A welcome return for Marathon Man

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In the way of things, the number of anniversaries will grow year on year; but that can't account for the fearful number of them happening at the BBC just now - Choral Evensong is 70, Woman's Hour was 50 a couple of weeks ago (and I completely forgot to wish it a happy birthday - isn't that just like a man?), and Radio 3 is 50 too. As a rule, it's probably a good idea to ignore these factitious landmarks. But here's one we can't ignore, sitting like a big rock in the road: Radio 3's 50th anniversary production of Man and Superman (Sunday), the first play broadcast on the Third Programme, all four and a half hours of it. We can't go over it, we can't go around it, so we might as well get out and take a good look at it.

Let's start by being frank. Even granted superhuman powers of concentration, it's virtually impossible to sit through this much radio play, unless you prepare for it well in advance by disconnecting the phone, tying up the door-knocker, having your own death notice printed in the local press and, pausing to slay the first-born, packing some sandwiches and a bottle of ginger beer.

Fortunately, us critics get tapes. Even broken down into easy stages, terminability wasn't one of the virtues that came across in Peter Hall's production; it did have most of the others, though. Shaw's play, in case you don't know it, is the missing link between William Blake and PG Wodehouse. The plot, once it gets going, concerns Jack Tanner (Ralph Fiennes), a revolutionist and MIRC (Member of the Idle Rich Class) - a forebear of Wodehouse's Psmith, the Old Etonian who insisted on calling people "comrade"; like so many of Wodehouse's young men in spats, he is on the run from a predatory female (Juliet Stevenson). The subplot is all about a young Englishwoman who is secretly married to the son of an American millionaire - secretly because his father will cut him off without a penny if he doesn't marry a duchess (or a working girl: so long as somebody profits socially by the transaction).

In the middle of all this, Tanner has a long dream interlude in which he sees his ancestor Don Juan Tenorio, Mozart's Don Giovanni, in Hell. Here, as in Blake, everything is reversed: Juan is no sensualist but a philosopher; Hell is a place of eternal delight, Heaven deadly dull - only the philosophical Juan is tired of being delighted and wants to get away to Heaven. There is also a lot (an awful lot) of vaguely Nietzschean nonsense about man being the culmination of the Life Force's evolutionary mission to achieve self-consciousness, or thereabouts.

The direction was smooth, the casting immaculate (especially Paul Merton as Tanner's aggressively working-class chauffeur 'Enery - a part that used his natural offhanded surliness to great effect). And if it wasn't easy to listen to - well, isn't that, in the end, the point of Radio 3? It's the one place on the radio where the listener has to make all the concessions; and when it does something like this, it's doing its bit to preserve a bit of the national heritage. A production like this isn't important because it's good or bad, but purely and simply because it's there. And boy, was it there.