Saturday, October 29, 2011

Life and Fate - the Plays (ii)

Classic Serial—Viktor and the Academy
What is great about the second and concluding Classic Serial is that it contains normal problems that every family faces (Nadya, a teenager, sneaking out to meet her boyfriend and the inability of her father to confront her about it in an adult manner; neighbors and friends jealous over money and status; scientists and colleagues jealous of each other and the complex relationships between men like Academician Shishakov and “the young grandee” Badin with “real” scientists; an affair that has yet to blossom between Viktor and his wife’s best friend) with those unique to the time and place (Lyuda’s inability to get over Tolya’s death; Zhenya’s obsession with Krymov; Viktor’s betrayal, downfall, and the extraordinary call from Stalin; his subsequent test of faith and the hardest decisions that a person should never have to make.

This play includes some quite electrifying moments, of which the Stalin phone call is just one, and the cast rose to the occasion almost every time (it was the last day of recording for much of this material and sometimes it was difficult to keep focus). One decision I really don’t understand is the music being played under the section where Viktor second-guesses his decision not to attend the meeting which would decide his fate at the Academy. It doesn’t help the atmosphere at all. Perhaps I should address the music choice in general now, which was provided by John Hardy and Rob Whitehead. I have no idea what kind of score I was expecting, perhaps something more orchestral, but the score was not at all how I expected. Music is used sparingly in Life and Fate, though the main theme is repeated often, though it alternated between which wind instruments carried the main melody and whether balalaika (I think?) was interspersed or not. There was very little actual singing, the only examples I can recall being a popular song, Zina singing, and the patriotic choral music in the last play.

The inclusion of much more scientific “technobabble” from Viktor was effective but a bit startling when it started off the episode—having heard it recorded and having heard it again here, I’m still not sure I understand what it means.

In a strange way, after the last play, I didn’t really want the story to end. Although the key victory at Stalingrad had been achieved, and it seemed most of the characters were headed for disaster (Zhenya and Krymov headed for exile; Vera, Spirodonov, and the Stalingrad gang also headed for Siberia; Alexandra: fate unknown; Katya and Seryoszha: probably dead; Zina: imminent death; Novikov: fate unknown; the Shtrums: fate unknown; Masha and Sokolov: probably fall from favor; Viktorov, Tolya, Grekov, Abarchuk, Sofya, Anna, Jenni: dead), I still wanted the story to carry on. I certainly cared about these characters, flawed though all of them were.

I really hope people listened to Life and Fate. I heard that book sales were way up, there were reviews in major papers, and there was much publicity. Despite all that, I can’t seem to get any opinions from anyone I know, despite having tirelessly exhorted people to listen to it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Come on, Radio4xtra, wake up and smell the deadly nightshade!

I was very disappointed to see the schedule this weekend for Radio4xtra (the former BBC7). In previous years, both Radio 4 and BBC7 have given a great selection of Halloween-themed radio plays—in fact, last year, they played spooky dramas all night long on October 31. Although Radio 4 is pitching in with Something Wicked This Way Comes as the Saturday Play, and Radio4xtra is making the concession of concluding something about vampires, overall it’s pretty barren.

I went back over the lists of plays I have heard over the years (since 2008, anyway) and concluded that there’s a wealth of material they could have re-played even if they didn’t want to commission anything new. You can see below what you’ve messed. Warning: SPOILERS!

Fear on Four: Hand in Glove
by Elizabeth Bowen, adapted by Elizabeth Troop
starring Edward deSouza, Majorie Westbury, Kate Finche, Elizabeth Hays-McCoy
directed by Peter Fozzard
A really disturbing play. You could, really, pin all the horror down to a society of women defined by their relationship to men—if Aunt Alicia’s husband hadn’t shot himself, she wouldn’t be at the mercy of “elder abuse” from her niece Ethel, who in turn wouldn’t be so callous (we assume) if she wasn’t a disenfranchised spinster. Hints of Poe and Faulkner as Ethel got strangled by her aunt’s disembodied gloves. Yeeek.

The Picture of Dorian Gray
by Oscar Wilde, adapted by Nick McCarty
starring Ian McDiarmid, Jamie Glover, Stephen Pacey, Harry Meyers, Geoffrey Beever, Alice Arnold
dir. Gordon House
This was quite a good adaptation despite that it was almost letter-perfect to the novella. I love the novella so it was perhaps inevitable that I would come to the radio adaptation with a positive response. There were no sordid insinuations about Dorian’s misdeeds, etc, and I’m not sure Ian McDiarmid was the right voice for Lord Henry. He’s a great radio actor and was wonderful as Satan in the epic Paradise Lost from last year—the part just didn’t fit, in my opinion. Nevertheless, the sound design and music (by David Chilton) were so atmospheric as to make this quite memorable. Jamie Glover was not especially outstanding as Dorian until the last section, which was a little terrifying.

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights
by Emily Brontë, adapted by Briony Entby
starring Sharon Duce, David Collings, John Dutine, Amanda Root, Emma Fielding, Gary Cady, Paul Rhys, Emily Watson, Sheridan Smith, Liam Barr, Felix Bell, Natase Mora
dir. Janet Whittaker
This followed the book very closely. David Collings made a superb Lockwood and helped to reinforce the idea that this was a bit of soap and dysfunctional melodrama dressed up by the trappings of its arcane and isolated setting. Amanda Root and John Dutine were excellent as the lovers, up to the challenge of all that dialogue and all that emotion; Edgar was sympathetic and Linton terribly pathetic. The music (by Elena Sertesh) was haunting. They decided to make the guess that Heathcliff was Spanish-speaking when he arrived. It could have easily been 3 or 4 episodes instead of 5, but there was very little cutting, which worked well at the beginning, but lessened the impact at the end.

Classic Tales of Horror: My Own True Ghost Story
by Rudyard Kipling
dir. Clive Stanhope
A reading that was quite atmospheric and extremely well-written—yet Kipling was so determined to be haunted that he made his haunting into the rational; it wasn’t much of a ghost story in the end. However, it was a good reading for radio.

From a series of plays adapting horror fiction by Scottish writers.
The Darker Side of the Border: Olalla
by Robert Louis Stevenson, adapted by Marty Ross
starring Paul Blair, Richard Conlin, Carol Ann Crawford, Alexandra Pope
dir. Bruce Young
This was a surprisingly female Gothic tale (I knew they would be vampires; duh!) in the midst of a masculine conflict and ended very bloodily indeed. Some superb performances from Paul Blair as Alec and Carol Ann Crawford as the Señora. It left you wanting more.

