RADIO / Different from geography: Robert Hanks reviews Tolstoy - At War and Peace and Randle's Scandals

Click to follow
The first point to notice about Tolstoy - At War and Peace (Radio 4, Wednesday) is what a cheap gag that title is. Using exactly the same method, you could dream up a title for a biography of almost any literary figure you care to name: Dickens - Hard Times, say, or Jane Austen - Sense and Sensibility. There are exceptions (Captain W E Johns - Biggles Flies North wouldn't sound right), but you see the point: it's a mechanical title, one that doesn't project any ideas on to the author, but simply uses the material that's there.

The second thing to notice is the billing: Michael Bakewell is credited as having 'compiled' the six-part series - from Tolstoy's letters and diaries, from the writings of his friends and relations, and from the novels. Again, the suggestion seems to be that nothing is added to the life - that Bakewell's role is purely administrative, rather than creative and imaginative.

Nothing could be further from the truth: the words may be Tolstoy's, but Bakewell has decided on context and order; and in his arrangement he's always motivated by the idea that a writer's life can be traced, in detail, through his works. It's a fair assumption up to a point, but it would be nice to know what limits Bakewell places on himself. Unfortunately, there's no way of checking up on him. When Tolstoy muses, of his father, 'Did he love my mother, I wonder? It was an arranged marriage, and she was no longer in her first youth', and a character breaks in 'Poor girl] She's devilish ugly]', we only have Bakewell's word for it that the interruption is relevant, rather than a randomly chosen aside. Without an objective touchstone of pertinence, you're left with the impression that Bakewell is prepared to read biographical significance into anything and everything - that to his way of thinking, the author himself is no more than a compiler of his own experiences.

You can see how far Bakewell has adopted the shapes of fiction when you compare his approach to Trevor Hoyle's in Randle's Scandals (Radio 4, Saturday), an out-and-out showbiz drama based on the life of Frank Randle. He was a variety comedian who during the Thirties and Forties was a roaring success in the North of England - or rather, a farting, belching and generally making-peculiar- noises-with-digestive-implications success. He didn't travel well, however, perhaps because people in other parts of the country didn't have such a rich diet; like the tripe he referred to in his act, Randle was for purely local consumption.

Both Hoyle's play and Bakewell's 'compilation' rely on flashback for their framework: Tolstoy begins with the great man dying at a railway station in central Russian in 1910; Randle's Scandals begins with a car crash towards the end of the comic's career, after which he is taken into hospital for psychiatric observation. Each then moves forward from childhood, carefully contrasting the life and the work as they go.

The parallels between the two aren't just formal, either: both Randle and Tolstoy are shown as possessed by self-disgust, committing all manner of lasciviousness, then reacting against it. The difference is that, while Tolstoy tried to write books that were generally improving, Randle's act just went on being dirty. (Although you have to bear in mind that dirt, in this context, includes the expression 'fresh lettuce', because of its supposed similarity to the words 'French letters'.)

Randle, of course, turns out to be a boring old clown with a broken heart. But Randle's Scandals was a far better listen than Tolstoy - At War and Peace, perhaps because it had a relatively obscure subject. Hoyle worked to make you listen, and Tony Cliff's production had real narrative drive. Tolstoy, on the other hand, seemed to drift along, the constant to- ing and fro-ing between life and art interrupting its movement. And an interrupted movement, Frank Randle would have told you, is just what you don't want.

Comments