Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

The 'epic' broadcast will only stop for news and The Archers on the first day of 2015

Adam Sherwin
Thursday 27 November 2014 16:30

It’s the greatest book you’ve possibly never read to completion. Now Radio 4 is inviting hungover listeners to binge on War and Peace with a marathon 10-hour adaptation which will take over the schedules on New Year’s Day.

Split into ten episodes, the Tolstoy adaptation starring John Hurt, Simon Russell Beale, will pause only for the news and an episode of The Archers when it colonises Radio 4. Regular programming will be transferred to long wave.

Gwyneth Williams, controller of Radio 4, said she hoped the “epic" broadcast would allow listeners to absorb “arguably the greatest book ever written” during one sitting. “I imagine Radio 4 listeners will be get set up with their vodka,” she said.

However Ms Williams warned that Radio 4’s ability to mount ambitious dramas would be threatened by further cuts forced on the station by the BBC’s need to cut £1.5 billion from its annual operating budget by 2016. “It’s a matter of calling when enough is enough and we’re pretty much at that point now,” she said. “I hope we won’t have to take much more.”

War and Peace will be broadcast back-to-back from 9am on New Year’s Day. It will be interrupted by news bulletins at 1pm and 6pm, an early-evening comedy and the latest from Ambridge. “Of course we’re not dropping the Archers - don't panic,” Ms Williams said.

She expects listeners to “drop in” to the drama, which has been adapted by playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker. Developments in the historical saga will be live tweeted and family trees will be included in a Radio 4 online accompaniment for new readers.

Jeremy Howe, drama commissioner at Radio 4, said War and Peace was “the biggest blockbuster of them all. So we thought why not do it in the biggest blockbuster way we can find. That is why we have stripped out the schedule on a day when we think people will be prepared to sit down and listen to something.”

The drama is the highlight of a Radio 4 Christmas schedule which includes an unusual spin-off from The Archers. Characters from long-running rural soap will perform a 90-minute dramatisation of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit on Boxing Day.

The “drama-within-a-drama” is put together by Borsetshire's am-dram queen Lynda Snell (played by Carole Boyd) and will be broadcast after listeners have heard the build-up to the production during regular editions of the programme.

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The Radio 4 announcements followed a warning by James Purnell, the corporation's director of strategy and digital, that services may have to close as part of cost-cutting measures required to protect the licence fee when the BBC’s Royal Charter is renewed in 2016.

Ms Williams said Radio 4 has cut a number of features programmes, although its budget had been protected from across-the-board 25% cuts. “We have been cut more than we ever have before proportionately and it’s not over yet. I’m trying to make the schedules work in as richer way as possible so listeners don’t suffer from it. I hope we don’t have to cut very much more.”

An internal BBC report found that the corporation needs to save an extra £400 million a year by 2017. Mr Purnell said he could not guarantee that BBC 4 would be spared the axe. “We don't want to close BBC Four,” he said. “What we’re doing is making efficiency savings, and what we've published today is a document that shows that over the last few years we've saved about £1.1bn of our costs.”

BBC1 is also preparing to turn War and Peace into a “drama event” with an “epic” 6-part adaptation penned by the award-winning Andrew Davies. That version will begin shooting in early 2015.

Radio 4 previously broadcast a 10-part adaptation recorded on location in 1997 featuring a 35-strong cast including Leo McKern, Simon Russell Beale and Emily Mortimer. The Home Service previously broadcast an eight-part adaptation starring Leslie Banks and Celia Johnson, in 1943.

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