Some things are better heard on radio, than seen

This week, I listened to the Barchester dramas, and to a man reuniting with the person who had saved him from suicide

8 February 2014

9:00 AM

8 February 2014

9:00 AM

A double dose of BBC1 drama at the weekend (Silent Witness, Casualty) left me wondering whether there’s a link between the falling crime figures announced last week and the levels of blood and bestiality now showing nightly on TV. With so much violence available at the switch of a button, who needs to create their own? (Bear with me, the connection with radio will soon become apparent.) What surprised me was not just the amount of violence but also the lack of any real motivation. It was all completely unbelievable (in spite of the best efforts of the make-up department) and meaningless, and as a consequence mind-numbingly dull. Which is why it’s such a relief to turn on the radio on Sunday afternoon and be taken into the no less nasty, if a lot less bloody world of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles (Radio 4).

Set in a cathedral close in the imaginary county of Barsetshire, these tales of Anglican life are fuelled by malicious gossip, gleeful snobbery, overweening ambition and devious doings — all of which we come across every day. They give us real people — even though the stories are set among clerical life and in an era so long gone. We squirm when the oleaginous Obadiah Slope (played by Richard Lumsden) opens his mouth because we know people like him and have either been one of his victims as he attempts to climb the greasy pole to power and advancement or know someone who has.

This latest adaptation of the novel series began last week with The Warden brilliantly cut down into 90 minutes of radio by the poet Michael Symmons Roberts. This week we met Slope for the first time in Nick Warburton’s dramatisation of the second book,  Barchester Towers. He sounded very different from Alan Rickman’s career-changing portrayal for the 1982 BBC TV series. (Can you imagine television drama commissioning a Trollope series for 2014? Way too dramatic?) But in a way he was more effective with his chippy, cockney accent and sinister chuckling as he attempts to inveigle his way into the affections of Eleanor Bold (daughter of the Warden).

The TV series is still grippingly characterful but at times it’s overplayed for the cameras. Here Malcolm Sinclair reins in the choleric Archdeacon, while Tim Pigott-Smith gives us the gentle and the steely Warden in a production (by Marion Nancarrow) that’s so crisp, so clear and so coherent. The creation of Mrs Baxter as the housekeeper who overhears everything (played with great heart by Maggie Steed) cleverly ensures we stay in touch with the drama, that sense of individual lives thrashing about in a world they don’t quite understand.

Last week on World at One (Radio 4) I happened to catch one of those ‘radio’ moments when all around you stops for a second as you listen to something extraordinary. The connection between you and what you’re hearing keeps you in that moment, fully concentrating on just one thing (so rare these days).

Martha Kearney was talking to Jonny Benjamin and ‘Mike’ about something that happened six years earlier. I shouldn’t say ‘talking’ because she said hardly anything, merely prompting, guiding the narration, knowing just how to bring out the story to maximum effect. Jonny had already been on the programme a couple of weeks before, telling Martha why he had launched a Find Mike campaign on Twitter. (He spoke so movingly then that hearing the outcome of his campaign had an added frisson.) He wanted to tell ‘Mike’ that he was still alive and to thank him for saving his life by persuading him not to jump off Waterloo Bridge. Mike had simply disappeared after successfully persuading Jonny to climb back on to the safe side of the bridge, where the police and medical professionals were ready to take over. Now, though, Mike has been found.

He turned out to be Neil Laybourn, who was walking across the bridge as he does every day on his way to work when he noticed Jonny on the wrong side of the parapet preparing to jump. ‘I was glad I was able not to panic,’ he told Martha, who intervened with the question that nailed the story: ‘I think we’ve all been thinking what would we have done in similar circumstances… Were you worried you might say the wrong thing?’

‘You don’t really have too much time to think,’ Neil replied, taking us back to that moment when he knew he had to do something to save Jonny. ‘You just try and calm your head and think about the other person involved.’

After hearing it ‘live’ on radio, out of interest I watched the video clip from the studio. Would it have the same impact as just listening? Somehow the words got lost, that sense of an incredible story unfolding. All you could see were two blokes sitting in a blank-walled studio talking to Martha. There was none of that raw feeling, that arresting awareness of an individual coming across something unusual, life-changing. Real drama.

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