Harry Turnbull's Reviews, 14 Sep 2021.
The Master Builder
One of the more challenging Ibsen works to adapt for radio. The text is heavy on the metaphysical with pronounced symbolic referencing and an inconclusive central motif.
Over the years many stage producers and academics have wrestled with the meaning within the text and come up with various suppositions.
The problem is they have been trying to unlock meanings without having the key - and I believe it has been placed in plain sight by Ibsen. The Master Builder is about a man who has been a very successful property developer by exploiting others but whose life has been ravaged by tragedy. He now fears he himself will be usurped by one of his employees. And a shadow from the past comes back to haunt him. The title demonstrates the background to this story which is Norse mythology with a bit of Greek thrown in . When Asgard, the dwelling place of the Gods, was constructed they called in a master builder to create a protective wall to surround it. In Greek mythology the master craftsman Daedelus was asked to build a labyrinth in Crete to contain the Minotaur and was assisted by his son Icarus.
In this story the Master Builder builds his own castles in the air and, like Icarus, flies too high to the sun and becomes burned. The Master Builder is called Halvard Solness, with Sol being the Norwegian word for sun.
This is the framework. Ibsen actually gives us the key to the story by helpfully using character names as pointers. Solness we have just described. His employee and would-be usurper is called Ragnar, a clear reference to Ragnarok, the end of all days when the gods are vanquished and a new order takes over. Ragnar represents the new order.
The second biggest character is Hilde Wangel. Hilde is also the name of a Valkyrie, those maidens who carry fallen heroes to Valhalla. Her second name indicates she is a harbinger or ‘angel of death’. I could go on, and if I was doing a dissertation I probably would. Once you have this key, you can then represent the play either on stage or audio. The themes are many and varied but can be pinned down to death, destruction and renewal.
Sadly, as my theory has not yet been made widely known, no one has yet done this!
I am puzzled by something. This was broadcast on Radio 4 in the old classic serial slot yet it is a dramatic work and would seem far more suited to Drama on 3. Sunday afternoon on Radio 4 will attract more casual listeners and if they do not know Ibsen or indeed this work, many may have struggled.
Ahead of this adaptation, the BBC blurbed about the resonance with the
All said, an intriguing choice for an adaption and worth a listen.
BBC Radio 4
At first I was puzzled, then mystified and finally boiling like a lobster in a pot. You see I assumed a tale about Theseus would feature his clash with the Mintoaur and I happen to have a soft spot for the beast - but hes was nowhere to be heard. Perhaps I should explain the fondness is due to the fact my family name is also enveloped in a bullish legend.
I was a little unbalanced by what I was hearing; it did not seem to fit the myth of Theseus that I remember during those dreamy days of Classics lessons at school.
After a bit of due diligence I discovered this adaptation by Robin Brooks is based on the novel by Mary Renault whose modus operandi, I gather, was to strip away the more fantastical aspects of the mythical stories to reach something more akin to history.
And one of those elements is of course the union between King Minos’ wife Pasiphae and an alluring white bull that produced the Minotaur. If you then relisten with this in mind, it becomes much clearer to figure out what is playing out and who is symbolic of the fabulous beast. It is much more low key than the usual conflicts found within the Greek myth stories and this is reflected in a dreamy soundscape created by the maestro Wilfred Acosta.
A series of five afternoon ensemble drama productions on Radio 4
A collection of vignettes from different parts of the UK, conceived as a platform for new writers as the traditional slots are being eaten away by cost-cutting.
Each episode hosts a collection of stories whether drama, comedy or poetry. I’ve dipped in and out of a few.
In the one called Fearing it starts with a mournful tale of a woman grieving the loss of her mother by sitting in bed watching the snow through an open window. The next stop is an enchanting folksong, Welsh I think. After that there was an Irish philosophical poetic ramble about the nature of fear. Then a slice of comedy ending with a woman careering down an A road in her wheelchair. Bring up the rear, Tankerton, which seemed to be a monologue by what I believed is termed a non-binary person.
