The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood novel adapted across six half hour episodes by Michael O’Brien in, I think, 2005, for CBC Radio. It falls into pretty familiar/genric “Lit genre” grooves (elderly woman reflects back on her life, the secrets and iniquities that plagued her and her family, her religiously conservative small town childhood, her loveless marriage, and her troubled relationship with her sister who died — possibly by suicide — decades earlier.)

Frankly, it struck me as kind of tedious — sorry, but true.

Whether that’s a problem with the source novel (which I haven’t read) or the adaptation, I don’t know. As I say, it’s pretty familiar stuff for this kind of “Can Lit” exercise, and uses a story-within-a-story-within-a-story format that, personally, I found uninvolving (inbetween dramatizing past events, we keep cutting away to excerpts from a novel written by one of the characters — the eponymous “Blind Assassin” — a novel in which a character is telling another character a fantasy/SF story). It’s all supposed to be symbolic and meaningful, but was just too many layers down for me to care (since the novel/radio drama is itself a fiction — so it’s a fictional story about a fictional story about a fictional story…) Add to that competent but rather drily professional performances (from a decent cast including Patricia Hamilton, Amy Rutherford, Fiona Reid, Robert Bockstael, and Tom McCamus), and it was just hard to care, emotionally. A story about not very interesting people leading dreary, unpleasant lives.

Air Force One

2013 one hour BBC Radio drama (though with an American cast) written by Christopher Lee (not the veteran actor) and directed by Martin Jarvis (who is the actor) about the immediate hours following the John F. Kennedy assassination, focusing on Vice President Lyndon Johnson (Stacy Keach), Jackie Kennedy (Glenne Headly), Secret Service people, etc. It‘s based, apparently, on public knowledge, unearthed inquiry reports and — of course — the writer’s speculation (allowing for a lot of deliberate ambiguity — so there are hints of some “conspiracy”…without quite pointing fingers).

Well made (with a particularly good turn from Keach) and surprisingly atmospheric and effective, maybe because despite the JFK assassination much recycled in stories, this pulls back the curtain on events not necessarily the focus of other dramatizations (or, at least, referenced but not depicted). More a taught political drama than a thriller (as mentioned, not quite committing itself to any POV, with Johnson seeming both sympathetic and self-serving). A kind of grounds eye view of events, as the characters themselves are only learning about the events as they transpire. And, despite the familiarity of the story, compelling.

The Legend of Robin Hood

90 min. BBC radio drama from 1992 of the Robin Hood story, which may well be one of the few — or only — attempts to feature the character in radio (other than the occasional one off story in an Old Time Radio anthology). It stars John Nettles, Gerry Hinks and Carolyn Backhouse and was scripted by John Fletcher (which, let’s face it, is the bestest name ever for a guy writing a Robin Hood story!)

Unfortunately, it’s disappointing — even annoying, suffering from an acute case of self-importance. Instead of telling a Robin Hood movie in audio (with character development, and a linear plot) it, as the title “legend of…” implies, spans years and is episodic, comprised of little vignettes (no less than two captured-by-the-sheriff-and-rescue sequences within a few minutes of each other) and presumes we already know the story and uses that as a crutch so it doesn’t really develop the characters or relationships.

Then there’s a lengthy mid-story sequence with Robin and Little John off on the Crusades which, though part of some versions of the legend, doesn’t really feel like a “Robin Hood” story (almost as if Fletcher had wanted to write a play about the Crusades but could only interest a producer if he inserted Robin into it)…and still is more just a collection of moments and voice overs as opposed to gelling into a “plot.” Presumably part of the point was to try a certain historical realism, Fletcher having researched the period (and descriptions of the Holy Land), and with a greater emphasis on Robin’s Christianity (not — necessarily — in a proselytizing way, but simply for authenticity), yet also nods to paganism (strangely, I half wondered if Marion was supposed to be a mystical wood nymph or something at first, her initial scenes are so odd) and with evocative period music.

It feels pretentious. Full of voiceovers, poetic monologues, reflections on Christianity, and disjointed incidents, without really gelling into an actual plot about characters we like or care about. I’ll admit, Robin Hood is one of those iconic characters I have a great fondness for…yet rarely have I found a Robin Hood movie/book that really captured what I’m looking for in a telling of the tale. The swashbuckling Adventures of Robin hood (with Errol Flynn) and the bittersweet Robin & Marion (with Sean Connery) being my two favourite Robin Hood movies.

The Leopard

2008 90 min BBC Radio adaptation by Michael Hastings of the classic novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, basically chronicling the end of the age of the aristocracy by focusing on a wealthy Italian family circa the mid-19th  Century while society changes around them in the midst of on going civil wars and strife, focusing in particular on the proud, imperious patriarch, Don Fabrizio (Stanley Townsend) — the “leopard” of the title — and his favourite nephew, Tancredi (Tom Hiddleston) who enthusiastically fights for various rebels.

