Libertarianspirit's Blog

Reviews of radio and audio programmes around the world

The Hireling- Classic Serial, An Interior Life, A Living Death- File On Four, Cause Célèbre, Afternoon Plays- A Terrible Beauty, The People Next Door, and Crimes of Mancunia: Radio and Audio Review 27th June 2011

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New Radio Four dramatisation of L.P. Hartley's "The Hireling"

BBC Radio Four’s Classic serial has been fizzing with a magnificent two part dramatisation of L.P.Hartley’s The Hireling  (Sunday 19th June, Saturday 25th June, Sunday 26th June and Saturday 4th July). Hartley seemed to specialise in catastrophic and intriguing class crossing relationships in the manner of D.H.Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”

In “The Go-Between” passion vis-a-vis an already betrothed aristocrat’s daughter and the gamekeeper leads to broken hearts and suicide as well as rights of passage intensity for a young teenage boy deployed to run between the Manor and Lodge as an unwitting cupid.

That novel was situated in the year 1900, fourteen years before the Great War that would wipe out a large proportion of the scions of the British Imperial establishment.

In “The Hireling” we are in the austerity and post-war London of 1955 and the young widow of a Lord from Belgravia decides to get out by hiring a car and sitting in the front seat with a Second World War scarred chauffeur called Steve Leadbitter who was two or three classes down and renting a garage in Camberwell.

A Penguin Cover of "The Hireling" from 1973

BBC Radio delivers consistent standards of writing, direction and acting across all of its dramatic genres both in-house and via the independents. This was an Autolycus production for BBC Radio 4, produced by Chris Wallis, with a dramatisation script by Judith Adams who was faithful to the original novel and skilfully worked in a narrative voice cleverly cast in the form of Kenneth Cranham.

This was focalized indirect speech, knowingly observational and flecking internal thoughts.

Lisa Dillon captured the haughty and mischievous superiority of Lady Franklin and gave her a welling internal passion and intelligence. Just how naive is Lady Franklin? What I liked about Lisa Dillon’s performance was the multi-dimensionality she conveyed. Is it possible that she was neither unawakened nor unaware of the machinations and feelings around her and within her? It sounded like she was in control of the choices she made, and I thought that made her socially courageous.

"The Hireling"- now a twentieth century classic.

Simon Day articulated Steve Leadbitter’s loneliness, cunning and bubbling hurt pride:

“raised from an unhappy working class childhood between the wars, […] the lonely damaged anti-hero […] He uniformly despises his clients…”

But Leadbitter has a soft centre and unwittingly falls in love with “the Good Lady” while at the same time fleecing and manipulating her with lies.

Day seemed to relish Leadbitter’s discovery of the warmth and humanity of his creative fabulizing of a wife and children that did not exist and drew Lady Franklin’s interest and joy.

Lady Franklin cascades intimacies and confidences on to the chauffeur. She gives him money and he gives her happiness. And he acknowledges that she has saved him from unhappiness.

The invitation for Lady Franklin to call him “Steve” inevitably leads to a kiss.

The resulting scene is masterfully directed and acted. The narrator: “Though she is shocked, he can make the shock delicious.” And then the two cutting put-downs: “Please, let me out Leadbitter.” “Thank you. That will be all.” And the second episode propels the story into the fast flowing torrents of two alien classes on a collision course:

“causing salvation or destruction to all involved, from the epicentre of an unexpected burst of love.”

Episode two does not disappoint. The dramatic irony and tension increases in intensity. Lady Franklin’s character develops into a woman seemingly younger and blossoming with self-awareness and now known by Leadbitter in her first name Ernestine.

But her actual commitment in love is to a “Hughie”, played admirably by Joseph Millson. Hughie is only a class notch down being the cappucino drinking Bohemian middle class artist painting the portrait of her late husband and now her. Whilst Leadbitter will recognise and declare his true affections, will Ernestine understand or recognise the true direction of her own?

"The Hireling" DVD cover- the chauffeur and the Lady.

Listening to the marvellous dramatisation reinforced one of my few criticisms of L.P. Hartley. He has an irritating tendency to punish his working class male characters for falling in love above their class, and in the Hireling there is little happy ever after for Steve Leadbitter.

