The Week In Radio: For real originality, try Flann O'Brien

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The Independent Culture

After years of reviewing radio, I've amassed what I like to think of as a comprehensive radio archive, though objectively it's really a thick scurf of CDs and cassettes on the bookshelves. The surface layer includes most episodes of an old Radio 4 Classic Serial, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker: and blow me down, here it is being the Classic Serial all over again (Radio 4, Sunday).

My first thought was that it's hardly been 10 minutes since the last time; in fact, it's been 16 years, though even that doesn't seem much of a gap for what is generally regarded as a very minor classic of the English novel – a good-natured, rambling tale of thwarted love and long-lost children, enlivened by some very basic comic stereotypes (sex-mad old maid, grasping Scotsman).

There are novelists who demand revisiting every generation or so – most of Austen, chunks of Dickens and Eliot, the odd Thackeray and Trollope, not to mention all those 19th-century Russians and Frenchmen – but I'm not sure that Tobias Smollett is one of them.

Still, I thought, won't it be interesting to see how things have changed over the years? I sat down and dutifully listened to the first episode of both versions – rather assuming, I have to admit, that the old version would be better. As it turned out, things weren't nearly so clear-cut. If I had something sharp pressed against my throat, I might come down on the side of Timothy West's 1992 performance as the irascible but golden-hearted squire Matthew Bramble, rather than Nigel Anthony's slightly toned-down modern version; on the other hand, if you're really getting heavy with me, Yvonne Antrobus's 2008 adaptation flows more smoothly than Scott Cherry's 1992 script, which wedges information clumsily into the dialogue.

But the really shocking thing is how interchangeable the two versions sound: both, for example, use folky-sounding fiddle-playing between the scenes, as a way of conjuring the period. Plus ça change, eh? Assuming that you're the kind of person who likes a Classic Serial, this one is very jolly and worth your time; but since the 1992 version was repeated last year on BBC7, the whole exercise seems pointless. The main lesson is that the BBC needs to sort out its attitude to its archives, and Radio 4's relationship to BBC7.

Humphry Clinker bears out Tibor Fischer's contention, in a clever little feature entitled The Ancient Novel (Radio 4, Thursday), that the basic concerns of novelists haven't changed in 2,000 years – implausibly attractive boy meeting implausibly attractive girl still brings in the punters, as it did when Chariton was writing Chaereas and Callirhoe in Greece. But there are always exceptions: Annie Caulfield's play Your Only Man (Radio 3, Sunday) celebrated the life of Brian O'Nolan, aka Myles na gCopaleen, who in his third persona, Flann O'Brien, wrote the novels At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman, which overturned every idea you ever had about how a story should work. Giving O'Nolan and his pseudonyms each a life of their own, Caulfield captured some of his stubbornly nonconformist spirit; but really this was a story about how talent must struggle with fear – fear of failure, fear of starvation – and despite a tacked-on happy ending, with O'Nolan blessed by posterity, it was chilling.

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