I’ve read widely, from Aurelius to Schopenhaur, Eric Idle to David Icke but I struggle to understand how an individual can determine their own gender. I thought listening to this might help but it didn’t really, it was just someone cogitating on life as he/she/they see it.
In this episode called Hoping we have a conversation between an Asian mother and daughter set in Yorkshire, the rhythm of their exchanges perfectly mirrored by the Dholi drum in the background.
In Bargeddie a chap with a disability has an imaginary chat with his twin toddlers who are non-disabled and in Colchester; an awful reflection of a vicious knife attack from both the attacker and victim.
The series features 50 new writers and 100 performers. The BBC drama see this as a way of overcoming the obstacles presented by ever diminishing resources for new productions.
A pretty good idea well executed.
BBC Radio 4
The premise seemed appealing enough; a fresh-faced graduate eking out a living as a gardener in 2025 discovers a new Coronavirus is lurking in South East Asia where mummy has been hammering out a deal as the UK trade minister.
Could he persuade her to investigate and possibly jeopardise a lucrative agreement?
Yes. In a bizarre exchange over the dinner table, our hero, coming across like a cross between Ed Miliband at the despatch box and Jeremy Paxman, manages to wring a ‘pledge’ out of mummy to get to the heart of the Covid conundrum at all costs.
It continued in this vein, wavering between drama and spoof like a departed soul wandering ‘twixt this world and the next until the great reveal. Sort of.
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
The most under-valued of the great Dystopian novels. Some call Zamyatin the Godfather of Dystopia but I think that accolade should actually go to the Godmother, Mary Shelley for The Last Man.
Zamyatin’s book was written in 1921 so as you can imagine it didn’t go down well with Lenin & Co, depicting as it does a totalitarian society. The difference with this one is that instead of just concentrating on the outer and inner worlds of the state, it also involves construction of a spaceship, the Integral, to conquer new worlds. Was Zamyatin saying the Communist state would harbour ambitions further afield in the future?
An excellent production with the expected impressive performances from Lesser and Warrington. Worth checking out if you haven’t heard before.
HT, 14 Sep 21
Harry Turnbull's Reviews, 5 Aug 2021.
Drama on 3 - Terminal 3
Simon Stephens chats about his love for European theatre.
Drama on 3 loves to explore the dark, underbelly of European theatre. Poignant, agonising relationship predicaments by a slew of continental playwrights are often compared with Beckett and Pinter. But to my mind the works of dramatists such as Jon Fosse, Florian Zeller and in this instance, Lars Noren, have more than a passing resemblance to Spaghetti Westerns, infused with a dash of absurdist theatre.
How so? Well, many will recall Clint Eastwood in the films that created the blueprint for the genre as The Man With No Name.
Zeller’s acclaimed trilogy features the Mother, the Father and the Son whilst in Fosse’s I am the Wind the two characters are Him and The Other.
Now, in Noren’s own bleak look at personal turbulence we have She, He, Man and Woman. It’s not only the impersonal ambiguity but the taciturn dialogue,the pauses, the unfinished sentences - all remind one of Pinter but also Eastwood as the vengeful drifter.
And the often surreal nature of the surroundings and characters, the playful way time is distorted are all qualities of an absurdist nature.
Playwright Simon Stephens has long been an admirer of Scandanavian and European theatre and here enthusiastically introduces Terminal 3. Noren died recently of Covid-related complications and this unfortunate event seems to inspire Stephens to grasp the audience and say ‘ Here. you don’t know what you’re missing’.
Stephens himself in celebrated on the continent and feels part of that wider writing community. He told me: “When I was involved in script meetings at the Royal Court twenty years ago, we would get work from Scandanavia and Germany and I’d be thinking, this is new, there is a different agenda here.
“It began a fascination with writers from Europe that are not so well known here but are huge elsewhere. Noren is iconic in Germany and France but rarely performed here and when he is, it is at smaller theatres. My writing has been nourished by a fascination about what is happening in Europe yet artists of significance are far too often overlooked here.
