Kate Chisholm

…and on the air

The trouble with Dickens is that there’s just far too much plot. How do you make sense of his incredibly complex stories in just three hours as the BBC tried to do at Christmas with its TV version of Great Expectations? It looked fabulous but the storyline made no sense because there was no depth to any of the characters. The melodrama was laughably inept, the plot so confusing you needed to have read the book to understand what was happening. Over on Radio 4, the writer Ayeesha Menon has also been given just three hours to retell one of Dickens’s least popular novels in a three-part edition of the Classic Serial (Sunday afternoons, repeated Saturdays).

The Mumbai Chuzzlewits takes us to India for a story containing all the usual Dickens ingredients — wicked old men, greed and jealousy, tragic orphans, thwarted love and unexplained death. Three hours on radio, though, is equivalent to at least six hours on TV. Words matter so much more, and the script has to do all the work, not the camera.

This was not Dickens as we have known him but then neither was the TV version of Great Expectations, which couldn’t decide whether it was a vampire movie or an advert for hair shampoo. Once you forgot that the original story is set in wood-panelled boardrooms and drawing-rooms stuffed with heavy furniture, and allowed yourself to be taken away to a hustling, steamy city, with an aural backdrop of constant birdsong, the whisper of a sitar, the din of a busy street filled with tricycle rickshaws and open-topped Mercs, then The Mumbai Chuzzlewits came alive. We’re two thirds of the way through now, and I’m anxious to find out whether young Mickey (Chuzzlewit’s grandson) will survive his exile in Dubai, that Mary will escape from the clutches of the evil Pinto (formerly known as Pecksniff) and how the story behind Louis’s guilt-induced fever will unravel.

The production (by John Dryden) was recorded on location in India with an Indian cast, moving the actors through the streets to add authenticity, and then taking them inside to a very different soundscape, into echoey rooms, shaded from the sun, empty of Western-style clutter. The stellar cast includes Roshan Seth as the querulous, mischief-making Martin Chuzzlewit, with Zafar Karachiwala as his grandson, renamed Mickey, and Rajit Kapur as the evil Pinto.

There was still not enough time for the script to deliver brilliant character definition as well as plot, but just occasionally Ayeesha Menon comes up with a great line. ‘He doesn’t look like he could murder a mosquito,’ says Mrs Gomes (standing in for Mrs Gamp) of Louis as she overhears him in one of her rented rooms deliriously muttering about his guilt.

On Saturday night, Radio 3’s experimental slot, Between the Ears, took us to Mount Airy, a small town in the Appalachian mountains, in the state of North Carolina, where the radio station, heavily Christian, gives its listeners regular updates on who’s just died, rather like our own weather reports. Three times a day, every day, there’s a slot devoted to ‘Obituaries’, in between the barbershop gospel songs, ‘Where the soul shall never die’, and the adverts urging listeners to make ‘regular church attendance a part of your lifestyle’. Keeping tabs on your neighbours is more important to the citizens of Mount Airy than knowing whether to take an umbrella with you.

WPAQ radio on 740 AM was set up by Ralph Epperson in 1948. Obituaries were always part of the listening schedule because the local newspaper published only twice a week and could not print death notices immediately. It was a way of letting the community know who had just died, so that support could be given straightway to the grieving family. These death notices were not just for the mayor and town officials, but could be for the dustmen, the linemen, the people who kept the town running smoothly as well. The same amount of time, the same reverence was given to everyone, no matter who they were, or how old.

In just 20 minutes the producer (Peter Meanwell) created a real sense of the town and its radio station through meshing together snippets from the on-air archives and his own interviews with listeners. ‘It’s part of the grieving experience,’ said one woman after hearing the obit for her dad being read out on air. ‘It makes it sink in to hear his name and his life read out like that. Then you can move on.’ (The obituaries give a flavour of the life, not just the bare details.)

Mount Airy’s fortunes were built on tobacco, furniture-making, socks and granite. At one time most of the socks worn in the USA were made in the town. Now all that’s left is the granite. That tight sense of community has gone. But the obituaries carry on, three times a day, regular as clockwork.