The Darker Side of the Border: The Captain of the Polestar
by Arthur Conan Doyle, adapted by Marty Ross
starring Allan Haigg, Nick Underwood, Brian Pettifer
dir. Bruce Young
Crap, this was scary. Audio was the PERFECT medium for this—the howling banshee/lover could not have been creepier in prose. Similar to Voyage of the Demeter, though the hard-hearted captain must have inspired Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and the callow doctor-hero, while obviously a riff on Conan Doyle himself, seemed like Ishmael from Moby-Dick.

Flight of a Witch
by Ellis Peters, adapted by Sally Hedges
starring Iwan Thomas, Rob Spendler, Michael Tudor Barnes, Deborah Boleyn
dir. Sue Williams
A mystery with the touch of the supernatural. Great music by Anthea Gomez and great sound effects subtly shaded us toward the narrator’s predisposition toward some kind of spooky explanation. There was the historical story of the early 18th century Welsh girl who got lost in the mountain, and though the story was old-fashioned enough for the 1960s, what with girls running away to meet their lovers in Birmingham clandestinely, I figured out the murderer, which is rare. Everyone thought there was something witch-like about Annet Beck, and we never found out who her real father was. The PC and his brother the narrator were a toned-down comedy duo.

From a series of plays adapting horror fiction by 19th century female writers.
The Female Ghost: Man-Sized Marble
by Enid Nesbitt, adapted by Chris Hawes
starring Carolyn Jones, Stephen Critchlow
dir. Mary Nancary
Spooky little tale, effective at the time, though now that I think about it, there’s not so much to it. Maybe it was the mood and the bittersweetness that was striking—two poor but happy artists in their little cottage, the superstitious local woman, the Irish nationalist doctor . . . and two marble villains who come out of their tombs to kill them!

The Female Ghost: The Cold Embrace
by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, adapted by Mary Nancary
starring Stephanie Turner, Jonathan Firth, Alison Petit, Ioan Meredith
dir. Mary Nancary
The narration by Mary Elizabeth, which normally annoys me, actually worked really well. A selfish German artist abandons his fiancée, and she drowns herself. He feels her cold embrace whenever he’s alone, and it ruins his life. The final scene is at the Paris Opera at the Shrovetide Ball, which I loved. Firth was perfect, even managing to evoke some pity at the end. Very spooky.

by Mary Shelley, adapted Nick Stafford
starring Mike Maloney, John Woods, Philip Joseph, Janice Chambers, Neville Jason
dir. Claire Grove
I think the actor playing Frankenstein was a bit over the top, but radio may well be the medium best suited to adapting this book—the monster can give its long and improbably learned speeches without being hindered. The framing device of Walton in the Arctic works really well. I can’t deny the story’s power and the pervasive sadness of the tale. It really is one of horror rather than terror, and there isn’t a happy ending for anyone, except perhaps the ship heading home.

Hercule Poirot: Halloween Party
by Agatha Christie, adapted by Michael Bakewell
starring John Moffatt, Stephanie Cole, Alexandra Bastido, Siann Jenkins, June Bary, Gareth Armstrong
dir. Ellen Williams
This required paying very close attention, but Poirot was fun, the self-parody of Agatha Christine who sounded more like Miss Marple, a credible assistant, and the whole creepiness of the story—all these girls, and a certain degree of a scandal at a school—contributed to the setting, a girl being drowned in a tub used for bobbing for apples was macabre indeed, but the pseudo-pagan ritual sacrifice made it almost like a Doctor Who sleuthing tale.

The Woman in Black
by Susan Hill, adapted by John Strickland
starring Robert Glenister, John Woodvine, Stuart Richmond, James Quinn
dir. Chris Wallace
The first two parts were thoroughly mysterious and engagingm and I really liked the frame story. I almost cried when Spider the dog was almost sucked under the quicksand. The conclusion was a bit of an anti-climax, though at least the poor guy found some closure. (I have since seen the stage show and read the book!)

by Bram Stoker, adapted by Nick McCarty
starring Bernard Holly, Frederick Jaeger, Phyllis Logan, Sharon Maharaj, Philly Walsh
dir. Hamish Wilson
This was a superb adaptation. Well-paced, scary, visceral (and gory), letting the heroism and strength of the male characters and Mina speak for themselves. Dracula was no sensual sex symbol but full of all his nascent horror. It really highlighted the subversive elements, making Jonathan the weakling and Mina much more level-headed, Lucy’s head have its echoes of gang rape, and Dracula’s assaults on the male characters almost homosexual assault (not to mention the vampiresses seducing Jonathan!). Van Helsing was also excellent.

New Drama
by Martin Jenkin
starring Mark Gatiss, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Thom Tuck, Jasmine Hyde, Pippa Hayward
Superb. Mephistophéles was able to inhabit “our” time and to there were some absolutely spot on jokes (Merthyr Tydfil!!). I’ve heard Gatiss do a lot of radio, but this was his best performance—suave but much more threatening than Sherlock’s brother! This was the version of Faust that doesn’t end happily like Goethe’s—Gretchen’s life is bad but she does end up in Heaven (at least according to Mephistophéles—we don’t know if he was lying or not). A good edition for Halloween, but more pertinently, just a really cool idea, with the contemporary music and 5 x 15 min segments. (By the by, this counts as original because Faust is a legend and there is no other author listed.)

From a series of plays of contemporary horror fiction.
Voices from the Grave: The Parson
by David Varella
starring Mark Basley, Geoffrey Beevers, Wayne Foscott
dir. Luke Frayle
Easily the best of this series—extremely scary, but at least the disillusioned parson fought old magic/darkness and won! It was relevant and also moved quickly, the characters weren’t stiff. “The Lottery” + Vicar of Dibley + “Curse of Fenric” + Hotel Rwanda.

Voices from the Grave: 50, Berkeley Square
by Dylan Ritterson
starring Sophie Roberts, Harry Myers, John Cummings
dir. Gemma Jenkins
Pleasant, eerie little ghost story, set some time in the 19th century, where a lady of the night and two sailors break into the most haunted house in Britain. She escapes; they pay with their life and sanity.

The Strange Case of Edgar Allan Poe
by Christopher Cooke
starring Kerry Shale, John Moffatt, Melissa Walter
dir. John Powell
This was told from the perspective of C. Auguste Dupin, which is a very funny device in itself. But while I thought it would be more of an account of Poe and Dupin dandying it up (or being melancholy the whole time) in Paris, it was more of a straightforward rehash of Poe’s life. Dupin didn’t interact; he recalled. It was accurate; Poe was depicted as very manic, a bit over the top to be quite honest. But it also increased his story’s poignancy, as did the romantic music and recitations of most of his famous works.