“Take Jon Fosse. Fosse is an Ibsen award winner, he is massive.What I like is that on Drama on 3 there is a platform for these works, a way of introducing new ways of storytelling. When I was working on Fosse’s I am The Wind, it was fascinating to talk to him about his approach to dialogue. It’s about sound, poetry and aural landscape not just words as moving a plot forward.
“Some of this stuff is not seen enough in British theatre sadly. And this demands a question.What is drama? Is it to be populist and fill theatres or to explore new kinds of writing. Of course the answer is that it can be both.”
In Terminal 3, as in the radio broadcast of Fosse’s I am The Wind, Barnsley actor Shaun Dooley has been recruited for a story about two couples in a waiting room at a building housing a hospital and a mortuary. One is expecting a birth and the other has been summoned to identify a dead young man. The link soon becomes apparent.
A mournful exploration of lives, loves and despair, it evokes memories and feelings and ultimately love.
I remember reading the book by Solzhenitsyn and being absorbed by the desolation of the limitless Siberian landscape, the isolation of the gulag and the descriptions of claustrophobic, biting cold.
Anyone expecting that atmosphere to be rekindled here was disappointed. Rather than creating a soundscape to match the story, it was done by exposition.
For instance there were largely only references to the weather, to cold and to a temperature gauge.
Audio drama should be engaging the listener's imagination - we don't want to be told it's cold, we need to feel it.
Also, as Mike Walker adapted a version in 2008 and before that Tom Courtney did a reading in 1979, why the need to revisit this work?
Not for the first time it puzzles me how some of the works featured on Radio 4 actually get commissioned.
There is always room for acerbic satire on radio. Simon Evans dons a stetson, pulls out a sharpshooter and takes aim at the filthy rich. With such a massive target to aim at, it’s a breeze.
For instance, since the pandemic began, the number of billionaires has skyrocketed and their total wealth is two and half times the income of the United States.
Of course they are being helped along by central banks like the Bank of England which continues to pluck billions from the magic money tree to bolster the markets which is where a lot of this wealth lies.
Mr Evans is right to ponder why government’s are actually creating inequality instead of reversing it. Perhaps Keir Starmer should give this a listen as he appears to have no ammunition of his own.
One of those strange little curiosities happened while listening to this as I drove back from an appointment. I was thinking, I've heard of the Stanislavsky method but I am not intimately familiar with his work. I might have to do some homework.
En route I bobbed into Chester library to pick up a book I had on order. While there I was browsing and leafed through a book which appeared to be a love letter from Captain Kirk to Mr Spock. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy apparently did not speak in the couple of years before the USS Enterprise's first officer's death in 2015, and this story seemed to be a regretful but celebratory footnote. And there in the text was an explanation of Stanislavsky and how Nimoy was more method actor and Shatner more off-the-cuff. Very useful!
This production examines the methods of the maestro Stanislavsky and his acolytes, such as Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg.
The cleverly constructed plot sees a mega TV star Cressida Yorke preparing for a first stage appearance in The Seagull by contemplating suicide, she is such a bag of nerves.
The ghosts of Stan and co rock up to debate the nuances of the acting techniques of the Russian maestro and his followers. These include divergences of thought on the best approach whilst simultaneously trying to impress on the young actor how to go about her challenge.
An insight into method acting championed over the years by the likes of Marlon Brando and Daniel Day-Lewis.
HT, 5 Aug 21
Harry Turnbull's Reviews, 10 July & 13 Jul 2021.
Hardy’s Women - Jude The Obscure
Radio 4 Classic serials
Nothing wrong with wheeling out old dependables of course but I wonder whether some of these stories could be updated into a more modern setting (Ducks while brickbats fly).
Of course Hardy’s Women is applying a different spin by taking the story from a female perspective.
In this case it’s Sue - doesn’t really have that tragic heroine ring does it - who takes centre-stage. But it’s not that different - no happy ending! Instead the production focuses on the toil and tribulations of Jude’s unmarried other half.