One of the BBC’s enormously creative and talented group of radio documentary makers, Laurence Grissell, has produced, certainly in my opinion, another award winning programme in the “Interior Life” strand. (Monday 27th June 2011 8 p.m.)

Laurence has found some dignity and reality in exploring the inner thoughts of an impressive man who has fought to control a ghastly addiction illness while at the same time holding down his responsibilities as a high achieving hospital consultant:

“Steve charts his journey from a modest rural upbringing to academic and professional acclaim. A series of family illnesses then intervened which meant his once modest drinking started to become a cause for concern. In a candid and highly personal account, he then recounts the drink-fuelled descent which took him to the brink of death.”

Alcoholism is a fundamentally misunderstood illness and I would describe it as a curse on civilisation and humanity. Those who suffer from it endure depravities, condemnation, and shame. It is no wonder they seek more solace in chemical anaesthesia.

If I were a multi-billionaire, I would give away all my wealth to the world’s best medical researchers so that we could find a humane and effective medical way of switching the craving from within and give relief to all the beautiful and wonderful people who are destroyed by its ravages.

This programme reveals that recovering from alcoholism is a deeply lonely path of  individual courage fought minute by minute, hour by hour and day by day.

And Steve is one of the honourable people who so honestly and gracefully opened up the inner chambers of his existence. He was given sound space by a compassionate, sensitive and artistic audio programme maker.

He tells his story with a charming simplicity. Laurence sound sculpts the crumblings, fissures and tides of his life through domestic and everyday metaphors. It was fascinating how he could be defined by the precision and filtration of his morning coffee-making machine.

The listening experience is a privilege and unforgettable experience that will be the BBC Radio Four documentary download of the week from Friday 1st July 2011.

A living death from brain damage

File on Four produces brilliant investigative radio journalism. Its edition “A Living Death” (Tuesday 21st June 2011) by reporter Ann Alexander and producer Paul Grant was no exception.

The programme investigated the care of patients in vegetative or low awareness states and discovered that since a ground breaking ruling by the Law Lords in 1992, establishing a legal right for our courts to approve the effective killing of vegetative state patients by withdrawing food and hydration, there have been 43 hearings into the issue.

There are now thought to be between 1,000 and 5,000 people under medical care for being in a vegetative or low awareness state, largely as a result of catastrophic brain injury.

This was a documentary raising acute public interest issues with admirable balance and journalistic impartiality.

It discovered that assessment and diagnosis of patients is not consistent across the country, and somewhat alarmingly discovered that an application will be made by a family to have life preserving support withdrawn from somebody diagnosed with a “low awareness state.”

The moral debate was represented by people in the middle of agonising pain, grief and suffering. There were those who wanted their loved ones kept alive and there were those who did not.

How difficult it is for those outside this field of experience to judge. And how disturbing that so much of the legal process and decision making is taking place in secret.

I found it astonishing that even the question of whether such long term care is affordable to the NHS is being raised and it would appear that some hospitals are not even fully aware of their legal duties to refer decisions to switch off to the courts.

Francis Rattenbury- a distinguished architect diminished into a murder victim.

On Saturday 25th June two hours of Radio Four was a platform for an audio version of the confident and powerful Old Vic production of Terence Rattigan’s Cause Célèbre directed by Thea Sharrock and produced by Polly Thomas.

Goodness gracious. This had me on the edge of my seat. The original theatre cast played it for the ear, imagination and heart.

Rattigan worked up a desperately sad and dramatic true crime passionel of 1935 into a disturbing debate on morality, and human relationships. His genius was in creating a vicarious and fictional vehicle for the wider society through the characterisation of a jury forewoman, Edith Davenport, and her disintegrating and troubled family.

She is forced to “reconsider her initial condemnation of the life-affirming, morally relaxed Alma.” So much was on trial. Alma Rattenbury’s Bohemian lifestyle, the sexual assertiveness and freedom of women, unconventional relationships, [Alma’s live-in servant lover George Stoner was young enough to be her son] the breakdown in the barriers between masters and servants, and indeed the sexual tensions and misunderstandings between generations.

It is quite intriguing how dramatists and largely feminist academics keep revisiting the liminal 1920s and 30s trials of Thompson and Bywaters and Rattenbury and Stoner.

