Thursday, January 14, 2010

Heartbreak Radio

More often than not, when the "afternoon play" comes on Radio 4, I switch off a few minutes into the show. I have always appreciated R4, but have had an aversion to their plays since I was a child. A recent exception was the profoundly disturbing Afternoon Play yesterday. This slot is billed as presenting plays that will "delight and surprise" - but this did neither, rather it was unsettling, infuriating and appalling - for all the right reasons.

The Jonestown Letters told the true story of two sisters who ended their lives in the People Temple mass suicide of 1978, through letters sent between the sisters and their parents (who were not cult members and harboured some suspicions about Jim Jones and his organisation). The story of how two normal, happy, well-intentioned young people became recruited and devotees of the cult is shocking; their absolute unquestioning devotion to Jones deeply frightening - and the horrible end to the story is deeply, deeply sad.

The editing and reading of these letters (as well as real interviews with the 3rd sister who did not get involved) was done very well indeed; the complexity and humanity of the girls shone through, even as the plot descended into ever more impenetrable darkness. The final scene, which uses the infamous audio recording of Jones' from the suicide itself was chilling.

While obvious lessons about the need for questioning, the danger of self-promoters and personality cults, mind-control, and cults with weird doctrines are there -this play wasn't primarily about such judgements. Rather, it lamented the bereaved, the lost, the suffering, and the tragedy of the whole affair. Quite compelling radio, on the BBC iPlayer for six more days.

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