As for The Rainbow, this was a book I recall studying at grammar school. I don’t know whether my thoughts are coloured by my lack of enthusiasm for Lawrence’s prose or because of the teacher, a large man with a bushy beard who loved to carry around a bamboo cane for thrashing boys while crying out ‘Dear Zeus, what have I done to deserve this?’ .
Even so, I had to refresh myself on the story with a quick search to get a handle on what was happening. I think a much clearer narrator is needed with outright exposition at the outset to introduce the story. And to return to a previous point, I think this would greatly benefit from being set in the here and now.
As on the page, the verbalised prose makes me wonder whether horny-handed sons of the soil are likely to be spouting stuff like, ‘you’ve hair like thistledown, stuck out in straight flaming pieces’.
WAITING FOR BOBBO
Bobaholics. A group of artistic types meet once a year in a restaurant to celebrate the life and work of Bob Dylan, folk singer. On this occasion excitement swells to tumescence as one of the party reveals Bob is to join them for a bite to eat. I hope the Beckett reference in the headline isn’t a spoiler. I’m no fan of the Bobbler but he did recently rise in my estimation when he dismissed those who imbue arcane meanings into his work. One gets so exasperated at some - particularly university lecturers - who forensically examine each syllable of a particular writer as if the meaning of life is hidden within a sentence.
So good on Bob, like Pinter, who disregards the interpreters as insignificant.
Although this was an amusing bit of frippery I was puzzled as to why it claimed the prize Saturday afternoon hour long slot rather than a 45 minute midweek drama.Still, Dylan nerds will love it.
The BBC has finally unveiled its vision of the future in the shape of this project called Limelight. It has been given a Friday afternoon slot with the idea of a soap-style format producing a cliffhanger ending each week.
The episodes are simultaneously available on Sounds but the plan appears to be to attract that OLD chestnut, the YOUNGER audience, for a regular tune in on Fridays. Whether this psychological thriller featuring characters called Dingo and Coyote throwing a few bad boy vibes and ‘innits’ attracted a new audience or merely baffled the current one is one for speculation.
Rhian Roberts, commissioning editor for digital and podcasts says optimistically there is an increased appetite for such ‘unique storytelling’.
The plot itself revolves around a guy sucked into The System, a shady organisation that appears bent on taking down rich capitalists. I think I’ve got that right. Check it out!
James Hilton’s Lost Horizon
Dramatised by Barry Cambell
I was first hooked on radio drama by the still peerless Brian Sibley production of Lord of the Rings in 1981. In the same year this alluring broadcast of Lost Horizon also caressed my listening buds.I was younger then, fresh out of college, possessing a generous head of hair and strode jauntily along, occasionally with a bejewelled beauty on my arm, her skin bronzed by frequent trips to the tanning salon in Platt Bridge, Wigan. How times change - but not the quality of such recordings.
I recall listening to Hilton’s tale of Shangri-La in bed, marvelling at its magical, dream-like quality as I resisted the land of nod.
The years since have not dulled this wonderful excursion into the memory banks and the Tibetan wilderness.
Drama on 3
Featuring Shaun Dooley and Pippa Dixon
A Jacobean revenge classic piped in by the discordant notes of Jimi Hendrix set the tone for this dark journey into the dungeons of the human experience.
The Duchess, recently widowed, is warned by her brothers about future relationships and one senses that this 500 year old story still resonates now, with the idea that male family members should control the honour of a sister.
And by consorting with Antonio, a member of her household. one also thinks of that anxious bird in a gilded cage, Princess Diana, who took that same route to find personal freedom.
To keep tabs on the Duchess the brothers Ferdinand and Cardinal employ Bosolo, allowing Barnsley’s Shaun Dooley to add to his appearances in Drama on 3 productions.
During the story Dooley and musical collaborator Jules Maxwell add a few slices of rock to complement the Hendrix intro that announced the play.
Pippa Dixon excels as a tragic figure who seals her fate by marrying her beau secretly and bearing his children. It all unravels in gruesome fashion.
There will be blood!
