Don't be afraid of Spoonface

A lone voice heard in a Radio Four play so touched listeners that its owner has been made flesh for TV.
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Radio Four can't always be as protective of its charges as it would like. Nurtured and given their first homes by TVs' poor relation, comedians, dramas and entire formats flee the audio nest for the wide open spaces of Television Centre. Steve Coogan, Have I Got News For You and many sitcoms conceal a humble wireless ancestry. Occasionally, however, radio reminds you that it's able to play host to art which no other medium can. The broadcast in January last year of Lee Hall's Spoonface Steinberg, to judge by listeners' reaction, was just such an event.

The fictional hour-long monologue of a seven-year-old autistic Jewish girl terminally ill with cancer, Spoonface (so-called because of her perfectly round features), provoked the kind of reaction to restore faith among embattled radio schedulers. Three Radio 4 repeats and tens of thousands of cassette sales subsequently made Spoonface an obvious candidate for a TV adaptation, but the drama's stream-of-consciousness form and the passionate support of the notoriously possessive Radio 4 audience called for an unusually respectful transfer to the small screen. As Hall has since remarked: "People remember where they were when they first heard Spoonface."

Hall's dense, allusive text remains more or less intact in Betsan Morris Evans's version. Voiced once more by the excellent eleven-year-old Becky Simpson (though played on screen by eight-year-old Ella Jones, also remarkable), Spoonface's internal monologue reflects on her condition, life with her separated parents and her imminent death. Tomorrow night's audience will see sequences of domestic life and home movies intercut with montages of memories and scenes closer to portraiture than drama.

The only additional sound to Spoonface's words is the odd incidental effect. Evans has remained faithful to Spoonface's impressionistic meditations - one minute charmingly trivial, the next touchingly honest - by ignoring narrative coherence in favour of tone and texture; a loyalty to the original that producers Suzan Harris and Simon Curtis demanded. "I felt that you couldn't do a traditional screenplay and you should try and keep as close as possible to the simplicity of it," says Curtis. "The inner world is so much more affecting than a naturalistic conventional film about a child in that condition."

The first problem came in easing Spoonface Steinberg from the understandably tight grasp of BBC Radio. The last of a quartet of Hall plays (the first, I Luv U Jimmy Spud, picked up a clutch of awards in 1996) in which children make lyrical sense of the ugly world around them, Spoonface, the TV adaptation, was originally to have been helmed by its radio director Kate Rowland. "I think [she] felt it had been a bi-media BBC initiative [by which BBC Radio and Television share resources] and that, if so, why shouldn't she be allowed to do the visual production," remembers Evans.

Rowland's minimal experience behind the camera couldn't match her experience as a radio director, however, and Evans, who had worked on Jane Horrocks' Bafta-nominated monologue Suffer The Little Children, was drafted in. "It's not that the drama department wanted to take it away from radio - they wanted to add something to it," says Evans, who will admit that she felt nervous at the prospect of tinkering with what had already become a Radio "phenomenon". What has been altered Evans justifies in the name of accessibility and the limitations of television. The young girl's obsession with doomed female opera characters is less apparent than on the radio and her thoughts on the Holocaust have been excised entirely. Evans felt in particular that illustrating the latter effectively without trivializing the issues was beyond the scope of the TV adaptation.

In just about every other respect, though, the images serve Hall's words. "There was a point where we still had 15 seconds of monologue," remembers Evans, "so we had to shoot more images - it was a very strange way of working." Straddling television and radio involved experimenting with two distinct sets of rules, however. If you treat the text too deferentially, the whole exercise of adaptation becomes redundant, but if you clutter the screen the ear is constantly trying to catch up with the eye.

While the television version is sometimes guilty of swamping Spoonface's monologue in this way, Evans insists that what we see carefully subordinates itself to what we hear at crucial points: "There's a scene in particular where Spoonface and her mother are walking down a corridor and the camera simply watches them walk away while the monologue gives us a summary of the facts so far - Spoonface's realization that she's going to die, and that her parents have split up.

"The temptation with so much freedom is to get all the kit out of the van and set up, say, a big tracking shot," she adds. "So they [the images] had to be interesting and add to the monologue without distracting from it."

Yet, there was call for imagination, too, particularly in avoiding an all too literal interpretation of Hall's text. Like many autistic children, Spoonface reveals a savant ability with arithmetic. "So we see her buttoning and unbuttoning her coat, counting the buttons," explains Evans.

That this display of numeracy frustrates the attempts of Spoonface's mother to leave the house with her daughter isn't a coincidence, however. "The other dimension was that it must be so bloody irritating to have a child like that."

Other than flashes of poetic eloquence ("Death is even less than nothing," she opines at one point), Spoonface's radio monologue was as frank and as moving as you might expect the solipsistic deliberations of a terminally-ill seven-year-old to be. Evans, though, was keen to broaden the perspective of the piece (she has a feature film on current release, Dad Savage): the monologue retains its innocence, impressively read by Becky Simpson, but the images are more knowing, especially in their depiction of the fractious relationship between Spoonface's parents (nicely reserved performances from Helen McCrory and Mark Strong). Spoonface, while loved, hardly approaches her death cocooned. Even when she visits the hospital, the only faces we see are hers, her parents Mrs Spud the cleaner, but her mother's taste for vodka and her father's affairs infect the screen much as they do Spoonface's monologue.

Spoonface Steinberg easily escapes the "issue drama" label, but its scheduling belies this fact. Unsuitable for the BBC's Performance strand, it is being broadcast as part of Children's Health Week. As Evans claims: "Spoonface isn't really about cancer - it's about why you shouldn't be afraid of dying."

`Spoonface Steinberg' will be broadcast on BBC2 at 9.50pm, tomorrow


WHAT THE media said about the radio production:

"A truck driver confessed that the dramatic monologue Spoonface Steinberg, read by 11-year-old Becky Simpson, had reduced him to tears. Hospices and hospitals said it would be useful in their work with the sick and dying and their families. Learning action centres and schools were also fulsome in their praise. Spoonface finds strength in the singing of Maria Callas and teachings from the Kaddish. Hall avoids sentimentality by making Spoonface funny and brave. She discovers meaning in her suffering."

Digby Hildreth, Sunday Times

"In response to unprecedented audience reaction, Lee Hall's Spoonface Steinberg (R4) had its second airing within a month. Lee Hall spoke on Kaleidoscope (R4) about writing this monologue: he did it in a couple of days, just letting it pour unchecked.

"The result was astonishing: intensely moving but somehow bearable, perhaps because the little girl spoke with an innate calm wisdom which rang true as a tuning-fork. After hearing the play, an old lady phoned the producer, Kate Rowland, and thanked her for allaying her own fear of death.'

Sue Gaisford, Independent on Sunday

"After Monday's Spoonface Steinberg, 150 people telephoned the BBC to thank them for the play. On Friday's Feedback Chris Dunkley reported 108 calls and Chris Searle said it had brought the biggest ever response on the Pick of the Week hotline. Spoonface, eyeing her world with a child's cold curiosity, hot apprehension and occasional misapprehension, finds she can pass beyond it all. She does it through music. This writer believes in music's power to transform."

Gillian Reynolds, Daily Telegraph