Night Talker
by Danny John-Jules
starring Nicholas Boulton, Harry Myers, Stuart Mclaughlin
dir. Ann Edivoe
This was written by the Cat from Red Dwarf . All thoughts of celebrity aside, this was a delightful gem broadcast on BBC7 in the days leading up to Halloween (among many very well-done thematic plays for the spookiest time of the year). For a 20-minute play this was superb. Night DJ Andy Stone is a jerk, putting his listeners and co-workers down, but in the course of a few minutes we learn he lost his twin brother, his birthday is Halloween, he hasn’t seen his parents in years, and he’s in love with his producer! Was it spooks in the studio?

The Voyage of the Demeter
by Robert Forrest
starring Finlay Welsh, Gary Lewis, Steven McNicoll, Grant O’Rourke, Alexander Morton
dir. Patrick Rayner
I listened to this on Halloween in the dark, which was a bad move. I didn’t realize until the very end that this was basically fan fiction for Dracula, but at that point I didn’t care. It was scary, scary stuff. Marine voyages can be claustrophobic at the best of times, but all the actors ramped up their performances to give us the sounds of madness, of becoming unhinged, and Dracula himself was sophisticated and very scary. It was sufficiently free-standing to enjoy, but it helped if you knew that Dracula came from Romania (according to Stoker of course!) in boxes of earth aboard a Russian ship called the Demeter . . .

by Ian McMillan
starring Kevin Eldon, Glenn Cunningham, Deborah McAndrew, James Quinn
I really didn’t like this for the first few minutes and was considering turning it off, but I persevered. It was altogether too silly, obsessed with rhubarb—and then the play finally got going and started to make me laugh. The idea of a frustrated Yorkshire rhubarb farmer wanting to get his dole benefits by making his doppelganger do his work is funny enough (and how English!). But the fact that Frankie “the monster” is Scottish and far sexier than Frank his maker is outrageous. I also really liked the ending—very sly. This was the play on Halloween, by the way.

Fridays When It Rains
by Nick Warburton
starring Lyndsey Marsal and Clive Swift
dir. Claire Grove
Overall this is one of the best radio thrillers I have ever heard. I have since figured out that Warburton uses the same motifs a lot, and that somewhat lessens the startling originality, but that’s of little consequence. This was creepy in the extreme with some excellent mood music. Starring only Lyndsey Marshall as the girl and Clive Swift as the man, the suspense and the dialogue were perfectly pitched. Swift was terrifying. I remember sitting in the living room staring out the window gripping my seat because I was on the edge of it! The end didn’t make sense entirely- maybe I needed to listen to it a second time- but there’s no doubt I loved the fact it took place entirely on a steam train in 1910, 1964, and the present day. This is what radio can do!

by Amanda Dalton
starring Peter Hamilton Dyer, Tom Ferguson, Eileen O’Brien, Sarah McDnald-Hughes, Robin Blaze
dir. Susan Roberts
This was a very ambitious experiment, and even if perhaps it didn’t all come together, it was very memorable. It’s an attempt to shift German Expressionism from the silent film—The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—into radio. I hadn’t seen the film until after I heard the play, so I went out and rented it (this was right around Halloween). Both play and film share an atmosphere of dreamy menace, where nothing is quite what it seems, and both are quite frightening in places (or I should say, disturbing). Caligari himself did not have a speaking role in the play, but Césare, his sideshow somnambulist, was sung by a counter-tenor. This is very interesting in regards to the film, in which Césare did not speak. The play also added a militant soldier-fool (with a northern accent) who was a particularly well-realized character (for passing judgement on World War I).

From a series of plays of contemporary horror fiction.
Weird Tales : Connected
by Melissa Murray
starring Fiona Glascott, Joseph Klowksa, Ewan Hooper
Certainly thinking in four dimensions: Steph ended up in a submarine to nowhere banging on the radiator pipes of her widower! She’d been phoned by her dead brother-in-law who was so selfish, he took her with him! The idea of every mobile in the shop ringing as you walk in is a bit of contemporary creepiness.

Weird Tales: Rounder
by Ed Hime
starring Joseph Klowska, Lizzie Watts, Jonathan Taffler
dir. Jessica Dromgoole
This took a bit of an effort to understand—it gives us unsettling theories about what might go on in a comatose person’s head. The way it came together in the end with the music, repetition, and revelations equalled anything Steven Moffat could come up with, I think. The image of three people clinging to the Ferris Wheel falling out of the sky was pretty horrific.

Weird Tales: The Loop
by Chris Harrald
starring David Stretfield, Steven Hogan, Stephen Critchlow, Paul Rider
dir. Faith Collingwood
This was pretty scary, and as such moved quickly purely as a horror tale (the mechanisms left totally unexplained at the end). Set in 1906 in a Tube expansion tunnel, the skeleton discovered is just the beginning of horrors emerging from a black slab and a sealed chamber. I was disturbed.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Life and Fate - the Plays

Classic Serial – Viktor and Lyuda
I saw the readthrough for this play, and it was impressive even then. Much of this was down to Branagh who absolutely captured Viktor as written by Walker et al: his wry humor, his excitement, his antagonism with Nadya and occasionally Zhenya, his impatience with Sokolov, and embarrassment around Masha. The energy and consummate professionalism he exuded as he performed the readthrough buoyed the rest of the cast. Let’s not kid ourselves; Life and Fate was very well-cast. Many of the actors cast succeeded in changing the way I felt about the characters; Greta Scacchi, Harriet Walter, Ann Mitchell, Ellie Kendrick and Nigel Anthony brought hidden depths to Lyuda, Masha, Alexandra, Nadya and Sokolov, respectively. Partially, of course, this was through their acting but partially just through their voice quality.

Nadya’s skeletal narration works surprisingly well; Viktor’s friends and family in Kazan is a plot thread that wends its way through the novel in a somewhat Naturalistic fashion. The Classic Serial is a very traditional format and the story has been condensed in chronological terms until it, too, has all the elements of a traditional Classic Serial. The opening monologue, taken from Grossman’s letter to Khrushchev, is very powerful and well-played by Branagh, but I wonder if new readers wading in will get to the end of the week thinking that Life and Fate is a memoir by Viktor Shtrum.

Lyuda as a character remains very sympathetic especially during her Tolya scenes, but I think she becomes a ghost in the second half—a flaw in the character that is just part of her makeup. Masha as a character I found quite thin and formed from a diaphanous cloud shaped by her relationship with Viktor (which is quite approaching Bulgakov’s treatment of female characters). Much to my surprise, Walter’s characterization brought a great deal of warmth that matched Viktor tit for tat. Anthony as Sokolov had a similar effect; as so many of the actors in this play proved, he really had a terrific voice.

As far as great voices go, perhaps one problem was the similarity between the voices of Madyarov (Ralph Ineson) and Karimov (Stephen Grieff), both excellent actors in their own rights. However, their voices were rather similar, to the extent that even I who knew what was going on got confused as to who was speaking.