HT, 10 Jul 21 and 13 Jul 21
Aliens in the Mind
Six episodes Radio 4 Extra (Last episode May 1, 2021)
This has been something of a SciFi cult classic for many years but it has a number of fascinating aspects to it, aside from starring Vincent Price and Peter Cushing as Curtis Lark and John Cornelius.
For instance, it was eventually written by Rene Basilico, a very mysterious author who lent his name to a number of well-known radio works including Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. I say mysterious because I have attempted to track him down over the years and always drawn a blank. I sometimes wondered if it was a made-up pen name, perhaps covering inclduing of authors. One collaborator confided in me that Rene was very much alive and living in North London but was a very private man and didn’t wish to be contacted. It remains a mystery.
Aliens In the Mind was originally the idea of Robert Holmes who had written it as a Dr. Who adventure but it was turned down by Terrance Dicks.
Holmes later re-worked it and in 1975 touted the idea to Richard Imison, the BBC’s script editor for radio drama via his agent Jon Thurley. The initial reaction was that it would make a 90 minute drama rather than a series. Things cooled for a few months but then Holmes was asked to write a 30 minute pilot script by producer John Dyas. Dyas was prepared to commit to a full series of six 30 minute episodes but he felt there was a small amount of rewriting, The delivery date was July 1976.
The Head of Light Entertainment got wind of the fee to be paid and queried it. Head of copyright cited Bob’s huge TV experience as justification. It was agreed he got 50% upfront and the rest on transmission of the series. However, the delivery date passed with nothing further being written for Bob was preoccupied writing the Dr Who story, The Deadly Assassin.
Then he planned to go on holiday but take his typewriter to do the radio scripts. His wife was taken ill and he had to take leave not returning till August 1976, only to learn transmission dates had been brought forward: He wrote to Dyas, saying “I am still working out dates with Jon Thurley and will let him know early next week to let him know what, if anything, I can do. At the moment however it looks like I am going to have to pull out of Aliens. I feel very bad letting you down.”*
Dyas was furious. He now realised no scripts had been written. Thurley also represented another writer, Rene Basilico, and suggested him as a replacement. He had done some TV writing and would later adapt Tinker, Tailor for radio. He had also penned an episode of The Price of Fear, produced by Dyas. Basilico agreed to write to the storylines already proposed but wouldn’t rigidly stick to them. He said he would have the first episode done in a week. Dyas contacted Head of Copyright over the change and pulled no punches of his thoughts on Holmes Basilico decided to develop the story in another way and Holmes had to return some of the payment. It was rewritten as Aliens in the Mind by RB from an idea by Robert Holmes. He got six scripts done by November and a bit of a coup took place when Cushing and Price were signed up. First episode was transmitted on January 2 1977. Now regarded as something of a cult classic.
[*Robert Holmes, A life In Words by Richard Molesworth (Telos Publishing, 2013)]
Podcasts BBC Sounds and Radio 4
Featuring Barnaby Kay and Jana Carpenter
As sixth-formers we drank real ale, listened to Amun Duul ll and discussed the merits of Wittgenstein's tour de force, Tractatus Logico- philosophicus. Making sense of the latter was an exercise in brain-scrambling futility. There has been nothing to touch it since the convoluted plotlines of Line of Duty.
That is until I attempted to catch up with the series of podcasts based on investigations into H.P. Lovecraft folklore. I suppose dipping in and out doesn't help but even so these stories weave such a convoluted tapestry of abstruseness one can only marvel at the mind that concocted them.
It sounds like someone swallowed the Golden Bough for breakfast, brunched on the Ribiyat of Omar Khazan and nibbled on the Bhagdad Gita the rest of the day before knocking back the Necronomicon for supper. The story interweaves Lovecraft classics with the concept of the old ones, appearances by the likes of John Dee, Matthew Hopkins, Aleister Crowley, Hitler and Madame Blavatsky.
The basic concept of rulers who travelled here from the stars have been instrumental in key points of Earth history. Julian Simpson weaves them all into a devious aural contraption but even with backstory monologues it is fiendishly difficult to follow. In Innsmouth fish dwelling Gods potter about under the ocean and locals are all buried at sea.
