The Week in Radio: The full Brontë as cursing Cathy hits new heights

By Jane Thynne
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:07

WTF, as Emily Brontë wouldn't say, is Radio 3 doing updating Wuthering Heights? Is the original not enough? Are they besieged with a new kind of audience that finds classic drama inaccessible and needs curse-ridden, reality-TV-style dialogue in order to relate?

Well, no, though Radio 3 would probably welcome being besieged by any kind of audience. For once, the Is-Nothing-Sacred school was wrong and Jonathan Holloway's adaptation had me glued to my radio like Catherine to Heathcliff's window. Not because of the language, though parts of the world's most romantic story were more like being shut in a Leeds pub at closing time. The dialogue was spattered with the F-word like broken glass on a nightclub floor. "Chuck it at me, white boy!" says Heathcliff. "Take it, you pikey scum. Take it, you scrounging black bastard!" replies Hindley.

But how shocking is that? Frankly, a true updating of Wuthering Heights would have Heathcliff arrested for hanging Isabella's dog, and Cathy in therapy for unhealthy co-dependency. At times, gratuitous swearing detracted from the aching beauty of the dialogue. Catherine's stirring appeal, for example, acquired an ungainly expletive. "If the whole world was laid waste and only Heathcliff remained, I would still be happy, but if all else remained and he was annihilated then I would wish the whole fucking universe was burned to a cinder." But, ultimately, it was the use of rich, authentic Yorkshire accents that came as a surprise in this satisfying drama, rather than a few old F-words.

The great advantage of Drama on 3 is that it isn't Drama on 4. Plays run at greater length and venture into far more experimental territory, such as European drama or long classical serials. Recent delights have been Büchner's Danton's Death and Woyzeck and Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden. It's just part of an arts schedule which, including last Sunday's feature on Rilke's Duino Elegies, seems especially sparkling right now. So where does this leave the injunction from the BBC Trust for Radio 3 to "extend the appeal to audiences that are currently being underserved". Whatever this comment means, it confirmed the fears of many listeners that the lightweight and low-brow brigade is on the rise, concerns that were presumably heightened by the latest innovation on the Breakfast programme, where "well-known personalities from the world of comedy" are invited to discuss their musical choices. On Monday, The Fast Show's Charlie Higson chose a restful medley of British music from Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Granville Bantock, because, "There's an Englishness about it. It speaks of a repressed romanticism and wistfulness and reminds you of taking the dog for a walk on an autumn evening." Adventurous it wasn't but accessible, it certainly was.

As it happens, Radio 3's ratings are currently on the up, reaching 2.2 million people and a 1.2 per cent share of the audience. That's about twice the audience of the digital-only BBC7, which this Saturday is relaunching as Radio 4 Extra. The station will remain the home of classic comedy and drama, but around 15 per cent of the schedule will be new, including premieres of new comedies before transferring to Radio 4, archive Desert Island Discs and the twice-weekly Ambridge Extra, which "gives a chance to spend more time with Archers characters like Alice Carter and Jamie Perks". While many of us would run a mile not to spend more time with the junior Archers, these innovations are certain to pump up the ratings. The extra publicity that 6Music got from being almost cut last year, actually doubled its audience. There's every chance with the added publicity that Radio 4 Extra could overtake Radio 3. Cue a debate about ratings versus Reith, which goes to the heart of the BBC's purpose, as fiendish a philosophical conundrum as any faced by the Ancient Greeks.

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