Radio 4 to shed its cosy image with a 'sexy' Ulysses drama

New station controller wants to reflect the current period of 'turmoil and uncertainity'

The controller of Radio 4 yesterday spoke of her bid to take the network away from "cosy" drama as she unveiled plans for a "sexy" dramatisation of James Joyce's Ulysses and the "longest-running drama ever," based around the centenary of the First World War.

Gwyneth Williams also promised a tribute to the Swedish fictional detective who she said had inspired the genre of the modern police procedural novel and been a model for characters such as Ian Rankin's John Rebus and Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse.

Martin Beck was the creation of husband and wife writing team Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo and Radio 4 will dramatise the entire 10-book series, which was written between 1965 and 1975. Ms Williams described the over-worked, disgruntled, middle aged cop Beck as a "grumpy old thing".

To support the Martin Beck series, which will start in October, the broadcaster Mark Lawson will present a 15-part series examining the cultural role of European fictional detectives, from Holland's Piet Van Der Valk to Spain's Pepe Carvalho.

Ms Williams also admitted she was risking controversy by commissioning a drama based on the blasphemy accusations against the Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi and the subsequent murder of the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who defended her. Ms Williams said the drama, co-written by the BBC World Service journalist Owen Bennett-Jones, was sensitive "because it's about Pakistan and it's about a particularly sensitive issue in Pakistan".

She said that she wanted Radio 4 drama, which had been labelled as "cosy", to reflect the "period of turmoil and uncertainty" that listeners were living through. "The network's main task has been to uncover that and give people as many tools as possible to unpick it and understand it." Ulysses which will be broadcast in seven episodes over five and a half hours during Saturday 16 June has a "tremendous current resonance", she said, as it deals with ordinary "life in all its glory" against a background of momentous world events.

In what is the most significant project of Williams's 18 months as controller, the entire day's schedule will be given over to a "Bloomsday" dedication to Joyce's classic story of a day in the life of Dublin advertising agent Leopold Bloom. Mark Lawson will again be deployed, to take listeners to the Dublin settings featured in the novel and to provide introductions to the segments of drama by a cast of 24 actors.

Even the Today programme will give up part of its precious airtime to accommodating a dramatic episode in which Bloom (played by Henry Goodman) takes his breakfast. Jeremy Howe, the commissioning editor for Radio 4 drama, noted that although Radio 4 does not have a watershed, he was pleased that the sexually explicit soliloquy by Leopold's wife Molly fell conveniently into an evening broadcast slot.

He said: "I think it's important that we do Ulysses as it is written and not Ulysses-lite because that would be an offence to what I think is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century."

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