I remember a previous version of the story some years ago featured an astoundingly haunting bell-tolling soundtrack.
Julian Simpson does come up with some oddities and even has a spoof website dedicated to him which, in truth, is not very complimentary. The story has been produced as a series of podcasts starting with The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Whisperer In The Dark.
Good old Beeb publicity department promised us the the riddles would be solved but instead a bigger one than ever was posed at the end. Expect more.
Radio 4, May 1, 2021
A tune about the A1 wouldn't be anywhere near my thoughts. But that's what appears to have happened here.
The great north-eastener Sting - Gordon Summer as was -provides a balladic backdrop to this tale about a female trucker lumbering up and down the highway twixt Newcastle and London.
Our married friend from the north, Peggy, loves a bit of hanky-panky on her travels and is torn between her new beau and the call of home. Does the pull of stotty cake, singing hinnies and Blaydon Races usurp adulterous love?
Sexy Rexy can’t find quarters for his porkers and so concludes he might have to take to his trotters and start up as an Uber driver to earn a crust. Funny that cos there was a readymade pigman’s job going at Berrow. Quite baffling. Scripting was snout to be proud of. But Lizzie saves his bacon, despite his vindictive social media campaign against her brother.
Featuring Martin Jarvis
The demon barber’s and the pie shop would certainly have some unusual economic challenges in the time of Covid. I assume the pie counter would remain open as an ‘essential business’ but there might be a supply issue. No such problems in the 18th century of course when Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett plied their unsavoury trades.
Marvellous performance from Jarvis as the titled anti-hero whose gruff tones perfectly capture the Fleet Street of 1785. He was able to attract Joanne Whalley, Rufus Sewall and Jonathan Cake to this dark tale of evil enterprise.
Featuring Rebecca Pidgeon
The husband and wife team of Martin Jarvis and Rosalind Ayres in action again with this adaptation of a David Mamet stage-play. It is introduced with stage directions rather than a soundscape which indicates how this is going to play out, with dialogue very much to the fore. Mamet’s wife Rebecca Pigeon plays Joan, a somewhat deluded anti-semitic Catholic woman whose son has murdered a Jewish girl. She will do anything to get him off, including bribery and demanding the church pulls a few strings.
Radio 4’s Feedback programme got into a lather over her description of the dead girl as a ‘little Jewish slut’ although of course Mamet is Jewish and this sort of language even in today’s climate is considered OK if it’s about one of your own (although I see Manuel is still being referred to as a ‘dago’ on primetime showings of Fawlty Towers on BBC 1).
Mamet claims inspiration from J.B. Priestley although I think the end is more Faustian than Inspector Goole.
Written by Amanda Dalton
Interview with Amanda Dalton
It actually turned out to be quite amusing - especially the contributions form the gurgling gut.. But also informative, for, I took the advice and started talking to my innards with very positive results, and was introduced to the practice of gastromancy. I was intrigued by the subject matter and asked writer Amanda Dalton what prompted her interest. Amanda is a poet and an associate artist with the Royal exchange Theatre in Manchester.
“This is the first time I’ve used documentary in a drama - I’m increasingly interested in the hybrid, mash-up forms of writing and felt this particular play needed that element of a real doctor and therapist talking.
“Nick Read is both, which is unusual, and proved helpful. I’ve had all manner of inflammatory gut problems for over 20 years. IBS is part of the picture for me but I’ve also had other complications - so this wasn’t a directly autobiographical piece but it did draw on a lot of my own experience. “I’m interested in the mind/body symbiosis but wanted to explore it in a way that wasn’t ‘heavy’ or ‘worthy’ . A few years back I was reading something and came across gastromancy. Hadn’t realised this was kind of the origins of ventriloquism. When I read about it - the notion of the wisdom coming from the spirits of the dead inhabiting and speaking from the gut of the gastromancer.