In general, I think the major drama points from this strand were carefully lifted from the book and constructed in play form.

Woman’s Hour—Anna’s Letter
This monologue was read, almost without editing, by Janet Suzman at the BBC/Cambridge event at St John’s College. It was very powerful to hear “live” and through emotion and the characterization provided both by the actress and the writer(s), it works equally well in all three media—as a dramatic monologue, as a radio piece, and, of course, as part of the novel. I remember this being one of the most gripping parts of the book and one that I could most easily imagine being adapted for radio. It is highly appropriate that it follows the Classic Serial part 1 even though they couldn’t in form and content be more different from each other; they are two of the poles that make up Life and Fate and work in tandem and independently of one another, which is part of the beauty of the book.

Afternoon Play—Krymov and Zhenya- Lovers Once
Unfortunately not having been on the scene when David Tennant was recording, I missed most of the Krymov strands of the dramas, which balance nicely with the Viktor strands and do the character of Krymov credit. I remember making a rather ill-advised remark to Raquel Cassidy during the Viktor and Lyuda readthrough. I asked, “What do you think of Zhenya?” “Blimey, that’s a question,” she said, then asked me to elaborate. To me, reading the book, Zhenya’s motivation wasn’t clear. It’s possible I rushed through it and didn’t understand a lot of the nuance; if so, the section that suffered most from my reckless reading. For one thing, I didn’t understand the relationship between Zhenya and Jenny, which Raquel Cassidy and Eleanor Bron bring wonderfully to life. Jenny’s fate is a masterpiece of dramatic subtlety which Jonathan Myerson has brought to the fore with deceptive simplicity. Zhenya’s exasperation with the system is well-expressed. Adrian Scarborough makes a magnificent Limonov, and the way Zhenya sidesteps his manipulation of her and still gets what she wants makes me admire the character much more.

The casting of Tennant as Krymov works surprisingly well. It doesn’t matter terribly to listen to the Krymov strands in order but it helps build up a picture of his unravelling. The casting works partially because he is so well-known in heroic terms. I’m sure that his acting output since Casanova and Doctor Who have shown his more rounded facets to the public at large, but if you had only ever seen him in Doctor Who, you can understand Krymov’s downfall with that much more pathos. Like nearly every character in Life and Fate, from Viktor Shtrum down to Khmelkov, Krymov believes he is in the right. Life has agreed with him thus far (the events in For a Just Cause are alluded to) and when he becomes, as Katia Shulga noted, a victim of time, it’s a bewildering and tragic experience even before you get to the torture scenes in the Lubyanka.

Woman’s Hour—Vera and Her Pilot
This is the introduction to Spirodonov, another character I’m not sure I fully understood when reading the novel. Vera, too, seemed less of a character than an assemblage of traits: she’s young, she’s unmarried, she’s pregnant, she’s in love with a pilot, she’s stuck in Stalingrad with her father who is defending the nuclear power station. Both Vera and Viktorov are very ordinary. Vera’s dead mother is Maruysa, Lyuda’s elder sister who drowned in the Volga. In this sense, this plot thread makes good use of the tonalities available in the Woman’s Hour slot. The use of sound nicely constructs an ambiguity where the peaceful forest of Viktorov’s flying corps can include Vera, even though she is hundreds of miles away.

Afternoon Play—Journey
Like the incidents surrounding Anna Shtrum, I found this part of the novel impossible to put down, and the production team has done an excellent job of adapting it for the aural landscape. In that sense, the horrors are as perfectly viable through sound as they would be through that overly-used cinematic visual sense. You don’t need to see the interiors of the cattle cars because Sofya and the others can’t either; to hear them is enough to evoke all senses, including the sense of cold and the inevitable smell.

The story of Journey is highly complex because it doesn’t focus just on the horror of the bald events—a Jewish woman goes to the gas chambers. Sofya (and this is the point, of course) is recreated as a real person. She is a doctor, she is educated, she considers herself Russian. She has never had any kind of personal relationship until she meets and takes care of David, a displaced boy who is wonderfully underplayed by Laurence Belcher. Alison Hindell commented that some characters in Life and Fate are brave when they don’t have to be, and that is the case with Sofya, who did not choose heroism. By contrast, the slimy Khmelkov (what a role for Henry Devas) considers his position in this constellation of horrors (he closes the doors on the victims after they have been stripped and their hair cut) and finds himself morally unscathed.

Of course, there is the framework from the other side of the spectrum. Samuel West does a wonderful job playing Liss, an intellectual whose brain is frightening, erudite, and suffers from fatal curiosity. He is fascinated by Mostovskoy (Peter Marinker), the old Bolshevik who makes an interesting contrast to Abarchuk later. Mostovskoy and Liss’ game of cat and mouse is fascinating. Eichmann is another contrast to Liss, for whom his superior’s pragmatism is even too much for him to bear. What inspired casting to have John Sessions play this inhuman human being!

Great care has been taken with the soundscape in Journey; the sounds during the final moments of Sofya’s life are more arresting than any tele-visual representation. I think the subject matter risks being maudlin, but with a starkness devoid of any sentiment, the sound cuts right to the heart of the characters. In the second Classic Serial, Lyuda pronounces a chilling, if ignorant, sentence on Sofya. Sofya was Zhenya’s friend, but Lyuda never liked her. “I don’t wish her ill, of course,” she says. “But I never liked her.”

Woman’s Hour—Abarchuk
It’s appropriate, then, that the next adaptation is that of Abarchuk, Lyuda’s ex-husband and father of Tolya. The piece takes the shape of Abarchuk writing (or reciting) a last testament to Tolya, who never took his name and didn’t follow his father’s fate; anyone who has listened in order thus far will know that Tolya is, in “real time,” already dead by this point, but it’s not a necessary component to listening to this short drama. I saw this play being recorded, and despite its brevity, it represents yet another important pole in the entirety of Life and Fate.

Malcolm Storry is great as Abarchuk, a true-blue (or red?) communist who, nevertheless, has ended up in a labor camp. He believes that his duty and his fate is to serve the Party in whatever capacity the Party thinks best; ergo, he is proud to be in the camp if his labor furthers the Party’s cause. Although he doesn’t believe he’s ever wavered from his Party line, he still believes the Party knows best. This attitude is amazing in retrospect, but he is absolutely committed to it. He and the other “politicals” are at odds with the criminals, people who have genuinely committed crimes, of which Barkhartov (Alun Raglan at his meanest!) is the worst. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, where Rubin’s single burst of courage (played with great heart by Peter Polycarpou) garners him a nail in the brain.

