Sunday 21 October 2007

OK Computer

The Friday Play - Radio 4

Friday 19 October

By Joel Horwood, Chris Perkins, Al Smith and Chris Thorpe.

Paul........Tom Brooke
Sarah .....Liz White
Helen .....Federay Holmes
Owen .....Pieter Lawman
Boss .......Chris Thorpe

Producer Lu Kemp
To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the release of Radiohead’s seminal album OK Computer, Radio 4 - remarkably - commissioned - even more remarkably - a play to mark the occasion. It’s a curious idea. Albums don’t tend to inspire plays. A jukebox musical perhaps - and imagine what that would be like with the Radiohead back catalogue - but seldom actual drama. Albums tend, by their very nature, to be hotch-potches of ideas. Not since the largely defunct concept albums and rock operas of the Seventies have albums really sought to tell stories. So how to go about ‘adapting’ one for radio?

The answer provided here by director Lu Kemp and her team of four writers Joel Horwood, Chris Perkins, Al Smith and Chris Thorpe (all of whom, I should admit, I know and am friends with) is taking themes suggested by the albums music and lyrics and creating a narrative which at once reflects and builds on them. The story itself involves a man called Paul who has been involved in a car crash in Berlin. He wakes up in hospital and has no memory of who he is, or where he comes from. Moreover, he has trouble retaining information subsequently given to him. Eventually his wife comes forward, and he returns to his home in England. Except that he is unsure that it is his home at all, that she is his wife, or that the work he is doing - processing vast lists of data - is actually real at all. Another major selling point is that sound designer extraordinaire Gareth Fry has created new pieces of ambient incidental music from the original studio tapes made by Radiohead when recording the album. In the main these are simply dropped in as “scene-change” music, although there are also some fine effects used throughout - the quality of care and attention is forcibly noticeable.

And remarkably - all the more remarkably for their being four writers at work here - the whole thing seems to come off. While not a blow-by-blow literalist account of how the album works, anyone who knows it can see what the play is doing. I should say at this stage, OK Computer is a very fine radio play in its own right - dealing in a kind of thriller-genre sense of disquiet and unease without anything ever explicitly putting a finger on exactly what is wrong. As such it is a perfect foil for Radiohead’s anthems of alienation and angst. Of course drama (arguably) needs to tie itself down to specifics far more than, say, the impressionistic musing of rock lyrics. But here again the team come up trumps with a collection of characters who seem to flit in an out of reality with a surprising ease, while the fragmentary nature of the scenes fits perfectly with both the story and the original concept.

What is remarkable for a multi-authored piece of work is how much it sounds like a unified whole - the four writers have reined back their stylistic tics with admirable restraint (although I’m willing to bet it was Al Smith who couldn’t resist “Looking for astronauts” - unless it was one of the others taking the piss). Moreover, the play contains several images which occur across the various writers’ episodes. Most noticeably the ladybird, which in one excellently chilling scene is just casually dropped in as Paul’s boss seems to reveal to him the extent to which he is trapped in a system which he cannot hope to understand.

While dealing with ideas of dislocation, fragmentation and memory loss, the whole play also works on another level of an ordinary man who is dissatisfied with his life suddenly going into crisis. He does not trust and cannot relate to his wife. He finds himself talking to strange women in bars who appear to offer some way out. While the thriller aspect of the play trades on this as a plausible reality, at the same time it completely allows for it being delusion on Paul’s part - almost a convenient rationale for a more simple loss of faith in his life hitherto.

As a whole although not claiming to have made a definitive narrative out of the album - there is room for hundreds more such projects, which would be fascinating in itself (imagine a festival of 10+ dramatic interpretations of a sole starting point by different artists) - there is something about OK Computer which absolutely taps into Thom Yorke and co’s vision of humanity as millions of traumatised, dislocated little aliens who have somehow ended up totally lost in a world that makes no sense.


Al said...

Thanks Andrew, I'm glad you thought we did it justice. We can mull over it over a bottle of wine if you like, but just to put your mind at ease, it wasn't me with the astronaut line, I can't remember who it was -probably Chris T - I'm sure it was subconscious if anything at all! It was a lot of fun to write - a good weekend's work. Al

Lu Kemp said...

Chris P with the astronauts line. Also, it wasn't original Radiohead studio recordings, we used music that (apparently) inspired their album - Sasuma Yokata et al...

Tom Wateracre said...

The answer provided here by director Lu Kemp and her team of four writers Joel Horwood, Chris Perkins, Al Smith and Chris Thorpe (all of whom, I should admit, I know and am friends with)


Anonymous said...

"reigned" back their stylistic tics, have they?

Anonymous said...

btw - There was a play at Nottingham Playhouse last year on THE WHITE ALBUM:

Andrew Haydon said...

Anon #1 - Yup, that's exactly what they did. Oh dear. Ho hum.

Anon #2 - That is interesting. Was it good? Did you see it?

Anonymous said...

This was clearly a retelling of the narrative of the film Jacob's Ladder - very well done, really enjoyed it.