“It occurred to me that this was like ventriloquism and the gut was like the dummy - that transgressive, anarchic, ‘fool’ figure who is frequently an embarrassment or out of control, but usually speaks a kind of truth - though it may not always be what the vent wants to hear. I was also interested in the psychologist Winnicott’s idea of the transitional object - how through talking with, say, a doll - a child will often communicate things s/he cannot communicate to another human being - the role of such objects in our lives etc. Somehow or other all of this came together to create the play.”
Christine Bottomley plays Jess, the sufferer who finds talking to her dummy more soothing than her less-than-sympathetic partner.
Afternoon drama 22/2/21
Featuring Christopher Ecclestone
It was a little puzzling to keep track of this until the penny dropped and I realised Christopher Ecclestone’s strange companions were actually voices inside his head. That explains the brief scattering of profanities not usually associated with Radio 4 afternoon dramas.
This poignant piece came about as the result of Christine Entwhistle’s work with the mental health charity MIND and introduced me to the term ‘voice-hearers’. Any broadcast that seeks to convey the struggles some people have in daily life is no bad thing.
Featuring Laila Alj
A French woman of Algerian descent finds herself excluded in the land of liberty and has the bizarre notion that she will get a warmer welcome in Blighty.
Rather curious piece this. A bit too cliched.
For instance, the leading character Faiza,leaps into bed with someone then objects when he admires her brown skin and when he apologies and calls her a ‘woman of colour’ that too is scorned. Oh what a minefield it must be out there in the real world.
On another occasion someone mispronounces her surname as ‘Ramadan’ and she declares that all British people can’t tell an Algerian from an Indian. I mean this is like clay pigeon shooting, just throw up a few easy targets and blast away without too much thought.
R4 Classic serial slot; Three episodes from 14/2/21
Featuring Faye Marsay as Tess.
By Harry Turnbull
Reinterpreting or reimagining old classics is becoming more popular in audio drama. Not only does it enable an update of the story; it can often mean a reconfiguring of characters, gender and language. Perhaps one day soon we may even see a hip-hop version of Twelfth Night or Waiting For Godot.
In this instance it is Tess of the D'Urbevilles that comes in for the treatment. Instead of, say, bringing the tale into the present, this is narrated by Tess herself from her cell on death-row...
Producer Mary Peate tells us how she went about updating Tess twenty years after first bringing the ever popular classic to the airwaves.
How did it come about?
“Graham White, an academic and radio dramatist I’ve worked with a lot, has a deep interest in Hardy and he approached me about proposing a Hardy season to Radio 4. After a long process of thinking and negotiating, my fellow producer Emma Harding, the Radio 4 Drama Commissioner Alison Hindell and Graham and I decided that simply telling Hardy’s enduring stories from the point of view of a female character would allow us to approach the narratives afresh, highlighting the modernity of Hardy’s thinking.”
Did the perspective-shift change the story?
“Tess’s beauty is irrelevant in this telling of the story since she is the person making the observations, and this helps to put the listener in Tess’s situation, focussing our attention on the matter in hand. We feel how each step of the story is contingent on how Tess responds to events.” “In Katie Hims’s dramatisation of Tess, we go through the twists and turns of Tess’s life with her as she weighs decisions and reacts to her changing circumstances, gaining an understanding of her precarious life from her point of view.”
The soundscape is different too, previously you inserted a whimsical musical motif.
“In preparing this production I steered clear of the earlier production and just responded to the drama as we put it together in the edit, but I think you’re right - Katie Hims’s idea of having Tess tell the story from her prison cell the night before she is hanged did lead me to choose some more sombre, poignant music.”
Drama on 3, 31/1/2021
Dramatised by Roderick Smith
Another stab at innovation, albeit a rather puzzling one. What never ceases to surprise me is, not that such ideas actually occur to someone, but they actually get commissioned by the powers that be. Telling the Homeric epic in Brummie accents is a real head-scratcher.
Nothing wrong with a regional twang, even if every character sounded like Jasper Carrot, but this was like having Brummie broadcaster Adrian Chiles on the wireless in the kitchen while rustling up a classic such as a sausage and egg timbale - eventually it just becomes a background drone while you focus on what’s in hand.