The arrival of Magar (Sean Baker), Abarchuk’s old teacher and his mentor in communism makes Abarchuk doubt when Magar tells him that all his sacrifices have been in vain, but Abarchuk stubbornly clings to what he’s always believed. In studio, the story ended with the sinister sound of a knife being drawn, but it appears the sound wasn’t convincing enough, so it just ends with Abarchuk acknowledging that someone has come into his room who doesn’t mean him well. It’s a lot crammed into a short drama and is foreshadowing for Krymov’s fall from grace.

Afternoon Play—Building 6/1 – Those Who Were Still Alive
Building 6/1 is a wonderful study in Grossman’s authorial lack of judgment. I remember being confused while reading the book; did I root for Grekov, the “manager” of Building 6/1, beloved by his men, lecherous toward Katya, courageous and full of a brand of socialism too extreme for the Stalinist regime? Or did I root for Seryozha, Lyuda’s older brother Dmitri’s son, who is likewise brave, intellectual, and compassionate? Or did I root for Krymov, so deeply beloved by Zhenya, who believed he was doing the right thing, uprooting the dangerous element of Grekov and his kind? You have to root for Katya, the radio operator, a wonderful character who comes into Building 6/1 naïve and helpless, then recovers her footing and falls in love with Seryozha.

Building 6/1 is a heroic band of soldiers fighting on a street in Stalingrad that has more or less been blown up by the enemy all around them. Despite their heroism, the rumors of their unconventional breakdown of military discipline have made the authorities wary enough to send in “Commissar” Krymov. David Tennant plays with his best voice of authority here, but with enough doubt to let us see how that authority is breaking down. He no longer has a role in the society he has fought hard to build and maintain. His reaction to what he thinks is Grekov deliberately trying to kill or wound him cements the fact that his world is spiralling out of control. Grekov (Joseph Millson) is played with similar ambiguity. Similarly, the text and the sound effects battle back and forth, wavering between complete chaos (which is difficult on radio) and an ordered sense of confusion, which regiments chaotic sound into digestible bytes for the brain and ear to understand.

I admit that characters like Viktorov, Seryozha and Tolya all sort of blend together. They are young, heroic, and in uniform. However, Seryozha is meant to be quite appealing, and Freddie Fox has a nice voice for that kind of role. The pleasant surprise performance, however, was Katie Angelou as Katya. What a wonderful voice, how expressive of exactly how I thought Katya would be from reading the book. Sometimes you hear a voice on radio so different and fresh, they really bring the character alive for you (which technically is what all the radio acting should do), which she certainly did. Even though I knew what events would befall Katya (the men reacting to her the way they did, her romance with Seryozha, what happens to the kitten she picks up) I still followed her story with avidity.

Woman’s Hour—Lieutenant Peter Bach
I know the production team of Life and Fate made some all-encompassing decisions from the start. These included pronunciation (“com-RAIIID” rather than “com-RADD”), patronymic-name consolidation, and as regards accents: no cod Russian accents, no cod German accents, and regional accents among the cast, who were from all areas of Britain (no standardization of this, ie, all Moscovites were not Northern, etc). The one place we hear a cod Russian accent is in Lieutenant Peter Bach, and in that instance it really stands out. I’m not sure how I feel about it. The voice is Jessica Raine’s and she is playing Zina, a Russian girl “collaborating” with the enemy. The enemy is Lieutenant Peter Bach, played by Geoffrey Streatfeild, and one of the characters that in the adaptations is difficult to feel empathy with. His treatment of Zina is sub-human. She has the cod Russian accent in order to illustrate how she sounds to Peter: there is a communication breakdown. Yet it makes the audience start to think of her in the way he does: ignorant and only useful up to a point. Grossman shows the front from both sides, in a way that I thought was quite balanced in the book. Bach is certainly an important character, but I felt much less empathy for him in this adaptation.

Afternoon Play—Novikov’s Story
I came out of reading the book much more in Novikov’s corner than in Krymov’s. The way Novikov’s loyalty to his men surmounts everything made me admire him; he doesn’t bow to superior pressure, which is of course what gets him in trouble (or is it Zhenya who does that?). Novikov is a very bright and courageous tankist, but his story illustrates what happens when someone innocent gets tarred with the brush of people who are not even guilty (as we will see, Krymov cannot be called guilty of being a Nazi spy, nor can Zhenya, whatever else they may have done). In that sense, it is quite a gripping story with a tragic ending, and once again, one of the essential poles in the Life and Fate story.

Getmanov and his family may seem like a footnote, but in the book as here, with Philip Jackson playing him, they are among the most real and human characters. As Alison Hindell described Getmanov, he’s an opportunist who will come out on top no matter which way the wind is blowing. Novikov’s love for Zhenya is quite simple, though Zhenya will later tell Nadya that they came from completely different backgrounds and didn’t even share any interests. Their liaisons in Kuibyshev have the same element of strangeness and impermanence that Bach and Zina’s relationship did.

Much was made of the authenticity of the tanks recorded and used as the background noise for the action. Since I am not a military buff it didn’t really matter to me. I remember being in the studio as the tank scenes were recorded, where imagination had to mostly supply the sense of volume and density that the tanks lend to the soundscape. The final product works quite well, as the tank scenes happen to be integral to Novikov’s character. The only part that was disappointing was the ending, which I felt was somewhat unclear, both as to what had happened between Zhenya and Novikov, and what role Getmanov had or hadn’t played in his downfall.

Woman’s Hour—Krymov- a Hero of the Revolution
If there is one play strand that perhaps could be done away with, I happen to believe it’s this one. Although it adds links between the chains of Krymov’s story—following on from both Novikov’s and Building 6/1—and Spiridonov, you have to be a real die-hard Krymov fan to believe it is essential to the drama for a new listener. If, for instance, you happened to tune in to Woman’s Hour for the first time randomly that day, you might be vaguely interested but probably quite confused! I’m not necessarily insisting that each Life and Fate drama could or should be enjoyed independently and in any order, and possibly that’s just not feasible.

Afternoon Play—Krymov in Moscow
I was in the studio when a few of the scenes from this drama (the Shtrum scenes) were recorded, but was not prepared for the completely different tone created by David Tennant’s performance. I knew from the book what Krymov was going to endure in the Lubyanka, but it garnered such weight, such absolute power, when I heard the performance. It’s often been said that you can close your eyes but you can’t close your ears—torture, distress, and pain come across much more sharply in aural form, in my opinion, than they do in any other form. I’m of course a fan of David Tennant, but I couldn’t think why exactly he’d been cast as Krymov, until he made the punishing and brutal gauntlet of 72 hours in the Lubyanka utterly harrowing and believable. My hat’s off to him—he was recording Life and Fate during the day while he was doing Much Ado About Nothing at night.