It’s one of those productions that isn’t bad…but didn’t quite click for me.

I think it’s partly condensing it into 90 min (even an earlier movie version ran 3 hrs!). Instead of simply getting caught up in the characters and soap opera, you can find that, reduced to its core elements, you aren’t really sure what its point is, and don’t really get involved with the characters. Characters come and go, barely appearing until relevant to a particular scene, and often emotions, motivation, and plot points are bluntly explained in dialogue or laid out in voiceover narrations.

I’ll admit, I partly was keen to listen to it because it featured Hayley Atwell, who (whom?) I’ve liked in various movie and TV roles. But though she’s certainly a significant character (playing Angelica, whom Tancredi marries), given the running time and the size of the cast, it wasn’t that big, or well-defined, a part. She only really is in a few scenes, with a few lines — so, a disappointment if you tuned in for her! Not that that‘s important overall (it‘s not like the production was marketed as “starring” Atwell or anything) but I‘m just putting my biases on the table (looking at some other write ups about this production, a lot of the commentators I’m guessing were female and Tom Hiddleston fans).

Although I could fault creative choices in this adaptation, I’m inclined to say the main problem was simply that it was just inadvisable to try and squeeze the story into 90 minutes, and it might have been better to do a longer, serialized adaptation (mind you, I haven’t read the novel, so maybe I’d have the same issues with the source). Ultimately it’s a production that might appeal to fans of the novel, simply as a way of evoking the book, and it’s not badly made — enough so that it doesn’t discourage you from seeking out the book — without being that compelling on its own.

The Devil’s Music

BBC Radio drama from 2008, written by Alan Plater in three 45 minute episodes. The description can be a bit misleading, being about a modern day Welsh jazz musician who is told a tune she believes she is improvising actually dates back generations — a hook suggesting (at least to me!) maybe some sort of supernatural mystery (particularly with that title!) But it’s actually a sometimes light-hearted generational drama, the tune simply turning out to have been passed down through the family (so she realizes she must’ve just heard it as a child). And so she ends up learning about her unconventional family line (each woman in the family named Meghan — she’s Meghan V), and their association with music.

It’s basically a way of touching on 19th/20th Century history (post-slavery, suffragettes, unionism) and the roots of jazz as it relates to these women (the credits even acknowledge the script is based on historical research!) even getting into discussions of modern race relations. Funnily, Rakie Ayola — who appealingly voices Meghan V — is black but I was beginning to assume she was supposed to be playing a white character (being radio) since there was no mention of colour — until the final act when it is mentioned she’s black.

Despite some obvious, self-conscious earnestness, and quasi-educational aspects — it actually works as a kind of charming, low-key, quirkily light-hearted multi-generational drama, with a denouement that effectively brings things full circle. It actually held my attention better than some more obviously “dramatic” stories — perhaps helped by a good tempo and pacing and, as I say, a good-hearted charm. The likeable cast also includes Margaret John, Don Warrington, and others.

A Doll’s House

There have probably been a few radio adaptations of Henrik Ibsen’s classic, proto-feminist play. This one is a 2 hr production done for BBC Radio in 2012 adapted by Tanika Gupta, relocating the story to colonial India (while still being faithful to the scenes and much of the dialogue) with Niru (ie: Nora) a naive Indian woman married to the seeming loving but condescending Englishman Tom (ie: Torval) and what happens when secrets and Niru’s past misdeeds start to come back upon them. Indira Varma plays Niru and Toby Stephens Tom.

It’s an effective, well-made production, with strong performances particularly from Varma (appealing despite the, initial, flighty nature of the character) and Stephens (the latter a popular actor on British radio but one I’ve sometimes been mixed on — not that he isn’t always good). The play itself is effective just as a kind of pulpy potboiler (with twists and revelations and tension) even beyond the “message” — indeed, the last scene is among the most awkward as it feels like a lecture (and some of the earlier twists and surprises can be a bit contrived in their coincidence!) But, as I say: a very good, quite engaging production.

The transposing of the story to India effectively adds a nice, rich sense of atmosphere (though was the term “item” used to refer to a romantic pairing back in the 19th Century?)

BUT…any added political subtext is, perhaps, more awkward. By seeming to want to graft on a theme about colonialism it can feel like an odd fit. Does Gupta want us to infer the events would’ve been different if Niru had married an Indian man? ‘Cause, um, it’s not like India had anything to learn from the English about sexism or class prejudice. Indeed, the fact that A Doll’s House can be performed all over the world, and has been re-imagined in different cultures and time periods, perhaps makes a point about how similar people are. But as I say, a good, entertaining version of the story.