Giving Proust the Pinter treatment

The week on radio

Robert Hanks
Friday 16 May 1997 23:02

"Yellow screen. (A bell rings.) Open countryside, a line of trees seen from a railway carriage. The train is still. No sound. Momentary yellow screen. The sea, seen from a high window; a towel hanging on a towel-rack in foreground. No sound. Venice. A window on a palazzo, seen from a gondola. No sound. Momentary yellow screen."

If anybody ever got round to filming The Proust Screenplay (Radio 3, Sun), Harold Pinter's celebrated adaptation of A la recherche du temps perdu, this is how it would start: with a series of images moving past at a thoughtful, sedate pace. On radio, in Ned Chaillet's production, it started very differently. True, you got the same images, spoken (by Pinter himself) without noticeable haste; but without all the help that pictures give you, the effect was of a cloudburst of ideas, a brainstorm. And here's me, never having read any Proust, caught without my umbrella.

In this helter-skelter soap-opera, personality, places, images whipping past for more than two hours, you couldn't help feeling that you were getting the worst of all worlds: you lost the leisure for contemplation that books allow; and the sense of having a story served up for you that film offers. Instead, you had to concentrate unremittingly.

This probably didn't serve Proust well - though to some extent, this mattered less than how Proust was being made to serve Pinter. Quite long stretches of conversation here could easily be slotted into (say) Pinter's screenplay for The Quiller Memorandum, an enigmatic spy film involving neo-Nazis in Cold War Berlin: with Pinter there is always a subtext, a sense of important knowledge never discussed aloud; and the fact of the unspoken dialogue often seems more important to Pinter than the content of it.

But even Harold didn't come out of it that well. Given the verbal density necessary to convey so much plot (12 volumes, a man's entire life), there wasn't much room for the Pinter pause. When it came, it should have been a silence weighty with significance, a place for all that unspoken knowledge to gather; instead, it felt like a simple pause for breath.

What all this comes down to is that The Proust Screenplay on radio left you little the wiser about what The Proust Screenplay might have been like on screen. As radio, while it washard to follow, it was also gripping. One reason was Pinter's own narration, which was the best piece of acting by him I've come across - holding the action together, giving a sense of unity to the tricksy chronology. A fine performance, too, from John Wood, as Charlus, an elderly aristo with a taste for the lash. Douglas Hodge's Marcel, our sensitive hero, made comparatively little impression; but that's probably what he was there for.

The effects of memory were explored in less depth in the first part of Murray Walker's Grand Prix World (Radio 5, Tues), in which the great man interviewed a number of drivers, past and present, and asked them all the same, somewhat leading question: wasn't it all much nicer in the old days? There are actually some Pinterish resonances in Walker's speech - you can imagine him in one of his friskier moments coming up with a phrase like "A man the like of whom there'd been no one before and none since", which is how Walker introduced Jackie Stewart. The big difference is that nobody has ever accused Walker of knowing how to do a significant pause. It's not often sport and commentator are so perfectly suited; what will happen to grand prix without him?

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