The Week In Radio: When poetry becomes an adventure
Thursday 12 November 2009
If I had a fiver for everyone I've heard say, "I never watch any television apart from the news and David Attenborough", well, it would probably cover my licence fee. But while there being Nothing on TV has been a staple moan of British cultural life for some time now, radio is in far happier shape. The Rajar figures for the third quarter of the year were good for the BBC, especially Radios 3, 4 and 5 Live. There were all sorts of explanations, including the Ashes and the Proms and global economic meltdown to explain why people were reaching for the radio. Yet perhaps it comes down to the fact that radio simply does some things better.
If that's the case, then of all the things that radio does better than TV, the best must be poetry. Adventures in Poetry is a quietly ambitious series, which sets out to anatomise a much- loved poem without killing it in the process. In the first of this series, Peggy Reynolds took "Adlestrop", Edward Thomas's almost unbearably elegiac poem that captures a moment at a Cotswold railway station in the summer before the First World War. Edward Thomas – a wonderful, under-rated poet whose own life deserves a radio exploration at the very least – only started to write poetry after war broke out and "Adlestrop", his best known poem, came as he tried to decide whether to leave England to write, or join up and fight. He opted for the latter and died at the Battle of Arras in 1917, aged just 39.
Adlestrop station is completely overgrown now, but the birdsong is still overpowering. Andy Clements of the British Trust for Ornithology explained that Thomas's observation of blackbirds singing in an ever-extending chain was actually just male birds defending their territory. In case this sounded a touch prosaic, he added there was something special about blackbirds' song, because "more than any other birdsong, they seem to pause and reflect on life". Peggy Reynolds thought "Adlestrop" represents an arcadia many would like to return to, connecting us with a sense of Englishness and permanence. The best comment came from Jonathan Davidson, a train enthusiast, who said: "The more I read it, I realise it isn't really about railways."
If there's one realm in which television is supposedly pre-eminent, it's costume drama, and of all costume dramas, it's Dickens. So how could Dickens on radio, without bonnets and lamplight and all the glories of the BBC prop department possibly compete? The answer is magnificently. Woman's Hour's adaptation of Our Mutual Friend is like Christmas come early. Its timely theme is money and its power to corrupt. Old Harmon, a misanthropic miser who made his money from London's rubbish tips, has left a fortune to his estranged son, on condition that he marries a woman he has never met, Bella Wilfer. Yet at the start of the story a body pulled from the Thames is identified as that of the Harmon heir.
No one was more alert than Dickens to the importance of vivid dramatisation. In Our Mutual Friend, Sloppy is commended when reading out the paper because "he do the Police in different voices" whereas Silas Wegg reads "in a dry, unflinching way". Assisted by fabulously atmospheric music from Roger Goula, Jeremy Mortimer's production luxuriates in Dickens's language and the actors, including Pauline Quirke as Mrs Boffin, Alex Jennings as Dickens and Daisy Haggard as Bella, plainly relish their scripts. Our Mutual Friend was Dickens's last finished work and when it came out contemporary critics complained about the complexity of the plot, but judging by the first three of 20 episodes, Mike Walker's adaptation has overcome this problem. Even if you can't make a date with Woman's Hour, it's well worth catching the 7.45pm repeat.
When contemplating the value of radio, there was no voice more eloquent this week than Beirut hostage John McCarthy, who described how he listened to his cellmate Brian Keenan's release "with a radio pressed to my ear, blindfolded and chained to a wall". Radio 2's Behind Enemy Lines was a deeply sobering exploration of how hostages and hostage takers retain or lose their compassion. Using interviews with concentration camp survivors and Japanese prisoners of war, the programme looked at the effect of horror on the human spirit and McCarthy himself, gracious and modest as ever, could be no better example of the ability to triumph over adversity. Alan Johnston, the BBC journalist held in Gaza, recalled how he had been listening to the World Service from his cell when a speaker remarked how their eight-year-old son was obsessed with his predicament. Just in that single moment, Johnston said, radio had brought him an immense and comforting source of strength.
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