Main content

Piers Plowright introduces a collection of his favourite documentaries for Seriously...

Piers Plowright is a radio legend. During his time as a BBC radio drama and feature maker from 1968 to 1997 he won the Prix Italia for radio documentaries three times as well as three Gold and two Silver Sony Awards and a Sony Special Award for Continual Dedication and Commitment to the Radio Industry. Since then he has been made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, an honourary doctor at Bournemouth University and a 'Radio Luminary' at the prestigious Chicago Third Coast Radio Festival.

If anybody knows about great radio, Piers does. We are honoured and delighted to present his personal picks from the Radio 4 archive, all of which are available for you to listen to right now...

Casa Negra – The Real Casablanca

Professor Andrew Hussey explores modern Casablanca, setting it in the energy and precariousness of Moroccan culture, its narrowly maintained freedoms, and the vitality of its arts scene – particularly as seen in a ground-breaking film.

This is a documentary you can taste and feel. Casablanca, its streets, cafés, underground scene, music, voices really come alive. And Professor Hussey is the least professorial presenter I’ve ever heard. He involves us in the sounds, smells, and talk with a gusto that’s completely infectious. You feel in real time as he navigates the back streets, makes phone calls, meets some of the brave people who – even a comparatively moderate Arab state – run risks in talking, filming, and music making. In particular the director of the 2008 film, Casanegra, who has crossed ‘the red line’ as far as what is usually acceptable to Moroccan society goes. As he expresses it: “Morocco is hard, dark, violent, but at the same time, generous.” And this programme catches the generosity.

Erich Honecker's Rock and Roll Years

German stand-up comedian Henning Wehn presents in delightfully idiosyncratic English portrait of ‘Ostrock’, East Germany’s largely unknown rock’n’roll scene before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

The story, part tragedy, part comedy, is told through interview (some delightfully unexpected like the German critic who’s learnt his English by following Leeds United), musical excerpts, and street and record shop conversations.

This is one of those programmes that is quite straightforward in form but a revelation in content. Full of excellent one-liners and thoroughly refreshing in presentation and treatment.

Alice's Restaurant

Poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan goes in search of the real Alice and the scene of Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 anti-Vietnam war hit song, Alice’s Restaurant.

It's a real journey of discovery in the passionate company of Barnsley’s poet laureate to get behind the song that became a cult object for the anti-war movement and a personal passion of his. A lovely example of how a good radio documentary can be like a stone in a pond: a small event whose ripples spread far and wide, and throw up unexpected and unplanned incidents and meetings. And when we meet the real Alice, she’s no disappointment. Also a good example of how to use music in a documentary.

The Voices of Robert Wyatt

A fascinatingly honest self portrait of the English musician and founding member of Soft Machine.

Radio at its most intimate – as if we are taking tea (which at one point we are) with the storyteller – Wyatt himself. The story flows through his life and work, taking in artistic and musical influences, all told in a deceptively casual way, making light of the triumphs and disasters. In the background we sense the presence of Wyatt’s artist wife, Alfie, and her importance to him, though she never says a word. "Life," says Wyatt near the end of the programme, "is liking climbing a mountain and looking down; as we climb, the village from which we started gets smaller as the landscape gets bigger."

This programme makes me think of a further virtue in a good radio documentary: simplicity.

Beckett in Brooklyn

Irish actor and Samuel Beckett interpreter Lisa Dwan performs three of his short plays in New York. We follow her through performance, meetings with critics and public, memories of her childhood, and how she became fascinated by Beckett and his work, particularly that written for women.

This documentary takes us into the head of Lisa Dwan: we hear everything from her point of view – in a sense she is the programme. It’s ‘shot’ like a film with the producer’s voice doing the camera instructions as Lisa encounters New York, Samuel Beckett’s texts, and her memories of growing up in Ireland. The effect is wonderfully intimate and revealing – not a cliché in sight/sound – and the interaction of Lisa’s thoughts and the bustle of the theatre and the city is beautifully handled. The programme does what radio does best: takes you inside the subject.

Tim Key and Gogol's Overcoat

Writer and comedian Tim Key explores Russia’s craziest novel, Nikolai Gogol’s Overcoat, with the help of a couple of scholars, a tailor, a rag-trader, some mad music, and his own overcoat.

A perfectly crafted documentary whose style imitates exactly the surreal absurdity of its subject.

It’s anarchic, unsettling, surprising, and very, very, funny. Key is an inspired presenter because he’s inside the story, not to mention the overcoat. Listening to this programme the listener feels liberated from the usual constraints of logic as well as any rules that may have settled like dust over the way documentaries are usually made. And you learn a lot. A small masterpiece.

How to Dig a Grave

Broadcaster and documentary-maker Cathy Fitzgerald goes behind the scenes, as it were, to find out what it’s like to be a grave-digger.

Strange to use the word ‘delight’ in connection with grave-digging, but this programme is one. This is partly due to Cathy Fizgerald’s unexpected, sharp, and sometimes funny, narration and partly to the engaging personalities and riveting anecdotes of the two Kilmarnock gravediggers, Stevie and Bobby.

No sentimentality here and no false piety, simply the real ‘down to earth’ recollections of these two men – sometimes hilarious, sometimes very moving, and the contributions of a historian, an author, and the man from the council. Plus some lovely songs.

The documentary happens before your ears, on-site, and – always fascinating to hear – in work mode. So a grave is dug as we listen and what is revealed is more than a hole in the ground. Great.

More from Piers Plowright...

More reads from Seriously...