RADIO / Portrait of a break-up

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
MICHAEL HASTINGS'S dissection of T S Eliot's marriage to Vivienne Haig-Wood, Tom and Viv (R3), is a bleakly acute portrait of marital collapse and decayed Edwardian gentility. It had an uncanny resonance this week when another prominent man was splitting up with his highly-strung young wife. Hastings is the Eliots' Andrew Morton. He takes her side, as Edith Sitwell did: 'Tom went mad, and promptly certified his wife.' We follow Vivienne from an Oxford the dansant where she mocks Tom's stiffness ('I find it an enormous effort to be trivial,' he confesses), to her death in the mental hospital to which he had unbendingly consigned her.

Miranda Richardson, a past mistress of Ophelian instability, pitched her Vivienne at the point where gaiety topples over into derangement: in the early scenes she rejoices in the jibes of Eliot's literary lady-friends (Virginia Woolf likened her to 'a bag of ferrets'); later she carries a toy dagger for retaliation. John Duttine's austere Tom caught the mid-Atlantic accent, but there weren't enough glints of the diamond mind through the dusty delivery.

The corroborating account of the marriage in Peter Ackroyd's Eliot biography showed that the play is not the distortion it was made out to be on its first performance in 1983. Eliot seems to have been governed by convention in his attitude to mental instability, as much as he was in his comments about Jews in his early poems. He was not without remorse either; we hear him sobbing at Vivienne's graveside.

If the play traduces anything, it is not history but poetry. It's hard to see the verse's source in the repressed, priggish Eliot. And though Vivienne claims to be 'threaded through every line of poetry he wrote', there is little intellectual exchange between them. Like all the characters in the play, they speak in clipped, distant tones throughout. It makes for a moving, staccato symphony of marital discord, but only a footnote to the poetry.

Robert Louis Stevenson and Graham Greene (who were distant cousins) have fared better on radio than in other media. Radio allows them more time than the cinema and uses more of their words than television. But these advantages are wasted in a pair of new adaptations. Greene's The Comedians (R4) is a disappointment after Radio 4's successful version of The Quiet American. The novel opens on a ship (named with Greene's wintry humour, The Medea) on which four characters - Brown, Jones, Smith and Mrs Smith - are sailing for Haiti. In this production they are as pallid as their names. Greene's plot has already begun to grip, with a whiff of betrayal scented below deck, but the performances are anaemic. Brown, in particular, the burnt-out hero whose hotel is the setting of the rest of the book, lacks the asperity he has on the page, and it's a shame to have dispensed with his narration - the voice of Greene. Location recordings from Andy Kershaw's Haitian documentaries are promised for future episodes, so things may look up when we sup on the horrors of Papa Doc.

Stevenson's The Suicide Club, last night's Classic Serial (R4), may have influenced the young Greene. There are echoes of Stevenson's club where the world- weary play cards for the right to be killed (the Ace of Spades spells the longed-for death; the Ace of Clubs designates the murderer) in Greene's The Revolver in the Corner Cupboard. Both climax in superb pieces of descriptive writing, whose effect radio is powerless to recreate. In The Suicide Club, it is the awful realisation by the club's honorary member, a dabbler who wants kicks rather than extinction, that he has drawn the death card. 'A horrible noise, like that of something breaking, issued from his mouth,' writes Stevenson. What we heard sounded more like a common gasp.

BBC radio's bid for 'distinctive' programming sounded last week like a stampede towards the bottom end of the market. Sue Lawley plumbed new depths of prurience on Desert Island Discs (R4), by pressing the publisher Carmen Callil on when she had lost her virginity. It was another example of the programme's inability to decide whether it wants to be a probe or an accolade.

Monday's News 92 (R1) Sarajevo special also deviated from the best possible taste, with its Vangelis-style accompaniment to harrowing accounts of bereavement. Elsewhere, the novelty was more palatable. The Serbian side of the argument was put by a London-based Serbian academic, unforgiving of history. The horror of the situation was brought home by a section recorded on a plane approaching Sarajevo airport. The tannoyed message from the captain was not to do with weather on the ground but 'ground-to- air missile activity'.

But the most distinctive sound - from Start the Week (R4) to Newsbeat (R1) - has been the drone of builders' drills. For once it wasn't Melvyn Bragg's guests that were boring.