Both cases involved the killing of an older husband after attractive wives were romantically and sexually entwined with a third party.

Edith Thompson went to the gallows. Mrs Rattenbury was acquitted through tenacious advocacy and because the evidence was pointedly clear about her love for both men.

She was trying to take the blame for the younger man’s actions with the wooden mallet.

Her mistaken belief that George Percy Stoner was going to hang led to her suicide. (He was reprieved, but only after she had plunged a knife into her chest several times at a Bournemouth beauty spot.)

The appeal to dramatists is that this real narrative was one of the Greek tragedies of the twentieth century.

The Old Vic cast gave performances that reflected the power of all the creative gestation and being that playing these characters live on stage in front of large audiences for several months can achieve.

The sensational theatre of crime for Alma's trial- The Old Bailey

Thea Sharrock brilliantly blocked the sound perspectives. The stagecraft transfers incredibly well on to the soundstage.

Anne-Marie Duff and Niamh Cusack were true giants in their respective roles of Alma and Edith. And the male ensemble superbly represented the competitive struggle for justice in the Number One Court of the Old Bailey.

The drama was so convincing and moving, its blaring from my stereo speakers literally stopped people in the street!

Whenever I hear this story it is so sad that the trial and its subsequent events define the lives of the personalities involved. Francis Rattenbury, the murder victim, was a magnificent architect and responsible for many public landmarks in Vancouver and British Columbia. Alma was a talented songwriter.

The Afternoon Play on BBC Radio Four has had a run of great radio drama. Superb writing, direction and production.

In “A Terrible Beauty”(Tuesday 21st June) by David Pownall, the poet W.B. Yeats travelled to France to propose to legendary beauty Maud Gonne soon after her husband, John MacBridge was executed by the British in the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.

W.B. Yeats - A poet with designs

This was high quality radio literature. It’s a marvellous dramatic dilemma for a poet. This great bard has the draft of a poem in which he’s attacked Maud’s husband for his private behaviour but eulogised him for what his sacrifice will achieve in sanctifying the struggle for Irish independence. The mourning widow might warm to him a little better if he is prepared to sing her tune as much as his.

Elegant performances from John Kavanagh as Yeats, Fiona Victory as Maud, Lydia Wilson as Yseult and Jane Whittenshaw as Elsie. All perfectly directed by another Kavanagh called Peter.

This was followed by “The People Next Door” (Wednesday 22nd June) by another quality radio dramatist Shelley Silas.

This time more naturalistic writing and the contemporary dilemma of never much liking your neighbours but wondering what to do about their petty anti-social behaviour.

The main character, Sarah, is apparently paranoid and seeing the worst in them.

Her husband James appreciates their creepy bonhomie and equivocal gestures at being “neighbourly”; even to the extent of exchanging house keys. [No, no, no! I was shouting.]

Which cat will be killed by curiosity? I loved it.

Wonderful casting and direction by Mary Peate with Claire Rushbrook as Sarah, Nicholas Gleaves as James, Sean Baker as Samuel and the magnificent Marlene Sidaway as Teresa. Alun Raglan played the car mechanic whose warnings should have been heeded.

The twist at the end was truly Hitchcockian.


“Crimes of Mancunia” by Michael Symmons Roberts (Thursday 23rd June) and the Radio Play of the week download  had the feeling of an episode of Luther based in Manchester. This is a compliment. The “noir drama” was in verse, but it was so well acted and directed with the action and dialogue being played naturalistically, the mind was not worn down by rhyme, metre and assonance.

I felt sound surrounded by underworld and corruption. The sweethearts of the Mancunian criminal fraternity are being kidnapped. The prime suspect appears to be a bitter and warped ex copper. Lise Lazard and Mikey Finn are the suitably flawed investigating detectives assigned to sort out the mess. Finn is Lazard’s junior.

Manchester at night

This production is interactively extending out to listener and dramaturgical development at the BBC Writers Room, and “BBC Mancunia at Stringsta”.

Many congratulations to Director Susan Roberts, Producer Charlotte Riches and the cast of Jason Done, Sinead Keenan, James Quinn, Danielle Henry, Beth McCann, Stephen Hoyle and Russell Richardson for conjuring an original audio-noir for 2011.

Audio version of the review by Tim Crook.

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