Krymov’s fellow internees have been streamlined from those in the book, but Ewan Bailey is utterly magnificent as Katsenelenbogen, who seems to have come straight out of Bulgakov. It’s a great twist of fate that Elliot Levey, who plays Don John to Tennant’s Benedick in Much Ado, plays the NKVD Interrogator. It’s a chilling performance; move over, John Sessions! Certainly that’s the parallel Grossman would have wanted made.

The life outside Krymov that is going on makes much more sense after having heard the final Classic Serial (a bit of a cheat chronologically, but it had to be done), despite some wonderful scenes between Viktor and Zhenya. (The chess scene is wonderfully done, despite the slipper-shuffling which I don’t think quite works on radio. Also the scene where Masha comes to dinner is superb on so many fronts, but especially when a flustered Viktor says, “Go to hell, Zhenya, just go to hell!”) The contrast between Zhenya—fiery, impetuous Zhenya—and her tribulations trying to get the package delivered to Krymov, despite being very much his ex-wife, and his within the prison come to a wonderfully illustrative head in the final scene.

Saturday Play—Fortress Stalingrad
In Fortress Stalingrad, they roll the big guns out—quite literally. It’s an interesting experience, being served up the entire battle in a way that differs from the book, which of course tells it in a less narrative fashion. It’s a big subject, with lots of characters. The beauty is that if you hadn’t heard any of Life and Fate yet, you could still more or less figure out what’s going on. You don’t particularly need to know about Peter Bach, Vera, Spiridonov, or Zina (whose paths eventually cross in a wonderfully unexpected way) previously to appreciate what happens to them here.

I like the larger framework pulling out of Peter Bach and including Paulus and Adam; this lends the German experience a bit more humanity and verisimilitude than what we just heard in Lieutenant Peter Bach. Necessarily this play deals more with the hard reality of battle and as such contains battle scenes. Jonathan Myerson said at the BBC/Cambridge event that he tells students never to write battle scenes for radio, and I can see why he says this: it’s can be very difficult to pick out the relevant information at the correct speed, so it’s either going to lag behind slightly or becoming confusing. I did get a bit confused; this play more than any of the others requires total and devoted, invested attention.

I also felt slightly like the climax included a denouement that was a bit too long. The fate of poor alcoholic Spiridonov for abandoning his post suggests a whole new story, which perhaps Grossman had even plotted out in his head. Kenneth Cranham was very strong as Spiridonov (and when reading Grossman’s letter and the reply, too, at the BBC event!).

I haven’t heard all of Viktor and the Academy yet, so when I do you’ll get that review as well as my general comments.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Grossman Matters

What You Need to Know about Life and Fate

For almost a year, my life has been suffused with the novel Life and Fate, having first read it, then having been involved in the recording of several of the Radio 4 plays, having drawn the family tree for the Radio 4 website, and finally having attended the two-day conference on the subject at St Peter’s College, Oxford (and I’m currently reading A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-45). Yet for many, their involvement with the novel has spanned years or decades. Yet for many more, the title conjures up a blank look.

Over this time I have picked up what I see as the kernels of essential knowledge which I present here in an attempt to explain to those who have heard me babbling about Life and Fate what it’s all about. It’s part of my wider, and ongoing, project to increase interest in radio drama.

• In 1905, a boy was born in the Ukrainian town of Berdichev to a pair of “second guild,” intellectual middle-class Jews. The Russified name he used all his life was Vasily Grossman.
• He wanted to study chemistry after the 1917 Revolution made equality among the “nations” at least for at time more than an ideal. The sciences were prestige careers, seen as the riding the crest of a Soviet future. He attended University but it took him six years to get through his course of study; writing held more interest for him than chemistry.
• He became a moderately successful writer of short stories and an unfinished patriotic novel in the 1930s; he towed the Party line. Contrary to popular myth, there is no evidence to suggest that Stalin himself blocked Grossman from winning the Stalin Prize for his novel Stepan Kol’chugin, but certainly Grossman’s abilities had made him enemies (1).
• He got married and had a daughter, Ekaterina, but was an absentee father and left her in Berdichev to be raised by his mother while he was in Moscow. His parents had separated and he, too, separated from his first wife, only to take another who persuaded him not to bring his mother to live with them- a decision that would haunt him the rest of his life.
• He did not intervene in the “Great Purges” of the 1930s when his cousin was taken away and he was sent for interrogation in the Lubyanka; however, he did rush to adopt his second wife’s children when she was under suspicion for her first husband’s “suspect” activities.
• Having eschewed national service by a tubercular (mis?)diagnosis, he still idolized the men at the front and was sent on assignment by the military paper Red Star from 1941-45 as their (eventual) leading correspondent. His articles were read avidly due to his ability to get the low-down from just about anybody, his courageous ability to tell the truth above and beyond mere propaganda, his bravery (and sheer luck) at being one step ahead of the Germans, and his eye for detail. He had incredible memory recall and didn’t take notes during his interviews, rewriting conversations during the night.
• His article on being among the first to enter Treblinka was used as evidence in the Nuremberg Trials.
• His later fiction, including the novel For a Just Cause was not held in as high esteem in the USSR. We do not yet have access to much of his later work to translate it into English. His last novel, in fact, is translated under two different titles, depending on who you ask: Forever Flowing/Everything Flows.

Life and Fate
• The “sequel” to For a Just Cause was completed in the early 1960s and was based on Grossman’s experiences at the front, specifically the siege of Stalingrad. With the death of Stalin, Grossman ventured to send the Life and Fate out for publication. It was seized by the KGB; rather than arrest Grossman, they arrested the book. After writing a plea to Khrushchev, Grossman was answered that his book would not see publication for 250 years. He died a few years later.
• But he had been canny and had made sure that copies survived with friends. Two microfilm copies were smuggled to the West but the Russian ex-pat press were slow to print. Only in 1988 did it appear in English for the first time.
Life and Fate still remains relatively unknown in English, even among Russian-speakers, and is more or less ignored in Russia and the Ukraine.

