One of the most enticing strands of BBC Radio 4’s Dangerous Visions season, Dark Vignettes presents four short, single-voice original dramas that explore unsettling, disturbing or macabre themes. What’s immediately impressive is the diversity of approaches that the four scriptwriters involved here adopt as they tackle their brief. Each delivers a convincing short story with a dark sting in the tale.
Opening instalment Blackout (Julian Simpson) is an edgy modern-day dystopian tale of social and economic collapse. As the UK’s communication and transport networks fail, a solitary London resident records her experiences in a pen-and-ink diary as looters and muggers seize the streets and police attack protesting citizens. Barricaded in her flat, with only her hungry cat Blackwood for company, she must decide whether to stay put or attempt to flee the capital and reach the possible safety of her mother’s village in the country. Blackout evokes a horribly plausible picture of the vulnerability of modern civilisation and of the speed with which it can unravel; and is completely compelling listening.
The Fanglur and the Twoof (Toby Litt) is a twisted and surreal fantasy piece, which unfolds in an inhospitable otherwordly setting. As an ill-assorted family group, and their herd of animals, are guided through a barren desert by their shadowy guide, the Noma, they are menaced by the twin predators of the title. When the family refuse to surrender their animals to the Fanglur and the Twoof, the thieves threaten terrible vengeance. The family’s only son recounts their increasingly desperate journey, as they race to reach what they hope is the sanctuary of the jungle before all hope is lost. Strange and unexpected, this tale delivers the bleakest of twists.
In Spine (Anita Sullivan), Mylen and her young son Mambo arrive at an airport in the hope of boarding a flight to freedom. Carrying fake passes and travel documents, Mylen tries to keep a low profile as they pass through the scrutiny of the security checks. But Mambo is a gregarious youngster, who cannot resist helping an elderly, disabled traveller who clashes with airline officials. As she nervously awaits boarding, Mylen reflects on the repellent conditions in the country she is leaving behind; an authoritarian nightmare, locked in civil war, hostile to refugees and where armed ‘guardians’ control the lives of citizens: it is a place she no longer recognises, but somewhere she hopes that Mambo can some day return to. Tense and, at the same time, emotionally literate, Spine keeps you guessing right up to the end.
Closing episode Inertia (Melissa Lee-Houghton) offers a grim exploration of the theme of healthcare rationing. Coming to in a hospital bed, patient Mr McManus is disoriented and confused. As he is denied treatment, he recalls his past life and his marriage to the intolerant and judgemental Connie. The couple paid their medical insurance bills, while his wife was always contemptuous of the poor and the frail. They had, Connie always told him, brought their fate on themselves. He comes to the shocking realisation that, as he became unwell, his wife surrendered him to the authorities as unfit. His illness, his doctor explains, is a reflection of his wider deviancy; a failing for which the punishment can be severe. Tim McInnerny voices the twin characters of physician and patient brilliantly and, as events unfold, McManus’ growing sense of powerlessness is palpable.
The short drama can be a challenging audio format, but each of the stories in Dark Vignettes succeeds in delivering effective stories that are impressively immersive. The scripts are strong, the storylines engaging and the vocal performances winning. With a focus on themes of emigration, political asylum, health care costs, and technological dependency, this set of four stories comes with strong contemporary real-world resonances; even as they dip into the darker pools of fantasy and speculative fiction. More than one of these tales could serve as the pilot for a full series.
DARK VIGNETTES / AUTHOR: JULIAN SIMPSON, TOBY LITT, ANITA SULLIVAN, MELISSA LEE-HOUGHTON / PRODUCER: JEREMY OSBORNE / STARRING: NICOLA WALKER, FARSHID ROKEY, MARTINA LAIRD, TIM MCINNERNY / PUBLISHER: A SWEET TALK PRODUCTION FOR BBC RADIO 4 / RELEASE DATE: BROADCAST ON BBC RADIO 4 (7:45PM EACH SUNDAY MAY 22ND – JUNE 12TH), AVAILABLE ON iPLAYER AFTER BROADCAST