Brilliant from tubb to bottom
Sunday 27 June 1999
On the page, it's famously, alarmingly obscure. Aloud, read with zest and panache by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan, punctuated by snatches of Mozart, John McCormack and "John Peel" ("d'ye ken..."), it becomes genuinely hilarious. In with the recording, you get a couple of hefty leaflets explaining roughly what's going on in each section and all the text they use (about a quarter of Joyce's book). Text and sound together provide about five mesmerising hours - "from tubb to bottom all falsetissues, antilibellous and nonactionable".
I've focused on the classics this month. You could compare them to classic cars - 30 years old or more, weighty and reassuringly well built. The throaty throb of just such a car, driven by the urbane and deceptively effete Lord Peter Wimsey, opens Dorothy Sayers's classic whodunnit Strong Poison. This is the one in which Lord Peter falls in love with Harriet Vane, on trial for the murder of her lover - with whom she has lived, says the would-be hanging judge with deep distaste, "in terms of intimacy outside the bonds of marriage".
Ian Carmichael is a better Lord Peter than even Sayers could have dared to hope. The toffs around him, however, reproduce posh 1930s voices in less consistent and occasionally incomprehensible style - until Maria Aitken appears as his sister, to the manner born. The plot snakes Wimsically around, pointing fingers in many directions. Though we guess pretty soon that the firmly alibi-ed Mr Urqhuart is bound to be the villain, especially as he is an oily solicitor, his exposure is enjoyably convoluted.
In similar if less classy vein, in through the French windows on a cold, comfortless, foggy night strolls The Unexpected Guest. His name is Michael Starkwedder. We're in Agatha Christie country now, so nobody finds this obvious alias surprising. Christie was much better at plots than at characters, but Gordon House's production gives this dramatisation an unexpected, often touching, verisimilitude. The main characters are convincing enough, but the star is Margot Boyd who brings to the part of the victim's mother the convincing, likeable wisdom with which she currently invests the character of Marjorie Antrobus in The Archers. She is a remarkable audio dame, in performance if not in title.
Even if you think detective stories are not quite classics, there is no arguing with the canonical status of Dickens. The best adaptation of his unwieldy novels is John Dryden's production of Bleak House. This Sony Gold-winning radio serial is just out on tape. Listening to it in full, two aspects are particularly striking. One is the "audio-verite" immediacy of the technique, whereby a huge, angry novel becomes an atmospheric, "overheard" thriller: the other is the magnificent performance of Clare Price, who makes the tiresomely virtuous character of Esther Summerson not only believable but actually sympathetic.
Price is supported by other fine characterisations, particularly that of Michael Fenton Williams as Skimpole, and the great Anton Lesser as Tulkinghorn, a creepy example of those loathsome lawyers who lie in their chambers, says Dickens, "like maggots in nuts".
The villain in George Eliot's last novel is the cruel aristocrat Grandcourt. Gwendolen Harleth, "beautiful, bold, believing in luck - and not meant for poverty", enters into a doomed marriage with him but is really in love with the mysterious Daniel Deronda. Anna Chancellor is a convincing, modern-sounding Gwendolen, irresistibly attracting our affection against our better judgment.
In this reading, the whole novel becomes surprisingly modern, with its pervasive snobbishness and anti-Semitism firmly highlighted and condemned as blinkered bigotry. Its ultimate message is unsentimental: things won't always turn out as we want them to but, even from the bleakest circumstances, some good may come.
It's pretty difficult to draw a moral from Lawrence Durrell's Justine. Durrell's distinctly un-modern view is that there are only three things to be done with a woman: you can love her, suffer for her or turn her into literature. His narrator, as read with sad and cynical weariness by the excellent Nigel Anthony, does all three but especially the third. Though the text can sometimes seem nearly as lush, obscure and demanding as Joyce (try saying "her blue-veined phthisic hands") you emerge from this compelling reading as if from the sultry heat of old, polyglot Alexandria, "the great wine-press of love". It's an intoxicating experience.
`Finnegans Wake', Naxos pounds 15.99 (tape), pounds 19.99 (CD); `Strong Poison', BBC pounds 8.99; `The Unexpected Guest', BBC pounds 8.99; `Bleak House', BBC pounds 12.99; `Daniel Deronda', BBC pounds 8.99; `Justine', Naxos pounds 9.99 (tape), pounds 13.99 (CD).
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