not available outside Blighty. I do not know why this is, when I can happily indulge my obsession with American politics by watching Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, even though I am not a US citizen. Let us hope that the Beeb comes to its senses soon and fulfils its international remit.