RADIO / Hark, I see a noise: Robert Hanks on sight and sound

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The Independent Culture
IF A cliche hangs around long enough and it's really lucky, sometimes it turns into a truism. After years of ritual repetition on Feedback and Pick of the Week, that seems to have happened to the idea that on radio the pictures are better. This is a shame, because it's not actually true. Radio works in all kinds of ways that have nothing to do with visual images; and when it does work on the mind's eye, it can never offer the vividness of a good film or television programme: the best it can do for most of us is to remind us of other pictures. It's a visual medium by proxy, borrowing its potency from somewhere else.

There seems to be some awareness of that fact at work behind 'Saturday Night at the Movies', a season of plays that feeds off the Hollywood film noir of the Forties. These aren't radio remakes of the films but new adaptations of the original novels - not the same thing at all.

In the case of this week's opener, Double Indemnity (Radio 4, Saturday), the differences are profound. In Billy Wilder's film, a weak-willed insurance man falls for a beautiful woman, realises she's planning to kill her husband, and helps her to plan the scam; it's an everyday story of greed and lust. Here, going back to James M Cain's novel, there's a nasty undercurrent of sexual disgust (loins are 'charnel houses', bodies chop and gouge each other), and the femme fatale turns out to have an infanticidal past and an obsessive vision of herself as Death.

The film has a comparatively clean ending - she's dead, and the last you see of him he's waiting for the police to turn up. In this version, the last you hear of them is jumping into a shark-infested sea, her face made up to look like Death.

But Andy Jordan's production still tried to use the story's cinematic associations to give an extra kick. Even forgetting the film, you were constantly jerked Hollywoodwards by Barrington Pheloung's score - sustained, high chords on the strings for tension, wailing saxophone for sex - and by the casting of Frederic Forrest, Theresa Russell and Molly Ringwald, in what looks like a compromise between bankability and BBC budgets.

That was not an entirely happy medium: Russell seemed to find her feet towards the end, but floundered badly in the early scenes. When she and Forrest were talking around the murder, trying to play it cool, the cheerful desperation of her small-talk sounded less like an experienced psychotic than a character in a Whitehall farce trying to hide the incriminating trousers from the vicar.

Forrest was better value, a downbeat narrator giving a world-weary, matter-of-fact gravity to the more oddball moments, although even he didn't quite get a grip on the sex scenes, an embarrassing compendium of grunting and panting that at least caught an authentic sense of sexual revulsion.

In the end, though, despite all the pointers to Hollywood, the film noir connection was a red herring. Jordan's production was mostly gripping, but there was nothing remotely cinematic about it - no sense of space or surroundings, no wide-angle and no close-up. Forrest's narration mentioned Los Angeles street-names and the hot California sun, but for all you heard of the city, this could have been Penge.

Sue Wilson's version of The Tragical History of Dr Faustus (Radio 3, Sunday) was studio-bound, too, but seemed to enjoy it. This was a tricksy, smart-assed version - 'Purists will be surprised', said the publicity, untemptingly - self-consciously humorous sound-effects, massive cuts, added (and mostly unfunny) comic songs, a score that hopped blithely from David Munrow to Kurt Weill . . .

An image that cropped up in Double Indemnity was of falling off a precipice: as Frederic Forrest's character was drawn into corruption he saw himself stepping off a precipice and falling. You got a similar image listening to this Faustus but, instead of the Nietzschean abyss, you saw the production dropping into a big pile of silliness. Surprisingly, it survived, thanks largely to Stephen Moore's spoiled Faustus. And all the gimmicks were customised: this wasn't radio trying to be anything but itself.