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16 June 2021updated 31 Aug 2021 7:12am

BBC Radio 4’s Song of the Reed is a thoughtful drama about the natural world

Recorded on location at the RSPB Strumpshaw Fen, the programme is peppered with birdsong and the buzz of grasshoppers, giving it a lively, absorbing feel. 

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

“So often debates in conservation are debates about one sort of human versus another,” says Nikki (Karen Hill), a manager from an environmental organisation called WildScapes, when she visits the fictional nature reserve of Fleggwick in the first episode of a new drama by Steve Waters (21 June, 2pm). Fleggwick is in dire need of financial backing. The wetlands may be a breeding place for the swallowtail – the UK’s largest and rarest butterfly, found only in the Norfolk Broads – but biodiversity won’t pay for staff or upkeep. Ever since the death of Fleggwick’s owner Mark Godwin, his daughter Liv (Sophie Okonedo) has been racking her brain as to how to save her father’s beloved wetlands. Support from WildScapes may be her only option.

[See also: In my newly wildlife-friendly garden, damselflies mate to a soundtrack of London traffic]

Of course, Nikki’s observation comes to pass. The reserve’s warden Ian, played with caustic humour by Mark Rylance, is resistant to WildScapes interfering with his life’s work at Fleggwick. “They’re not in it for nature,” he says. “That lot, they’re in it for merch and clout and tea rooms… We’re only here for the wild things. Not sat in Norwich, tinkering with Twitter, chasing yummy mummies wanting their lattes in their KeepCups.”

Song of the Reed is a thoughtful drama about how to manage a love of the natural world – from magnificent otters to exasperating hornets – as a sustainable business. It also raises questions about the language of conservation: ideas of “invasive” foreign species threatening British creatures may be scientifically sound, but they feel uncomfortable coming from the mouth of a cynical white man who is quick to call his female colleagues “out of their depth” as they discuss the field in which they are experts.

[See also: BBC Two’s Together is cheap and obvious pandemic piggybacking]

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Recorded on location at the RSPB’s Strumpshaw Fen, the programme is peppered with birdsong and the buzz of grasshoppers, giving it a lively, absorbing feel. It is probably a desire to deepen this immersive quality that led Waters to include interludes from the “Voice of the Reed” (Christine Kavanagh), who speaks in clichéd rhyming couplets (“The reed consoles those apart/Our song sustains the broken heart”). It’s a device that feels twee, and obtrudes in an otherwise convincing drama. 

Song of the Reed
BBC Radio 4

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This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web