RADIO / Missing: sleaze behind the dream

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
'THE WEDDING night, the anticipation, the kiss, the knife, BUT ABOVE ALL . . . THE SUSPENSE]' So ran the advertising for The Night of the Hunter. But this was way back in the bourbon- soaked, black-and-white Forties, when sex was so fevered you still did it with your clothes on. Now in the disinfected, Technicolor Nineties the BBC has piled its audience into the Tardis for a season of film noir done on the radio, Saturday Night at the Movies.

Radio noir is the brainchild of Andy Jordan, and a brave and brilliant one: it could have put radio up where it belongs, on an equal footing with stage and screen. At the very least it could have been a foil for those plays the BBC does best - plays which are carefully crafted, intimate, discreetly disturbing, but never raunchy or brash or foreign. Plays like Kitty Wilkinson (R4), the story of the Irish washerwoman who worked with cholera victims in the Liverpool slums - moving, thought-provoking, rightly nominated for a Sony Award, but not surprising.

Failure is a big word and I am not necessarily using it, but the title does invite comparison with the films. The producers' mistake was to go back to the books. There is no escaping those black- and-white images. You have to acknowledge their extraordinary redolence; harness it even. They did, after all, epitomise the disenchantment of the Forties, the sleaze beneath the American dream. They were violent. Their women were not good little housewives but sirens who sang of sex and money, and lured the working man onto the rocks of murder, disillusion and suicide. Not an easy act to follow.

The BBC went to the trouble of importing American actors. In Double Indemnity, Frederic Forrest was both threatening and evocative as Walter, the insurance salesman who is fooled by the lovely Phyllis first into bed and then into murdering her husband. His line, 'come on in, Phyllis, come into my home', was chilling, a banal invitation delivered as a Faustian sell-out.

It's Phyllis of whom Walter says 'I loved her, like a rabbit likes a rattlesnake'. Theresa Russell was not a rattlesnake. Alternately brattish and goofy, she made Barbara Stanwyck's icy elegance all the harder to dislodge.

Fearful of those long black- and-white shadows, the producers dispensed with visual stimuli. John Tydeman, head of BBC radio drama, announced in an interview that pictures were not necessary in radio plays, 'just great stories and great actors'. Forrest echoed him: 'We didn't sit around worrying about the lack of visual imagery. It's all in the words. (James M) Cain's dialogue is so great, so tough, so full of character - who needs pictures?'

We do, and so do the actors. Without a descriptive backdrop, character becomes caricature. The third dimension is lost. Visual effect on film is the work of an instant - take a man, stick a gun in his hand, a cigarette in his mouth. Put a fedora on his head and a backstreet under his feet. Make it rain, and he can still save the world. In radio, scene-setting cuts into action and dialogue, but it's worth it. Word pictures are parcelled. Phyllis's description of walking the streets at night 'as death in a white shroud' was more menacing than most of the action. And none of the plays would have suffered for a little less dialogue. One of the trademarks of film noir was what the actors didn't say. They smoked, they lounged, occasionally when addressed they snarled. But chat was not on the menu. Whereas their radio counterparts are positively garrulous - neon signs, enchiladas, the washing-up, you name it, they talk about it.

Last night's movie, The Postman Always Rings Twice, suffered most from this. William Hope as Frank and Miriam Cyr as Cora got on too well. There has to be rape in the air in those kitchen scenes. Without it the dialogue becomes coy: 'I got these strong hands. I'm always a little rough' - 'It's about what I'd expect from a guy like you'.

Even the rattling of the locked cafe door was half-hearted, part of a cosy pact. And apart from Phil Todd's eerie sax, none of the sound effects was long enough or loud enough. They should have taken over from talk, filled silences, whipped up tension, invited suspense. A real screaming, tearing car crash at the end might have done the trick.

These were slick and entertaining productions, but they were not what they deserved to be. The ambition was admirable, but you don't jump in at the deep end unless you're planning to swim.

All week Radio 3 ran a series called In a Word. It was a conducted tour of artistic movements, across disciplines, from Impressionism to Neo-Classicism. This was Radio 3 at its best, holding out a hand to the uninitiated and pulling us up to enjoy the rarefied air of the highbrow.