The Week In Radio: Bedtime stories that are still the stuff of dreams


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The Independent Culture

Where would radio be without literature? Stuck with hours of dead air, that's where. Just as we cram our shelves with books at home, so radio commissioners use them to grout the gaps between news programmes, science documentaries and The Archers. Look at the schedules and you'll see them all over the place, being discussed, dissected, dramatised or simply read out loud, Jackanory-style.

Not that I'm complaining. Being read to is one of life's greatest pleasures, the aural equivalent of being handed pyjamas fresh from the tumble dryer. For those of us who were read to by our parents, it catapults us straight back to our early childhood. Even now, as a grown-up and with offspring of my own, no sooner do I hear the words Book at Bedtime then I start sucking my thumb and whining for my blankie.

If having a writer or actor read a book is a treat for listeners, for producers it must be the greatest gift of all. So intimate, so magical, so... cheap! You can just picture them, clipboard in hand, bundling Julian Barnes into a studio with his new book and a six-pack of Evian, and barking "...and don't come out until you've finished!"

This week's late-night lullaby, by which I mean Book at Bedtime, is Polly Samson's Perfect Lives, a series of elegantly interlinked stories that capture the misplaced ambition and the broken-heartedness of middle-class life. Claire Skinner was an obvious choice to read the opening tale of a well-to-do wife and mother Celia Idlewild, even if it was a stretch to picture her offspring not as the warped little charmers on Outnumbered, but as sleepy, sloppily attired teenagers seemingly oblivious to the cracks in their parent's marriage. The early morning scene in Celia's kitchen pointed to an existence straight out of the White Company catalogue: the cosy dressing gown, the sputtering coffee machine, the window looking out on to a beach. But an egg posted through the letterbox was a strange and unwelcome reminder of her husband Graham's dark secret: a child born to another woman. Graham, it was discovered, had been making furtive visits to see his other daughter. There was no happy ending here, just a sense of suppressed fury, conjured by a handful of words and Skinner's husky voice in your ear.

The mystery of words on the page was articulately unpicked in Talking Books, in which Razia Iqbal talked to Alaa Al Aswany, the Egyptian author of The Yacoubian Building, and in Open Book where Mariella Frostrup interviewed the writer and poet Sarah Hall about The Beautiful Indifference, her first collection of short stories. While Aswany discussed extracting drama from real-life political events, Hall reflected upon the challenges of providing a physical and psychological landscape within her fictional narratives, and stressed the importance of creating "a feasible world where the atoms seem real".

Take away this "feasible world" and broadcasting a novel can be like draining the colour from a painting. In Classic Serial, a ghastly demolition job had been done on Henry James's 1903 book The Ambassadors, about a middle-aged editor dispatched by his widowed fiancé to retrieve her wayward son from Paris, replacing the dense prose with creaky, over-explanatory dialogue. Dramatisations needn't always be this laborious, as an excellent adaptation of Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate proved earlier this year, but I'd rather have listened to the book as it was written, and not the am-dram version. More often than not, the cut-price approach works best. A book and a voice is all you need.