BBC Radio - the serial killer

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They used to play a game on I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue - now back on Radio 4, just in time for its telegram from the Queen - based on the idea that, in order to save money, the BBC was having to make cut- price versions of the classics: so Kafka's The Castle would become The Bungalow, Sartre's Nausea would become Mild Indigestion, and so on.

This stopped being funny after a while, partly because most jokes on I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue do stop being funny after while, partly because truth caught up with satire. Once upon a time, a decent-sized 19th-century novel facing dramatisation on Radio 4 could expect at least six or seven hour-long episodes. Lately, though, classic serials have shrunk drastically - even, annoyingly, to one part.

So it's something of a shock to find that the new Classic Serial, War and Peace (R4, Sun), is getting 10 whole episodes - not a lot for one of the genuine heavyweights of the Western canon, maybe, but after what we've grown used to, it looks positively epic.

Sadly, it sounds puny. One reason is that the adaptors - Marcy Kahan and Mike Walker - have decided to dispense with the authorial voice, the omniscient narrator who hoists us from one scene to another and offers comments on the characters. Admittedly, the device is often over-used in radio serials, as a narrative short-cut, or as a get-out for the adaptor who can't think of a way of dramatising some psychological crux. But I'd rather be fed facts piecemeal by a narrator than have them forced into the dialogue like corn into a goose. Kahan and Walker haven't actually found new ways of dramatising feelings, they've just converted slices of authorial narrative into internal monologues, so giving Tolstoy's characters an implausible degree of insight into themselves.

It all makes things feel rather cramped and inward-looking. So does the score, with its pootling martial trumpets and blatantly synthesised strings, summoning up with brilliant clarity images of a man in a studio with a stack of computers. Meanwhile, listening to the Russian army drilling, you get the distinct impression that General Kutuzov is planning to bluff Napoleon's triumphant troops with a couple of men stamping on boxes of gravel. Location recording has not helped much, either - a slight echo is no substitute for a genuine sense of place, or variety of acoustic.

It's all rather frustrating, especially since the failure of this serial will probably be used as justification for shorter, less complex classic serials in future.

More dumbing-down on Radio 3, meanwhile. The evening the Booker shortlist was announced, a presenter suggested that all Radio 3 listeners would naturally be rooting for Bernard McLaverty's Grace Notes - because it had a musical theme. And on Thursday's Musical Encounters, John Toal offered the fact that Poulenc was once a typist as an excuse for playing - "as a tribute to Poulenc and to dactylologists, dactylographers or pterodactyls everywhere" - The Typist (which you may know as the theme for The News Quiz). If I wanted weak-minded facetiousness and half-hearted populism, I'd be listening to Henry Kelly already.

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