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By Dr Tom Christie

March 19th, 2015


Given the increasing availability of TV and film material across the world, whether delivered to mobile devices or across the Internet, it remains a comfort to know that audio drama remains a popular and uniquely flexible medium which has retained the ability to reach mass audiences around the world.  The popularity of specialist full-cast audio drama producers such as Big Finish, and the ready accessibility of Internet-based archives from the golden age of the format - featuring such acting greats as Orson Welles and James Stewart, amongst many others - have combined to keep this highly distinctive mode of performance firmly in the public eye.

With its reliance upon the power of the spoken word and the acting talents of their respective casts, radio drama remains one of the BBC’s most popular broadcast features over the airwaves, and throughout the years productions have readily engaged with many issues of political, social and cultural import.  Dementia, and the complex ethical and philosophical issues deriving from the condition, has been no exception, and in recent years the BBC has typically engaged with this multifaceted subject with much creative integrity.

Perhaps most prominent amongst their dementia-related features since the turn of the decade has been Lost and Found, a radio play first broadcast on the afternoon of Monday 2nd December 2013.  Directed and produced by Gary Brown, the play was written by Ian Kershaw - a highly experienced screenwriter, whose output has thus far encompassed everything from episodes of popular TV series such as EastEnders, Casualty and Shameless through to the 2014 Gillies MacKinnon-helmed drama Castles in the Sky (a biopic of radar pioneer Robert Watson-Watt) and intense short film Room 42 (2012).  Winner of a Bronze Award for Best Drama at the 2014 Radio Academy Awards, Lost and Found takes full advantage of the audio-only performance format to raise intriguing questions about the malleability of identity and the ability of people to psychologically and emotionally connect with one another on multiple levels.

The year is 1979, shortly after the landslide victory of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives.  Public servant Stan (Tom Courtenay) is hard at work in a lost property office which he operates within a busy railway station in the heart of Manchester.  Interrupting the monotony of his day, a woman in her mid-forties named Zoe (Sally Carman) arrives at the office in search of something that she claims to have lost.  As an individual who takes great pride in his job, Stan gladly offers his assistance in tracking down the elusive item.  As their professional interaction continues, however, it soon becomes apparent that all is not quite as it seems.  For as events progress, the listener discovers that Stan is not in fact a 1970s public sector employee but rather an elderly gentleman living in a modern-day care home, whereas his mysterious visitor actually transpires to be his own daughter.  Thus as the play concludes, the audience becomes aware that the whole imaginative construct of the lost property office is in fact a device by which parent and child alike must engage with their shared experiences as a way of relating to each other.

Kershaw’s deeply moving script, which never trivialises its subject matter nor allows the action to stray into maudlin sentimentality, is skilfully brought to life by acting veteran Tom Courtenay - an Academy Award-nominated actor immediately recognisable to filmgoers as the protagonist of John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar (1963) and as Pasha in David Lean’s famous Boris Pasternak adaptation Doctor Zhivago (1965).  With a career in the entertainment industry which has included appearances on television, cinema and the stage, Courtenay’s authoritative tones seem tailor-made for radio, and yet it is his performance’s tightly-controlled articulation of melancholy and sensitivity which really stand out as worthy of praise.  Although the play is essentially a two-hander, with Sally Carman providing a highly creditable expression of evocative yet subtle despondency as Stan’s supportive but sorrowful daughter, the small supporting cast is similarly solid.  Eddie Capli makes the most of a dual role as a bus driver who visits Stan’s lost property office - later revealed to be Ant, a member of the staff supporting Stan at the care home - while Kate Coogan brings restrained emotional power to her depiction of Dorrie, Stan’s late wife.  Dorrie’s all-too-tangible presence in the world of her husband’s memory emphasises his lasting sadness with regard to her passing, making her absence in the present day seem all the more affecting.

Lost and Found is a drama which has a relatively short duration, but it is one which is imbued with understated intensity and delicate emotional significance.  Some reviewers noted at the time of the play’s broadcast that as Stan’s dementia is heavily suggested rather than explicitly interrogated, a number of possible interpretations are possible.  Is his refuge in the past an involuntary response to his condition, underscoring a frustrating inability to orient himself in the here and now?  Or is it instead the manifestation of a desperate need to recall and revisit a bygone point in his life when contentment and familiarity outweighed fear and uncertainty?  Such is the shrewdly restrained skill of Kershaw’s writing, both outcomes are equally feasible.

By focusing on the vocal expressiveness of the cast, ably guided by Brown’s robust direction, Lost and Found is at its most powerful when raising uncertainty over the definition of each character’s individual identity.  The revelation of Stan’s true circumstances, rooted in the modern day while clinging to a bygone past, is effective precisely because the audience are forced to engage with the drama on its own terms - by focusing on dialogue and exposition, rather than the visual cues which have become more familiar through common exposure to cinematic or televisual presentation.  Thus the shifting flexibility of personal characteristics which the protagonists must identify and overcome is a predicament which is uniquely dealt with by audio drama, and in a manner which is quite different from similar treatments of the subject in other media nodes.  In so doing, Kershaw and Brown succeed in creating a noteworthy production which - by corresponding themes of fractured identity to a format which fully capitalises upon highlighting the essentially indefinable nature of individual distinctiveness - brings a universal quality to the anxieties of ageing as well as the difficulties posed by dementia.