Once I had a cast iron genius idea. A little place on the high street, laid out with little tables like a café. Go inside and sit down - the light is low - and just listen. A cinema for radio plays. It would have an amazing sound system, usherettes to shush any talkers, and scheduled shows: great works, new serials. I saw a wave of these opening and great happiness ensuing.
Instead of this, the great medium of audio drama is criminally under-valued. Drama on Radio 4 is always packed with stars and writing talent, and that unique intimacy you never forget, yet media and advertising focus on music and news shows. It seems mad to me. As a child I listened to endless cassettes and LPs: Gulliver's Travels, Andersen's Fairy Tales, Dougal and the Blue Cat, Roald Dahl. As a teenager it was comedy (I remember being ill one Christmas, shaking with laughter at Round the Horne, though it felt like agony to move). BBC Radio brought me the Magician's Nephew, bottled the smoky essence of Sherlock Holmes with its Clive Merrison plays, adapted Tolkien first...
I thought of them again this weekend, when snow fell perpetually on London, freezing pavements and breath. I wrapped myself up in my tartan shawl and listened. (I bought a few CDs at a Cult Publishers Expo last year. Perhaps it makes sense that the areas dramatists and producers have built a new audience for audio is among genre fans, with their over-active imaginations?) Ah, it was bliss.
I started with Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowmen, an ambitious TV story in which some yeti terrorise monks in the Himalayas, portrayed by teddy bear costumes, North Wales and actors from Shropshire. Through home recordings (never underestimate a schoolboy's hobby) we can now enjoy the story in its ultimate form, with snow whirling round the imperilled monastery while evil incarnates within.
Doctor Who's mad wonders can take full flight on audio. I listened to The Rocket Men next, an adventure for the first Doctor, or rather his companion Ian. This particular format, the Companion Chronicle, puts a special focus on the performer, in this case one of the show's earliest stars, William Russell. In what better form can we celebrate such a figure? John Dorney's marvellous script also hymns the dauntless excess of those early days, with its retro rocketeers and diamond insects, and the chemistry between Russell and his co-star which fans have always read (quite rightly) as unspoken romance. More for Who aficionados, maybe, but an example of audio drama's ability to move between action and intimate private thoughts.
Paul Magrs has written some of my favourite Big Finish stories. A line from his Excelis Dawns has been written on my heart since I heard it in my room on campus in 2002: 'Now, manoeuvring over this terrain could be dangerous - it's best we take it at tremendous speed!' At the Cult Publishers expo, I got an advance copy of his new audio drama, Vince Cosmos: Glam Rock Detective, and it's absolutely sublime. It's produced by the rather wonderfully named Bafflegab Productions, and has no relation to Doctor Who, besides a one-time companion in the cast and, and a sense that completely outrageous secret powers might be hiding in our world in plain sight.
It's 1972, and the titular hero, Vince, performs his glam anthems in the persona of an extraterrestrial emigre: 'I will defy the galactic space gods with my last breath!' But is it just a persona? What with the specially recorded songs, this feels like its own little universe full of weird secrets, and Vince's number one fan, Poppy, gets deeper into intrigue involving Martians and Royal Variety Performances. The action is deliciously unrestrained and even rather naughty - but what gives it an edge is the domesticity of Poppy's life. There are some lovely scenes taking place in the witching hours of the night, which somehow feels the time audio drama's best at. There must be - must be - more in store for Vince and Poppy, though this one isn't technically out yet...
It was good to be reminded of how companies like Big Finish and Bafflegab are keeping the medium in such rude health, even if we don’t live in a world with high street radio theatres – yet.