As all radio devotees know, the highest indicator of a programme's worth is whether you find it difficult, or indeed impossible, to get out of the car until it has come to the end. This is where the shorter programme comes into its own: it is embarrassing to have to explain why one is two hours late for dinner because of a particularly engrossing play on Radio 3. So it is nice that Book of the Week is only 15 minutes long; and, indeed, goes out at times when one is not that likely to be in a car. (If you're in a car at 9.45am you're late for work, and if you're in one at half past midnight, you're up to no good.)
This week, we have an unusually riveting account of The Black Death, An Intimate History of the Plague, the book by John Hatcher. What Hatcher has done is look at the detailed records of the Suffolk village of Walsham, and from them extrapolated what it might have been like, really like, to live in a society where about half the population was dying horribly.
It is all, of course, highly speculative. There is more fiction than history, as even the dimmest listener could work out. But there is something very affecting about it – when we are listening to such a story, we are indulging our own apocalyptic fantasies.
And the reader, Robert Glenister, is a very good choice, for he can do tension and menace very well. The programme has its flaws, which aren't serious, but as I'm a critic, it's my job to point them out. One questions the wisdom or necessity of Glenister's adoption of a yokel accent when imagining parishioners asking questions of their priests.
This fluctuating accent, known as BBC Peasant, is not heard anywhere on earth except Ambridge. When it appeared in The Black Death it came as such a shock, such a change from Robert Glenister's Mr Serious Voice, that I laughed. I suspect I was not alone. You might also ponder the suitability of the music, which although certainly effective, comes from the file marked Sinister Waily Arab Music, which may be a clever allusion to the Black Death's origins in the East – or may only be in because the producer thought it sounded really cool.
However, these are just minor quibbles. If someone commands Robert Glenister to do a comedy accent from time to time, and the music is a little clichéd, we should not really have a problem with this. The music, after all, does its job. For, as I said, I'm not getting out of the car until it's over.Reuse content