Why Should We Care?- Why Should We Read the Book and Listen to the Radio Plays?
• As Laura Guillaume (Aberystwyth/Open University) (2) puts it, in Life and Fate, Grossman doesn’t offer a guide to judgement. In part he exonerates individuals and puts responsibility on the state— but that is not his only attitude. Time and time again, devotees, admirers and scholars of the work point to the fact that Grossman’s characters live their lives without moralizing authorial comment. Lieutenant Peter Bach, Comrade Stalin, Viktor Shtrum, SS Officer Liss, all are represented as complex human beings in shades of grey. Jonathan Myerson spoke of Grossman’s “documentary” style writing which is both accessible and can in some ways be more powerful than more “emotional” writing.
• One of the most chilling scenes in the book, and whose power in the plays I can attest to, having been there at the recording, is a late-night phone call to Viktor Shtrum from Stalin. I won’t spoil its content, but apparently Grossman was inspired to write this from the experience of his colleague Ilya Ehrenburg. Ehrenburg was another prominent Soviet Jewish writer who became adept at manipulating the system to his advantage; with Grossman, he collaborated on the Black Book project which challenged the official Soviet view of German wartime atrocities against Jews. The Stalin phone call scene is a perfect example of, as Joshua Rubenstein (Harvard) (3) put it, “How did one survive [the Soviet experience]? Only Stalin knows.”
• Often the comparison is made to War and Peace, Grossman’s favorite reading (it was the only thing he could read during the war and he read it twice). Like War and Peace, Grossman’s story is in many ways a family saga which centers on the Shaposhnikovs (mother Alexandra, siblings Dmitri, Marusya, Lyuda, and Zhenya, and their children and relatives). Lyuda’s second husband is the arguably central character, Viktor Shtrum, but her first husband, Abarchuk, is worth mentioning. He is the subject of a Woman’s Hour play. At the time of the novel, he is in a work camp where he has been incarcerated as a “political” even though he is a devoted communist and was taught by disciples of Lenin. Though Abarchuk- like many of his real-life counterparts- believes fervently that he is serving the Party by his imprisonment and would try to rejoin the Party upon his release, it’s clear from the events of the novel that it was not a viewpoint Grossman would, in the end, advocate.
• Though upon reading the book I preferred Zhenya’s lover, the young tankist Novikov, to her first husband, Krymov, Krymov’s story is utterly central to the book. As Jekaterina Shulga (UCL) (4) argues very persuasively, Krymov is a victim of time; he is tortured by time. In For a Just Cause, he was utterly relevant to the politics of the time; by Life and Fate, he is out of step with reality. I look forward to hearing him portrayed in the plays by David Tennant.
• Mike Walker’s admitted favorite character is Nadya, Lyuda and Viktor’s teenage daughter. On a BBC panel as writers and scholars discussed Grossman, it was noted that no one can ever really be sure what people in this time period were “really” thinking; what they said in interrogation may have been said for entirely different purposes than the truth. To me, at least in Ellie Kendrick’s performance in the plays, despite Nadya’s “modern” and teenage rebelliousness and play at anarchy, I don’t think you ever know what she is thinking.
Life and Fate has been adapted on radio before, in France, Germany, and Italy, and apparently at the moment is being depicted on Russian TV. But never before has it taken the shape the BBC is devoting: 13 drama slots over 8 days (18-25 September on Radio 4). Personally I feel they have covered most of the strands of the narrative well (admittedly, though, they have left out Darensky on the Steppes). Life and Fate also has the commitment of some of Britain’s finest actors, including Kenneth Branagh, Janet Suzman, Greta Scacci, John Sessions, Harriet Walter, and Kenneth Cranham (and the aforementioned David Tennant). And let’s not forget the extremely talented Rep actors who populate roles minor and major.
• As noted by Wendy Lower (Ludwig Maximilian University) (6), less than 2% of Ukrainian Jews survived German occupation (most were shot). Grossman highlights their plight in two strands that have been hauntingly dramatized in the plays. One is Viktor’s mother Anna, whose story mirrors that of the mother Grossman left behind in Berdichev. Grossman drew strength from his mother’s generous moral example, as does Viktor. Secondly, a family friend of the Shaposhnikovs, Dr Sofya Levinton, is in her fifties when she finds herself on the way to the gas chambers. Her act of “senseless kindness” is one of the most poignant episodes of the book.
• I’m not a scholar of Russian literature, but I know what I like. Style-wise, I prefer the novels of Bulgakov to Life and Fate, whereas Grossman eschewed language that was self-consciously poetic. Nevertheless, Grossman has a way with images that, in the words of Andrey Kurkov, make his writing about the terrible seem beautiful. Even reading A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-45 it’s impossible not to notice Grossman’s notes on every arresting scene, dialogue, or image.
• Because of the novel’s past, it is still relatively unknown in English- except in certain academic circles. In fact, though these circles hold onto Grossman with fierce loyalty, these scholarly elite are quite possessive and factionalized. The novel is not especially hot property in Russia at the moment, so if the radio adaptations and the patronage of “popular” novelists like Linda Grant bring new Grossman fans to the fold, I think it’s definitely a good thing.
• Argued very persuasively by Alex Danchev (University of Nottingham) (7) , Ikonnokov, the “holy fool” in the German labor camp is a moral witness and presents Grossman’s case for an ethics of small acts of human kindness. There are many examples of this in the novel which help it achieve a sense of morale-boosting. In this ethic, the beneficiary of the act of kindness need not be deserving, and the agent may not be comprehending. This is a wonderful thought and an uplifting way to look at the book, Grossman’s fate, and our own times.


[1] As put forth in Yury Bit-Yunan’s paper “Vasily Grossman’s Stepan Kol’chugin in the Historical and Literary Contexts of the Stalin Era.”
[2] Taken from her paper “It is a Terrible Thing to Condemn Even a Terrible Man: Vasily Grossman on Judging Perpetrators.”
[3] Taken from his paper “Vasily Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg: the Second World War, the Holocaust and Responses to German and Soviet Anti-Semitism.”
[4] Taken from her paper “The Freedom Within: Time, Temporality, and Trauma in For a Just Cause and Life and Fate.”
[5] Taken from her paper “Vasily Grossman’s Berdychiv and Soviet Knowledge of the Holocaust in Ukraine.”
[6] Taken from his paper “Vasily Grossman’s Ethics.”

Some Amusing/Useful Life and Fate Quotes from the Past Year

[during a recording session of one of the plays] “In principle, the only problem with that is the acting.” -Director Alison Hindell

[On the sound effects of Col. Novikov’s egg-eating] “Have I painted the picture the way you wanted it?” –Actor Don Gilet

“Have you read the book yet?”
“Well, if Kenneth Branagh can do it on the radio ...” –overheard conversation at first session on BBC Life and Fate Day in Oxford, St Peter’s College Chapel

“Culture can reveal a deeper truth about the present as well as the past.” -Gwyneth Williams, Controller of Radio 4

[to Greta Scacchi, playing his wife Lyuda] “You did wonderful slipper work, darling, it just lost something textually.” –Actor Kenneth Branagh

[The line was Viktor’s, “my skull is unstitching”] “My skill is unstitching.” -Kenneth Branagh

“We love them [the characters], we hate them, we fear them ... Grossman makes you care.” –Dramatist Mike Walker

“True evil comes when you ally atavistic hatred with science.” –Grossman Biographer Carol Garrard

“He never makes you judge them [the characters]. He leaves the reader to reach their own conclusions ... some characters are not brave when they should be, some are extremely brave when they needn’t be.” -Alison Hindell

I will, of course, write extensively on the radio plays once I hear them.


