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Pearls from the BBC

Sunday, February 21 2010

The Ballad of John Axon by Charles Parker.

(Click to purchase the CD or to download digitally from Amazon UK via the BTWT Bookstore)

Like all large institutions, the BBC often stumbles and produces work that is mediocre. However there are moments when its productions are world class. Charles Parker was a BBC producer based in the old BBC studios in Birmingham who produced the amazing Radio Ballads. The most famous of which is the story of John Axon, a steam locomotive driver who, when the brakes failed on his engine, saved the lives of his fireman and passengers at the cost of his own life. In these days of digital editing it is sobering to think that much of the post production work on the Radio Ballads was done with a razor blade and sticky tape! Thanks to the pioneering work of Parker the voices of ordinary working people returned to the BBC. He made the last of his Ballads in 1964 when a new commissioning editor decided that Parker, because his work involved much recording on location, was too expensive! Parker was sacked, but not before he had won the Italia prize for radio documentary. The Radio Ballads can still be purchased either via Amazon UK (click image) or from Birmingham City Library.

The BBC still occasionally surprises and broadcasts radio programs of breathtaking quality. Today’s Saturday Play Murder in Samarkand – was commissioned by the BBC, but made by the independent company Greenpoint. It told the story of how British Ambassador, Craig Murray, took on the Foreign Office mandarins who, faced with his embarrassing reports of human rights abuses in Uzbekistan, attempted to ‘shoot the messenger’. For those who live in the UK it is available for the next 7 days on BBC iPlayer. David Tennant’s portrayal of Murray as a flawed, but principled man, is thoroughly riveting. Highly recommended.

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