Is Radio 4 hoping for a Serial effect with new drama Tumanbay?

The ten-part historical drama with echoes of Game of Thrones will be broadcast weekly and will be available to download as a podcast

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The American true-crime documentary Serial was a podcast phenomenon in 2014. It was ranked at number one on iTunes even before it debuted, became the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads on the Apple store and, with new episodes released weekly, it stayed at the top of the rankings for over three months. 

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Those numbers made people in the radio industry sit up and pay attention. The BBC weren’t slow to act, buying the rights to Serial and broadcasting it on Radio 4 Extra in early 2015.

But airing a podcast is not the same as producing a podcast, as the BBC surely knows since it has been providing successful downloadable audio accompaniments to many of its shows for years (Mayo and Kermode; Today; Woman’s Hour).

The one area where the BBC has limited experience of creating podcasts is drama, but thanks to new agreements with the actors’ union Equity that’s about to change, giving you more chance to discover something you missed the first time round. (Podcasts are in addition to being able to download episodes from the iPlayer Radio app and stream for 30 days on the website).

Who managed to stick with all of Radio 4’s broadcast of War and Peace across New Year’s Day 2015? It was one of the first dramas to be available to download, so you could have taken your time and listened at your leisure. The first drama to be podcast was the epic First World War story Home Front, and now the new weekly serial in the afternoon drama slot, Tumanbay, is added to the roster.

Writer and director John Dryden is excited about the way his complex tale of intrigue in medieval Egypt is being broadcast: “I am really pleased to have persuaded the BBC to put it out weekly rather than blitzing it over a day or over two weeks. What I want to do is build an audience through word of mouth and social media.”

And he’s looking at the weekly format of Serial as a way for the audience to engage with his story, and hoping that it will replicate the reach and number of downloads: “Podcasting puts the audience in control — you don’t have to be sat in front of a computer — you can listen on the tube to work or while out jogging.”

Though perhaps he’s thinking more of House of Cards in terms of storytelling: “Serial was of course a documentary, whereas this is an ensemble drama with an epic sweep. It’s the radio equivalent of a season of TV drama you might watch on Netflix. And because we can podcast it, we can afford for it to be more layered and richer, planting clues that the audience can revisit if they wish.”

Tumanbay is set in a fictional north African city, the jewel of a great empire that draws people from all over the known world to take advantage of its wealth and opportunities. It’s a place where a slave can become the wife of a sultan. But all is not well at the heart of the empire – there are deadly spies at work in the sultan’s palace, an uprising that is met with brutal retribution.

It may sound like something from Game of Thrones (of which more below), but much of what happens is actually based on historical events and people from a 300-year period during the Mumluk slave dynasty in Egypt. Yet Dryden is also keen to stress that there is contemporary relevance too: “My intention with Tumanbay is to create a world which has resonance with the world today. There a little bit of North Korea and whole lot of Isis in there to be found too.”

So there are hints at the modern world to be discovered, but if you want to just enjoy it as a morally complex fantasy drama then you can. Rufus Wright, who plays Gregor, the ruthless Master of the Palace Guard, is one to draw parallels between his character and Game of Thrones:

“He reminds me of a couple of characters in Game of Thrones. Particularly Peter Dinklage’s character, Tyrion Lannister, because he does seems to have moments of certainty and truth and almost moments when you admire him. But on the whole, you are staggered that he would do certain things simply to stay in power and rise slowly to the top.”

Meanwhile, his co-star Alexander Siddig (who plays Prince Doran Martell in GoT), believes the setting is similar to that of TV’s blockbusting fantasy drama:

“This could easily be one of the worlds in Game of Thrones. My world in Game of Thrones is this world. Tumanbay could easily be the capital of Dorne for example.”

So whether your thing is historical drama, allegorical thrillers or complex fantasy, it seems that all is here for you to discover and relish again and again on the podcast.

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Listen and download episodes of Tumanbay here.