With the patient encouragement of Stewart Conn, John started writing radio plays in 1976, with Papageno set in an Italian village both during the Second World War and in the present.
This was followed by another half-hour play, Heartwood (1978), set in contemporary rural Scotland, as was the 50-minute Girl At A Window (1985) - the latter inspired by a painting by Rose Barton.
These first three plays were all BBC Radio Scotland commissions.
Carver, at 100', was Purser's first full-length play and was a joint commission for BBC Radio Scotland and Radio 3 for The Sunday Play. Carver tells the story of the 16th-century Scottish composer Robert Carver and the survival of the Carver Choirbook - sole evidence for most of his output. Carver won the New York International Radio Festival Gold Medal in the Specialist Drama category, and it also won a Giles Cooper Award for the script and was published by Methuen along with the other award-winners of that year. The part of Carver himself was taken by Tom Fleming. As with all Purser's plays up to that time, the Producer was Stewart Conn.
Parrots and Owls followed in 1994. Also a full-length play, this was a commission from BBC Radio 3, again for The Sunday Play, and was produced in London by Jeremy Howe. Set in Oxford in the 1850s, the play followed the controversies surrounding two Irish stone carvers, the O'Shea brothers, their encounters with John Ruskin, John Everett Millais and Effie Gray, and the building of the Oxford Museum.
The Secret Commonwealth was again a full-length BBC Radio 3 Sunday Play commission, produced in Edinburgh by Patrick Rayner. The inspiration for The Secret Commonwealth was the traditional Scottish ballad, The Trumpeter O' Fyvie (also known as Mill O' Tiftie's Annie). It tells the tragic story of a mill-owner's daughter who was abused by her own family and murdered by her brother. John also composed the incidental music for this production.
Reviews of Purser's Radio Plays
“Stewart Conn produces this, and the manner in which it draws lightly-charged electric wires across the mind of its audience is particularly worthy of note. This time poetry is not so much the theme on which the variations are spun, as the variation which transcends the theme so well.” (Owen Dudley Edwards. Radio Times, 19.10.1976)
“Another nugget last week was Heartwood, a polished little play by John Purser on radio Scotland on Tuesday. This was more of a mood piece, a broody vignette, than an orthodox drama. Almost without a plot, it was about a stubborn, wilful, eccentric old odd-job man on a Scottish estate. At the end of the play he was dismissed as “bone idle,” “just an anachronism,” but by then we knew well that he had presence, at once ominous and innocent. The piece left in its wake a lingering, smouldering aftertaste . .” (Harry Reid in The Scotsman, April 1978)
Girl at a Window
“The play works through a double-take, the story being one level of a lecturer’s interpretation of a girl’s portrait; and although the content touches on possible murder, sexual feeling and the clash of cultures, this idea-filled distancing gives it a kind of gentleness, an aesthetics of optimism. The play suggests a vision which, upon seeing the cuckoo usurp the nest of another, would simultaneously see a magic harbinger of light.” (Catherine Lockerbie in The Scotsman, March 1985)
“Where to start in praising Stewart Conn’s production . . of John Purser’s play about the 16th century Augustinian canon, composer at James V’s court, and massive rock against which the waves of the Reformation crashed? First, of course, there’s the writing. Purser tackles great spiritual and temporal themes with breathtaking boldness. Then there is the golden thread of Carver’s devotional music superbly performed by the Taverner consort. And finally, from Tom Fleming as Carver, there’s a monumental performance that is a bench-mark for the entire cast.” (The Times, radio 3 Choice 7.12.1991)
“John Purser’s powerful drama contrasts the radiance of 16th-century composer Robert Carver’s music with the earthiness of his character.” (Michael Cunningham in The Irish Times 30.3.1991)
“A terrific play about John [sic] Carver . . It’s an ‘Amadeus’ type portrait of ethereal music sprouting from an earthy character, with Tom Fleming splendid as the thick voiced Carver. Indeed, there’s much to talk about: the simple and the complex, both in music, religion and people: reformation starkness threatens both Carver’s multi-part music (sung by the Taverner Consort) and the courtly amorality of his sister, and even Carver’s son has a weird (and occasionally unconvincing) mix of the backward and forward.” (Time Out 27.3-8.4.1991)
“What is so good about the play is the spectrum of characters Purser creates, no mere cyphers, but believable individuals who developed. . . The contrast between Carver’s rich colourful world and Alan’s greyer Calvinism is sparely and effectively drawn without recourse to the clichéd abuse relentlessly poured on Calvin these days . . Purser’s writing is vigorously earthy where necessary, but rising to heights of a real lyricism which works on the voice (something not always achieved by dramatists).” (Joy Hendry in The Scotsman 6.4.1991)
“Carver – the most interesting, credible and strongly-acted play to have emerged from Radio Scotland these three years . . Illuminated throughout by Carver’s gorgeous choral music, the story glows like a dark jewel . .” (Joyce MacMillan in Weekend Glasgow Herald 6.4.1991)
Parrots and Owls
“John Purser’s new play Parrots and Owls (Radio 3, 7.30pm) is a nicely contrived study of the stresses of 19th-century marriage. Its setting is John Ruskin’s proposal for a University Museum at Oxford as a new temple of arts, crafts, and science. The construction started just as Darwin’s evolutionary theories threw the cat among the academic pigeons: the philosophical weight attributed to the building’s decorative figures eventually overwhelmed its progenitor. Purser contrasts Ruskin’s’ arid marriage to Effie Gray with the often-rumbustious relationships of the two Irish brothers whose stone carvings can still be seen on the
unfinished building.” (Harold Jackson in The Guardian 24.9.1994, p16)
The Secret Commonwealth
“Incest, rape, jealousy, lust, four-letter words and violent death all feature in John Purser’s extraordinary play, set in Scotland in the 1670s. However, they are handled with sensitivity and poetic imagery that burns with real power. The story combines an affair between two youngsters (played by Vicki Masson, who starred in Rob Roy, and Jimmy Chisholm) with the real life of Robert Kirk, a minister who supported the belief in elves and fairies “who yield their lore to the common people”. Eerie and gripping, it achieves that rare thing – holding you for nearly two hours.” (Paul Donnelly in The Sunday Times 5.5.1996, p10.49)
“The tragic story of a 17th-century Scottish mill-owner’s beautiful daughter, plagued by an insanely possessive twin brother, is the subject of John Purser’s evocative Sunday Play: the Secret Commonwealth . .” (Maureen Paton in the Daily Express 4.5.1996).
Dates of Broadcasts
Papageno 30’ BBC Radio Scotland, 19.4.1977.
Heartwood 30’ BBC Radio Scotland, 4.4.1978.
Girl at a Window 50’ BBC Radio Scotland, 26.3.1985:
Radio Eireann, 19.9.1989
Carver 100’ BBC Radio Scotland/Radio 3, 31.3.1991
Parrots and Owls 100’ BBC Radio 3, 25.9.1994
The Secret Commonwealth 110’ BBC Radio 3, 5.5.1996: 14.12.1997