But this is to trivialise a serious matter, for it seems this rendition has been worthy of academic research; whilst an earlier South African dialect version is deemed ‘nativistic and didactic’, the Brummie effort is ‘inherently self-parodic and burlesque’ and an example of ‘contrapuntal expanded translation’.
Judge for yourself as it is still on BBC Sounds. Personally, I won’t be rushing back to have another listen to Achilles mooning over a bird ‘with his arse in his hands’ or Zeus stomping about Mount olympus ‘with a cob on’.
Those West Midlands rock gods Black Sabbath provide a few background battle riffs but sadly the greatest rhyming couplet in heavy metal history is missing:
Featuring Michael Maloney.
I always imagined George Blake to be a cunning spy who had been sprung from jail in an outlandish plot masterminded by the KGB.
The real story - if this is it - is more like a Terry Thomas comic caper.
Some anti-nuclear activists tossed a rope ladder over the walls of Wormwood Scrubs and drove him in a campervan to East Germany.
The motive was apparently outrage over Blake's 42 year sentence. One of them, Michael Randall, is still around. I wonder if he tuned in to this remarkable sixties farce?
ANITA SULLIVAN DESCRIBES A REIMAGINED JOURNEY INTO THE CONGO
Last year a trio of African tales were broadcast on Radio 4 which led me to reference Conrad in a review on these pages. This re-imagining of Heart of Darkness was in the pipeline at that stage and was only actually commissioned in October.
In this production, Marlowe is transformed into a female, Maya, and Kurtz has gone AWOL working for a large corporation.
Writer Anita Sullivan emphasised the point that nation colonialism may be largely a thing of the past but that company’s with global operations are still very much at the heart of resource extraction and human exploitation.
That reminded me of Unilever, a company I had dealings with for many years and is famous for its philanthropic founder Lord Leverhulme. I thought I knew a lot about the company which created the picture-postcard model village of Port Sunlight for its workers, but apparently not. For only recently have I learnt it was a major player in Congo, using forced labour for many years. You will not find this in its history pages.
There are any number of older stories that have a peculiar resonance today and this is one of them. As Anita Sullivan explained to me: “My interest in Conrad is longstanding. My first theatre play was a notoriously terrible adaptation of Lord Jim, with a student theatre company. Thirty years and sixty plays later, my interest was rekindled when I read about oil prospecting under swamp forest in the Republic of Congo, and the toxic mineral-grab in Eastern and Southern DRC.
“I thought of Heart of Darkness, reimagining it as a contemporary story where corporations replace colonial powers as the exploiting force. I was excited by the idea, but also daunted by both the book’s literary status and cultural legacy.”
Anita called on some local experts to help her gain a penetrating insight into modern Congo. She added: “I wanted my own version to put DRC characters at the heart of the story as active protagonists who spoke for themselves, in their own languages. I wanted the landscape to be rich and beautiful, with 'light glancing off the stained-glass wings of enormous dragonflies, and iridescent Congo sunbirds'. I also knew I was carrying an ‘intolerable presumption’ of understanding, and a big responsibility.”
The result is a haunting production which reverberates both with the rhythm of the interior and the heartbeat of history. Our modern day Marlowe is played with a quietly serene but expressive presence by narrator Georgia Henshaw. She travels upriver to find Kurtz who had been working on an environmental impact assessment report.
A dark interior, still full of horror.
Drama on 3. 27/12/20
Featuring Jamie Parker.
It's curious that so many dramatisations of revered artists focus on their human frailties. In this case it's lyricist Larry Hart who comes in for the treatment. A paranoid drunk who lived with his mother and worried about his short stature.
Despite’s Hart’s gradual decay, the songwriters were phenomenally successful; who could forget such lines as 'The city's clamour can never spoil, the dreams of a boy and goil'.
Fame and fortune, so often bedfellows of tragedy.
Of course, Richard Rodgers went on to even more success in musicals and films with his next songwriting partner Oscar Hammerstein.
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