There I was trapped in the bathroom at 10.55 p.m., unable to leave for fear of missing anything. The time it would have taken me to get to the bedroom, touch the screen of the digital radio, encouraging it to dawdle its way into life, was just too long, too risky. Vital information in the story might have been lost. The tension, created by that single voice holding me on a thread, would have been dissipated.
It came as a surprise. Book at Bedtime (Radio 4, Monday to Friday evenings) is often such a disappointment these days that the radio gets switched off at 10.51 (after six minutes you know for sure that whatever is being read is not going to get any better). The last few books, in particular, have been too mannered, the writing too stylised, the reading itself too clunky, too raw for this time of night. In some ways that’s a relief. Years ago — before iPlayer — I had to stop listening to Book at Bedtime because it was so frustrating to be drawn in night-by-night only to miss an episode because I was not home in time. With some books (Turgenev, Winifred Holtby, Bernard MacLaverty) it would make me want to leave things early, or even not go at all. It was not so much that I needed to know what was going to happen (I could always go find the book), but I wanted that fix, that particular experience — the consolation of a great story, beautifully told, lulling the mind into sleepfulness.
Louise Welsh’s A Lovely Way to Burn, though, had an immediate impact. It was not a book I would ever have picked up in the bookshop, not being a fan of sci-fi or thrillers, let alone a combination of both genres. It was actually this disjuncture between what I usually like and what I found myself drawn into that made the whole thing more compelling, more effective. From the first words, ‘Stevie Flint had lived in London for seven years. She no longer had the soundtrack to the movie of her life playing in her head,’ I was hooked. It was so direct, so simple, so unwriterly. It felt like we were in safe hands, this was not going to disappoint.
Yet I have to admit it was all a bit fantastical. We’re in London at some time in the future. Stevie works for a shopping channel on TV and when we meet her she is tottering across Soho in a pair of high-heeled sandals. It’s a hot, steamy night. The air smells sulphurous, unhealthy, the sky has ‘a hint of yellow to it …a septic glare’. Stevie is on her way from Tottenham Court Road to a private club, where she’s arranged to meet her boyfriend, a doctor at St Thomas’s Hospital. But he never turns up and when she goes to his flat a few days later after not hearing from him and thinking that perhaps there might be something wrong she discovers his dead body curled up on the bed. Has he succumbed to the deadly virus, the Sweats, that’s sweeping through this apocalyptic version of a London on the brink of collapse? Or has he been murdered? If so, why?
No, it was not the story itself that drew me in. It was the skill of the adaptation (by Siân Preece), giving us just enough detail to build up vivid pictures in our mind of Stevie, the London streets, the stench of death. Aided, of course, by the production of Kirsteen Cameron, whose choice of music at beginning and end was just right, an electronic pulse, almost like a heartbeat. Above all, though, it was the pitch-perfect reading by Nadine Marshall, a little dry, perhaps, yet at the same time not detached, each sentence given due weight, the rhythm of the words drawing us in. Together they boosted the book into a real winner. They made it seem so easy, as if there was nothing to the art of adapting and reading a book on air. (Pity the poor adapter who recently had to squeeze Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which runs to 784 pages, into three weeks or 225 minutes of airtime — that’s 196,000 words cut back to 33,000 words, approximately.)
Book at Bedtime has been taking us back to childhood and the luxury of being read to as we drift off to sleep since 1949 when the first book was abridged — John Buchan’s The Three Hostages. We’re lucky to have it. Would such a programme survive in a post-licence-fee age? I’m not so sure. It’s not exactly cutting-edge. You could say it’s elitist, pandering to the Radio 4 literati with their book clubs and five-a-day radio habit. Yet when it works, it’s the best kind of radio — immediate, accessible, compelling, totally aural.
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