Essential links:

Read all about it on the Radio 4 website

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Best Radio Jan-June 2011

Top Radio Plays, January-June 2011

Sadly, due to circumstances that were mostly beyond my control, I did not get to listen to the volume of radio plays which I would have wished and which has up until now been normal for me. Therefore this list is not as broad a survey as I could have wished. I will try to do better in the second half of 2011.

Because of this circumstance and because there are less than ten this time, I will not put them in any order, except the order in which I heard them on radio.

Believe Me (Stephanie Dale)
I was really disturbed by this in the end. At first I thought it was one of those types of plays we hear so often- but the twist toward the middle was well-handled. It’s a very sad story, and it was probably good not to know whether the innocent man was convicted of domestic violence or not. Certainly Naomi Frederick’s and Alex Lanipekun’s performances really made it.

Double Jeopardy (Stephen Wyatt)
This is a two-man play that you don’t realize is two-man until you get to the end. The double narrative was a bit obtrusive at first but made sense finally. A knowing portrait of Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder at work on Double Indemnity- quite amusing and a cut above most of the American portrait/biogs.

Little Women (Louisa May Alcott/Marie Cahan)
This is rather an old adaptation broadcast on then-BBC7, but I thought it was very enjoyable. Having never read the books, it made me very aware how the 1994 movie improved upon just about everything. It really didn’t need to be 6 parts, but the performances were all quite good (yes, even the accents, though they weren’t all uniform).

The Gun Goes to Hollywood (Mike Walker)
I expected a straight adaptation of a book-to-film in the 1930s. This was a lot more sophisticated than what it at first seemed, managing to tie Frank Sinatra to the mafia and JFK while Cary Grant mooned over Sofia Loren in Franco’s Spain. The glamour was all invented by the unreliable narrator, a real Joe Gillis-type. It was quite enjoyable aside from the Cary Grant! Certainly film noir appeared to be the theme of this half-year.

Miss Kilmansegg and Her Precious Leg (Thomas Hood/Martyn Wade)
Adapting a poem from the 1820s to modern radio drama- I wasn’t sure how this was going to work, but a very funny adaptation that uses music extremely well (if anachronistically) and a jaunty narrative structure along with the poetic voice. The satire on the burgeoning police force was particularly fierce. A very strange story telling the tale of heiress Miss Kilmansegg and her desire for a golden leg, which causes her to be the prey of a con man with connections who murders her and pins it on her landlady.

The Disappearance of Jennifer Pope (Mike Harris)
A very arresting and moving play about a 50-year-old woman who disappears in Ecuador, and her husband and son who, with the help of some good-hearted people, go to Ecuador, track her killer down and, what’s more, bring him to justice. There’s no pretension to this play; it starts off extremely strongly with the e-mail exchanges between the three so that all their voices are heard. Never preachy, really gutsy. And of course, based on a true story.

Cobwebs (Jonathan Morris)
Of a trio of connected Doctor Who plays broadcast on RadioXtra (formerly BBC7), this was the best and deserves singling out (even though it was written years ago). A complex and mature four-hander from Jonathan Morris, who is obsessed with time travel. There is a lot of bickering (well, it is the TARDIS crew where that sort of thing was standard) but it actually gives Tegan and Turlough some very funny remarks. There’s one amazing cliffhanger, followed by two riffing on a similar theme and a clever, if not entirely convincing, explanation. Very creepy setting and much improves upon the atmosphere of “Terminus.”

The Big Broadcast (Neil Brand)
This was truly a delight for any radio enthusiast (though those who remember and love “old time radio” would most enjoy it). It’s 1932 and on the Chicago Beefsteak Hour of Charm, an affectionate parody of sponsored melodrama from the heart of the US network system is brought together in musical form. A feuding husband and wife lyricist team, mobsters, and studio mayhem. Think Doctor Who and the Pirates! and Invaders from Mars. Very good performances, especially from Sam Dale as the radio producer for whom the show must always go on, catchy music. Perhaps it was all a bit heavy on the “this is the Depression and here’s what radio’s for,” but overall, a very enjoyable effort.
From Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everybody by Eduardo Galeano:

Radio Paiwas was born in the heart of Nicaragua on the eve of the twenty-first century.

The early morning program attracts the largest audience. The Messenger Witch, heard by thousands of women, frightens thousands of men.

The witch introduces women to friends they have never met, including one named Pap Smear and an old lady named Constitution. And she talks to them about their rights, "zero tolerance for violence in the street, in the home, and in bed too," and she asks them:

"How did it go last night? How did he treat you? Did it feel good or was it a little forced?"

And when men rape or beat women, she names names. At night, the witch flies house to house to house on her broom, and before dawn she rubs her crystal ball. then she reveals on-air the secrets she has learned:

"Angel? You're out there, I can see you. Beating your wife, are you? That's awful, you scumbag!"

The radio receives and broadcasts the complaints the police ignore. The police are busy chasing cow thieves, and a cow is worth more than a woman.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Listening In

I've just finished quite an excellent historical/analytical book about America's changing relationship with radio called Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination by Susan J. Douglas. Many of the sources I've read up til now have focused on the "Golden Age" (and rightly so, as after that it's a bit difficult to dredge up enthusiasm), but this book really gives a strong grounding in the period from 1950-2000 and helps dramatize it with chapters on talk radio, sportscasting on radio, and the FM Revolution. Other sources have proclaimed that radio "didn't die" in the 1960s, it just entered a different sphere, and this book provokes thought and awareness about this. It's so natural for us born in the latter years of the 20th century to climb into a car and expect the radio to be playing, either music, commercials, or talk; for us to expect radio at the workplace and other out-of-the-home settings. Thinking about the way we listen is almost as important as thinking about what we listen to.

The book also champions ham operators who have really been responsible for far more than tinkering. While it covers familiar ground at the birth of radio in interesting and thoughtful tangents, its focus on the racial boundary-crossing of jazz and the real meat behind successful radio comedies in the 1930s makes for impressive scholarship. Though I was surprised at Douglas' assertion that radio has always underlined American masculinity through changing times (after all, she authored Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media), she makes a good case. From DXers with crystal sets in the nineteen-teens to anxious men with an interest in music using radio as a way to indulge in their hobby, from hi-fi fanatics to listeners to talk radio feeling disenfranchised and emasculated in the 1980s and '90s, there is an interesting thread linking men with radio.

It's really too bad for my purposes that she decided not to focus on radio drama. Does anyone know of a comparable book for the UK or Europe?