The Week In Radio: When classic serials are not so classic

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

There's a disturbing note on the Classic Serial page on the Radio 4 website, explaining that the slot is devoted to "Works which have achieved classic status – or are on their way to achieving it." Hang on – "on their way" to being classics? That could apply to anything; it's like crossing your fingers so it doesn't count. They may as well call it the Classic Serial (Not!).

To be fair, there haven't been many signs that the Radio drama department is trying to take advantage of the get-out clause, aside from a Roald Dahl and a Flashman novel earlier this year. More disturbing is the current enthusiasm for extreme abridgement – I thought Olivia Manning's Fortunes of War, back in February, was squeezed at six hour-long episodes (which works out at an episode per novel); but a month or so later the same number of episodes was allowed for all 12 novels in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. That's an adaptation in the sense that a cube of scrap metal coming out of a compactor is an adaptation of a car, or a beefburger is an adaptation of a cow.

In purely statistical terms – ratio of text to airtime – the new Classic Serial, Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book (Radio 4, Sunday, rpt Saturday), hasn't been done over quite so heavily. In terms of fidelity to the spirit of the original, though, it's been beaten up with a length of hosepipe. Browning's poem is based on an account of the trial of Count Guido Franceschini, who murdered his wife, Pompilia Comparini, in Rome in 1698, believing she was having an affair with a handsome young priest. It's a rollicking soap opera plot.

Martyn Wade, who's generally pretty reliable, tells the story well. But Browning's poem isn't a story; it's a story about stories – about how events become something else when they're set down, and how a plot isn't the same thing as the novel or the poem (or play or film) in which it's embodied. Wade's adaptation preserves Browning's device of telling the story from various viewpoints – Franceschini, Pompilia, members of the scandalised public – but all this tells us is, blandly, that truth can be subjective.

He can't get across the poetry: the odd phrase of Browning floats up here and there, but his peculiar chirpy, lapel-grabbing tone is flattened out into modern colloquial English. It's not a dramatisation of Browning at all, it's a play loosely inspired by the same set of events; and it's enjoyable, but no classic.

Sexual cruelty was a central theme in Charlotte Greig's play The Confessions (Radio 4, Wednesday). Catrin accompanies her unscrupulous art-dealer boyfriend on a trip to Geneva, where he hopes to turn a few bob selling a dishonestly obtained picture, a rare bit of erotica by Turner. But there, she discovers she is expected to make nice with the art-dealer, beginning with conversations on Rousseau, then progressing to intimate evenings reading out loud from his Confessions, the bits where he talks about the pleasures of, ulp, discipline.

This was racy stuff for a quarter past two in the afternoon; but having come on all steamy and sophisticated, the play then turned coy. Instead of a climax we got some nonsense about the importance of love, followed by a fumbled and apologetic exit. This is not what the red-blooded Radio 4 listener wants.