Radio / Pilgrim bearing a heavy burden

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THE Pilgrim's Progress (R4) returned to radio last week, bearing the burden of two great past productions: a dramatisation by Edward Sackville-West which was first produced in 1943 and then in 1977 with John Gielgud as Christian - both buoyed up by Vaughan Williams's mistily beautiful score. Peter Luke's new version is an uneasy mix of reading and drama. We have a Christian, an Evangelist, and a Worldly-Wiseman; but dismayingly many of the smaller parts are read by the narrator, Bernard Hepton - a Bunyan with a wavering West Country burr. A rich cast of extras is reduced to sameness.

There are none of the delightful cameos of the 1977 production - Obstinate played as a Northern churl, Pliable as a winsome Southerner, the camp duo of Timorous and Mistrust. The whole has a flatness inappropriate to a piece supposed to have been 'delivered under the similitude of a dream'. The soaring moments of Vaughan Williams's score are replaced by a ragged bagpipe rendition of 'To be a Pilgrim' playing us in and out.

The actor playing Christian treads as perilous a path as the character, negotiating the Sloughs of Sanctimony, and the Valley of Bathos. Gielgud's Christian enjoyed moments of sublime exaltation, but often struck a note of bosom-clasping absurdity. Mick Ford is more down-to-earth, and hence more believable in his turmoil. Sometimes, though, he sounds as if he's just had a trying day at the office instead of a dip in the Slough of Despond. At times of exasperation he is more twittish than heroic, giving a Bertie Wooster in Purgatory feel to the action.

For all these blemishes, this makes a first-rate introduction to the work: the reading is clear and intelligent; the extracts, of which we've had five out of 25 so far, are the right accessible length (just more than 10 minutes each); and the biblical grace of the original language is respected.

That first Pilgrim's Progress in 1943 must have come as a welcome model of fortitude under fire at the height of the war. So did the reporting of Edward R Murrow, the subject of this week's Radio Lives (R4). Usually in this series the passage of time has rendered personal peccadillos more interesting than the subject's career: archive recordings are enjoyable nostalgia (Children's Hour footlings, appearances on Any Questions and the like). But with Murrow, of course, they were history itself. He was, as a colleague revealed, a man with little time for pleasantries - dining, dancing, even politics if not welded to a moral cause.

The recordings of his reports were so clear they might have been made yesterday. Perched on the top of Broadcasting House he would describe the scene of devastation, in precise, urgent prose: 'You may be able to hear the sounds of guns off in the distance. Very faintly, like someone kicking a tub.' Witnessing the horrors of Buchenwald as the Allied soldiers liberated it, he again found a startling but appropriate image: 'As I walked down to the end of the barracks, there was applause from the men too weak to get out of bed. It sounded like the hand-clapping of babies.'

It wouldn't have been a Radio Life if there hadn't been a dark side to Ed's character, and sure enough he was revealed to be a depressive and an adulterer. His wife, Janet, was gingerly asked by presenter Christopher Cook: 'Did those relationships (with other women) cause you concern?' 'Yes they did. But I survived.' Which was more than Murrow managed, compulsively smoking himself to an early grave. The doctor operating on his brain cancer revealed: 'I went just as far as I could, but if I'd taken out any more, he would have lost his speech. And I couldn't do that to that man.'

As memorable as Murrow's voice - a perfect broadcasting instrument, shorn of self-indulgence but not feeling - was his seriousness about broadcasting and, in particular, radio. In an extract from an interview with Malcolm Muggeridge (of which it would have been good to have heard more) he explained that he got 'more psychological dividend' from radio news than television, because of radio's superior treatment of ideas - the essence of news. At a time when BBC radio is performing a slow, embarrassing suicide, Murrow made you feel that, after all, the medium was worth the candle.