Robert Hanks: 'Dylan Thomas or not, this script is a conversation piece'

The Week in Radio
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The Independent Culture

To begin at the beginning: The Art of Conversation (Radio 4, Wednesday) was taken from an unproduced script by Dylan Thomas, unearthed a few months ago by Andrew Lycett, one of Thomas's biographers – a peculiar bit of wartime propaganda combining a skew-whiff, ironic poke at the idiocies of modern conversation with a message about careless talk costing lives and the importance of being like dad, keeping mum.

This got trailed and trailed for days beforehand on Radio 4, and quite right too. After all, in 'Under Milk Wood', Thomas wrote what is probably one of the two or three greatest pieces of drama that have been created for radio, and the only one that you can rely on people having heard of. Even if it had been rubbish, it would have been worth hearing for curiosity's sake; since it wasn't, and Alison Hindell's broadcast version was intelligent and alert to period atmosphere, it was the most interesting programme of the week; but also, the most frustrating.

The problem was that, in spite of all those trailers, the listener was dropped into it unprepared. There was no account of what state the script was in, for example. Had Thomas left something close in shape to the finished article, or just rough notes that had to be yoked together? The suspicion that what we were hearing wasn't echt Thomas was aroused at the outset: "To begin at the beginning," the narrator announced (Philip Madoc, doing an excellent Thomas impersonation – resisting the temptation to overdo the orotund Welshness). Well, that's the opening of 'Under Milk Wood': was Thomas trying it on for size here, or was it grafted on as a gag?

The programme took the form of a lecture on the art of conversation through the ages, illustrated by "the lantern-slides of sound" – little sketches showing how witty conversations used to be, how tedious they have become. Clever pastiches of Oscar Wilde, delivering self-consciously light epigrams to Aubrey Beardsley ("Conversation, my dear Aubrey, is the art of putting the cart before the horse, and then putting the whole thing in a nutshell"), and Dr Johnson, in slightly pompous, pious mode, were interspersed with what seemed rather heavy-handed swipes at literary types of the day: two successful, middle-aged writers, Jack and Tom, talked tobacco, royalties and punctuation; then more avant-garde, younger writers talked T S Eliot and Marxism. Wilde and Johnson were easy jokes to get; but the contemporary stuff seemed flat and odd – it needed some explanation of who was being got at.

These gave way to a strange spoof of the Bright Young Things in Evelyn Waugh's 'Vile Bodies', and then a series of conversations, demonstrating the low-level of modern chat – everybody talks shop now – and the dangers of gossip: "Hundreds of odds and ends of hundreds of hearsays and rumours may and can be brought together into such a pattern that a whole allied enterprise is thwarted and destroyed. A wagging tongue may sink a ship. A stray word over a mild and bitter may help to murder children." This was fairly terrible writing, punctuated with some characteristic Thomas assonances, puns and free-association – there was one great line about "peeping tom-toms", a phrase that combines the voyeurism and the mysterious bush-telegraph of gossip. On its own terms, as drama or propaganda, it was fascinatingly silly; as history and nostalgia, it was simply fascinating. It made me long for the days when writers were uncynical enough to feel that work for the government was excusable; it made me long even more for the days when bar-staff knew what mild-and-bitter meant.