Gareth Kent reviews series 10 of whimsical BBC comedy radio drama, Curious Under the Stars.
I have always maintained a deep attachment to quiet reprieves; spaces that are seemingly detached, spatially isolated, and dislocated from such notions as temporality, space, or in some instances, reality itself. Back alley coffee shops, isolated cabins that are hidden deep in the mountains, shabby pubs, jazz bars, and the hyperrealist spaces of online videogames. To those in search of a reprieve, these spaces are isolated matrixes that castaways drift through and can stop off as they attempt to navigate the murky tides of their everyday lives. While the reprieve may often nourish loneliness in lieu of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, they also function as spaces that provide succour to the subject in pursuit of self-healing. They are places of recovery and connection with the people around us. It is the atmosphere of this quiet reprieve that the BBC radio comedy-drama, Curious Under the Stars, channels through its evocation of an enchanting Welsh pub, the Druid’s Rest.
Set within the otherworldly Welsh Coastal town of Glan Don, the show’s premise is reminiscent of the likes of Twin Peaks, the magical podcast Welcome to Night Vale, and the works of Neil Gaiman. Here be dragons, spirits of miners, mystical fruit, and mermaids. The show is narrated by Emlyn (Ifan Huw Dafydd), and is vividly brought to life through a characteristic deep Welsh resonance pertaining to a jovial, yet, warmly intimate and mysterious storyteller, as he goes about narrating the town, its history, and the lives of the pub landlords, Gareth (Richard Elis) and Diane (Emma Sidi). Although, there is no mistaking the centrality of the Druid’s Rest in all of this, as it continues to remain one of the show’s most important stars. It is a quiet, tantalisingly magical getaway from the everyday. It is a place where history, folklore, and the quiet tenderness of nature and community coalesce.
In the beginning of Curious Under the Stars, Gareth and Diane return to Glan Don from London and purchase the Druid’s Rest in an effort to rekindle their failing marriage. Indeed, while the show’s magical undercurrents concern the town’s community as a whole, it is, ultimately, Gareth and Diane’s relationship that functions as the catalyst for many of the events within Glan Don. For example, a major conflict of series 10 sees half of the Druid’s Rest collapse into a sinkhole, itself mirroring a breakdown in the relationship between the pub’s residents. Diane has moved to Cardiff, a fact which magnifies the emotional distance between Gareth and herself. Meanwhile, Emlyn and Matty (Siw Hughes) fall-out due to Emlyn’s unwillingness to seriously commit to their relationship, quickly followed by Emlyn finding himself trapped underground, and forced to deliver a friend’s baby. The recurring fantastical and bewildering events within Glan Don, such as the appearance of apparitions, magnify the everyday tribulations that the pub’s residents undergo throughout each series. In this way, the town of Glan Don can be interpreted as a kind of macrocosm for the people within the Druid’s Rest, particularly regarding their relationships, where the sinking of the pub in series ten is figured as a kind of metaphorical signifier for the fracturing of those relations.
When it comes to the performances, Curious under the Stars retains its distinct and whimsical charm that continues to elevate each series through the skilled performances of its cast. While the show’s cast often changes, a factor that will certainly negate immersion for some listeners, the quality of those performances will quickly engross new and returning listeners alike. Emlyn’s tender performance, in particular, is so absorbing that it is easy to imagine yourself sitting at a bar and sharing a drink with this enigmatic, yet, warmly intimate, teller of tales. Emlyn is the glue of the series, of the pub, the town, and its history, and the burden of holding the town upon his shoulders in the series conclusion is itself apt to his centrality.
Of course, while the performances are consistently brilliant, we would be remiss to not mention the show’s score. Curious Under the Stars employs the musical stylings of Portico Quartet to provide the soundtrack of the series with their captivating Knee-deep In the North Sea. The quiet minimalist approach through a convergence of light electronics, jazz, and the harmonic resonance of the Quartet’s characteristic hang drum work to amplify the quiet, yet, mystical nature of the show. There is something enchantingly subterranean and alien in the hollow reverberations of the hang drum. Yet, the spaciousness of its reverb evokes a sense of intimate familiarity. It is like there was a spring of connected human experience locked up underground, sprouting forth through the cracks, where moments of quiet contemplation, happiness, anomie, uncertainty, and childlike magical wonder are filtered through. It is befitting that this instrument interjects Emlyn’s narration in this way, for he is the custodian who watches over Glan Don, the interconnectivity of its people, and the chronicler of their lived experiences.
Overall, while Curious Under the Stars has been running for a number of seasons, it remains unremittingly fresh and continues to captivate through its lore, storytelling, and cast of lovable characters. This reviewer holds no reservations on whether or not there is much left to be told in Glan Don. The creativity on display is boundless and is a shining luminary in the medium of radio. As series ten concludes with the promise of ‘a new start’ for the Druid’s Rest’s residents, any future series couldn’t come sooner.
Curious Under the Stars series ten is available at BBC Sounds