Writer: Neil Gore
Director: Louise Townsend
Arguably the forgotten conflict of the twentieth century, the Spanish Civil War is often seen as a pre-amble for the far greater and more devastating conflict to come just two years later. But, inspired by the fight against fascism, Spain’s plight attracted British working men and artists who relished the opportunity to defend the Communist principles they believed in, a story envisaged in Neil Gore’s audio drama Dare Devil Rides to Jarama.
Adapted from his own 2016 play, Gore tells the story of Clem “Dare Devil” Beckett, born in Oldham and trained as a blacksmith before becoming a speedway star and passionate advocate of Spanish liberation. As Clem wins race after race in the 1920s, he establishes unions for working sportsmen and agitates for better conditions, before unexpectedly joining forces with writer Christopher Caudwell to drive ambulances to Spain where they decide to join the International Brigade.
Originally written to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the war, the transition to audio drama is a fairly smooth one, using just two actors to recreate a cast of characters and more than a decade of Beckett’s life in detail. Director Louise Townsend usefully employs sound effects to create a sense of place that includes the noises of the racetrack crowds, speeding cars and muffled commentary in the early episodes, while later the sounds of protest against Oswald Mosley and the warlike noises of the Battle of Jarama are evocative, helping to relocate the audience within this sprawling story.
Divided into four distinct episodes with a collective running time of around 100-minutes, Dare Devil Rides to Jarama captures the spirit of Beckett’s character and the personal perspective serves the story well as it skips through some of the key events of the era. Episode One prioritises the protagonist’s early years and links to the Manchester Young Communists League along with tours of Europe as a stunt rider, while Episode Two focuses almost entirely on the political interaction between Left and Right-wing groups which, though contextually interesting, feels more like a catalogue of events chronicling as many of Beckett’s activities as the writer can include.
Generally, Beckett narrates his own story directly to the audience while stepping into dramatised scenes to vary the presentation style. In Episode Three, the focus switches to Caudwell whose letters home refocus the perspective for a short time, offering a different insight as the writer becomes a semi-reluctant recruit, before returning to Beckett’s perspective for the climatic battle sequence in the final part.
Gore’s writing is full of technical detail and impressive research covering the types of bikes that Clem was riding, the specific guns issued to British units in the Spanish Civil War and even to the music, chants, poems and speeches that Gore adapts. Sometimes this overwhelms the personal story and in trying to tell Beckett’s complete biography, the impact of the crucial final years is paled, certainly without the visual aid of scenery and the actor’s visible reactions.
Focusing the story more tightly on the final years would be advantageous in this medium, using some of the earlier life stories as memories or discussions with comrades, rather than a chronological approach. And while the authentic music has some value, it perhaps consumes too much storytelling time in an audio drama with around 10-minutes of Episode Three given over to a lengthy chant and Burns Night celebration.
There is much to like in David Heywood’s warm performance as Clem who emerges from his biography as a credible character while Gore plays everyone else, adopting a range of voices that you would never assume were the work of one person. Dare Devil Ride to Jarama makes an interesting transition from stage to audio balancing the political and human stories to offer a surprising new angle on the Spanish Civil War.