Preview: Safety Catch (series two)

More adventures of Joanna Page and the arms dealer

As Radio 4 comedies go, Safety Catch is an odd little show. Starring Darren Boyd (Green Wing, Smack the Pony), Joanna Page (Gavin and Stacey), Brigit Forsyth (The Likely Lads), Lewis McLeod (Look Around You) and Sarah Smart (Wallander), it’s aimed at the same kind of liberal, middle class audience as more obvious fare like Claire in the Community.

But it’s about a man who makes a living from mass murder, gun running and selling weapons to child soldiers ("putting the infant in infantry").

No wonder then that yet again it’s been marooned in the 11.30pm slot when it returns for its second series on 1st April.

But, hey, I went to see two episodes being recorded last Sunday. Here’s what that was like.

Like a lot of BBC radio programmes, Safety Catch is recorded in BBC Broadcasting House, just a few hundred metres from Oxford Circus tube station. If you’ve been successfully selected by random draw for a ticket or tickets, you’ll get them through by email. Print them out, follow the instructions and turn up.

Actually, ignore the instructions because they’re lies: 6.30pm site opens, 7.15pm studio opens, 7.30pm recording starts. Lies, all lies. Because if you get there at 7.10pm, make your way through the metal detectors and the bag checks (with your, ahem, penknife, which is banned on the list of permissible items on the eTicket) and arrive at the studio at 7.15pm, you’ll find almost everyone already sitting down in their seats. See if you can find an empty one, I dare you.

So turn up earlier than specified if I were you.

The studio itself is a little odd. Clearly built in more refined times, its walls are covered in fake marble friezes of classical Greek life. They’re at floor level, which is odd until you realise that that the entire floor has been elevated about four feet from the original level – which would explain why there’s a door two feet high labelled "Exit".

Anyway, if you have got yourself a seat – and they’re quite comfortable, surprisingly – there’s a stage in front of you with two mikes and a row of chairs. Mike one is for normal speech, around which the cast will cluster when it’s their turn to talk; mike two is for special effects like phone conversations and, erm, people talking into microphones. Do not expect cast members to be in costume or to have memorised their lines.

Recording started bang on time at 7.30pm, with producer Dawn Ellis – who looks like she should be in Claire in the Community, in the nicest possible way – acting as warm-up woman, taking the unusual step of using the BBC editorial guidelines from 1949 as her material. After giving out a few house rules about mobile phones, etc, she introduced the cast and recording began.

Unlike TV recording, scripted radio recording is a far more fluid affair, with the cast essentially delivering the script in one go, occasionally repeating a line they might have stumbled over. If there’s anything that still didn’t sound right, there’s three or four minutes or re-recordings after they’ve finished the episode. 

With only two episodes to record and a 15 minute break, during which you could retire to the not-bad bar next door or leg it if you hated it (as some people apparently did), that meant everyone was out at 9.10pm – not bad. It might even have been sooner if writer Laurence Howarth hadn’t popped up to present some flowers to Ellis for whom this was her last recording as an in-house BBC producer before going freelance. Ah, ain’t that sweet?

So what were the episodes like, Rob?
The obvious accusation about the episodes is that nothing has moved on since the first series. But I think that’s unfair since one of the two main themes of Safety Catch (the clue is in the title) is inertia: a lot of the time, we stick with what we know, even if it’s not great, because it’s effort to make changes and what’s out there can be a lot scarier.

So Simon (Boyd) and Anna (Page) are still a couple, despite the fact they don’t really like each other that much; Simon’s still selling weapons to Africa, despite promising that he’s going to quit his job as soon as he can; and Simon’s sister Judith (Smart) is still lecturing him about his evil ways, but hasn’t totally disowned him.

The two episodes recorded, the last two of the series, provided two variants on this theme. In the first (episode four in the series, I think), Simon tries to massage his conscience by sabotaging his company from within by being incompetent, only to be horrified that he can’t when he discovers he actually loves his job and is good at it; meanwhile, he and Anna decide to pretend to break up, just to find out what their friends really think of them as a couple.

In the second episode, Simon finally quits his job on principle when he discovers the company is selling uniforms and weapons to child soldiers and wonders whether he and Anna shouldn’t break up when she starts to look at babies’ clothes for a little too long.

One of the joys of the first series of Safety Catch was its cynicism, the other main theme of the show – Simon may be a nasty piece of work with tissue-thin justifications for his work, but no one else is that much better. Everyone from Simon’s mum to his sister is bad in one way or another, no matter what their job – it’s just a question of degrees. Joyfully, series two continues in this vein.

Oxfam-worker Judith thinks everyone at Help the Aged is ‘a dick’, primary school teacher Anna’s perfectly happy to settle for Simon and also to pretend to have broken up with Simon if it gets her some information; and Simon’s mum would have made more of her husband while he was alive if she’d only known how popular he was. Only Simon’s co-worker Boris – the man who came up with the idea of the clusterbomb whose shrapnel gives you AIDS – has any integrity and that’s only because he’s so honest.

The two episodes recorded were both very good, with some very dark, laugh out loud moments. Despite being a comedy, there were also a couple of points where Laurence Howarth wasn’t afraid to go serious and delve into the real implications of Simon’s job, including some of its more illegal aspects and its effects on civilians.

I’m not sure the show is quite as dark as the first series was, which is very slightly disappointing, but I don’t think it tries to have its cake and eat as much, with the cowardly Simon not breaking character to do something too brave at any point. It’s still very funny and actually quite thought-provoking in its way, so definitely worth tuning in for.

You can read some thoughts of mine about series one and listen to the episodes back on this entry.