Kate Chisholm

The power of words

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‘Oddly enough,’ declared the actor John Hurt on the Today programme last Friday, ‘radio is closely linked with film.’ This grabbed my attention over tea and porridge. Radio like film? It’s not at first an obvious comparison. Radio deals in images, but surely only those we create in our minds. Hurt went on to explain: ‘Film deals with visual images. Radio deals with linguistic images.’

He was talking to Justin Webb about the plays Tom Stoppard wrote for radio when he set out to establish himself as a dramatist in the early 1960s. Four of them are now available as a five-CD set from the British Library as part of the celebrations for Stoppard’s 75th birthday. Hurt took the lead in one of them, Albert’s Bridge, a surreal reflection on life from the top of the Forth Rail Bridge. Albert (played by Hurt) studied philosophy at university but prefers to work as a painter, spending the day with his thoughts while turning the bridge silver.

It’s unforgettable. I heard a rebroadcast a few years ago, and it’s still as fresh in my mind. There’s virtually no plot; it’s all about Albert’s thoughts as he clambers up and over the cantilevered iron skeleton, paintbrush in hand, creating images that stay riveted on the mind. It’s not where he is — suspended on the bridge — that’s crucial. What makes the play work so well is that we get inside Albert’s mind and start taking on his thoughts as if they are our own, because of the brilliant way Stoppard knits words together, like poetry but told as a story, in the old aural tradition.

Suddenly, what Hurt said about radio began to make sense. It is like film. Or rather its effect is like film. A film in the mind’s eye made out of words. ‘Radio,’ as Hurt said, ‘allows you to focus on the language — because there is nothing else.’ That’s why The Dissolution of Dominic Boot, the Stoppard short play which Radio 4 Extra rebroadcast last week, was so effective. It’s all in the words.

On Sunday night we had an opportunity to test Hurt’s theory in the Radio 3 drama, a new adaptation of L.P. Hartley’s atmospheric novel The Go-Between. This was turned into a very successful film in 1970 (starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates), redolent with heady summer heat and the melancholic reflections of Lionel Colston as he looks back on what turns out to be a traumatic holiday with the posh Maudsley family in Brandham Hall. The brilliant screenplay by Harold Pinter (who else could have made it so menacing and powerfully disturbing?) gave us lots of visual imagery and dark undercurrents of feeling. Would this radio version be as effective?

Frances Byrnes, who wrote the script, takes liberties with the focus of the novel, intersplicing the events as they happened to young Lionel (nicknamed Leo) with the old man’s memories, or rather with his reluctance to delve back into them. The torrid affair between Marian Maudsley, daughter of the Hall, and Ted Burgess, the tenant farmer, which young Lionel promotes as the go-between, carrying letters between them, becomes less significant than the tug-of-war between old and young Lionel. ‘I’d rather stop this now,’ says old Lionel (gruffly played by Richard Griffiths). But of course nothing can stop memory flooding back in. All you need are a few words, ‘Eton collar… heavy black stockings… 88 degrees… a crumpled letter.’

Hartley’s famous opening line, ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,’ gets rather lost in the newly minted dialogue. But what this radio version (directed by Matt Thompson) does instead is echo our thoughts on and reactions to what’s happening; something which could never work on film. Why does young Lionel (played by Oscar Kennedy) keep on delivering the letters even as he begins to fear what he’s getting into? Doesn’t he realise the cruelty behind Marian, her mother, and the rest of them? Why doesn’t he ask to go home earlier?

‘You stupid, silly boy…’ says old Lionel. ‘You know it’s wrong. She hurts you.’ We are taken back to Hartley’s theme, which is not so much the sex-charged relations of Pinter’s film but the way that feelings of guilt, betrayal linger, long after the actual events that provoked them have been forgotten. It’s what goes on underneath that has the power to damage, to thwart, to undo.

Strangely enough, this radio production was actually recorded in Twickenham Film Studios (with a soundscape atmospherically created by Joe Acheson).

But who cares about radio drama when such emotion-charged events have been played out on Centre Court in this year’s Wimbledon. Radio Five Live’s commentators, Pat Cash and co., were gifted an incredible, almost overwhelming task by Andy Murray: to tempt us away from the TV and revert to listening by the power of their linguistic imagery, their ability to string words together to tell us what’s going on. We may not have seen Murray’s grimaces, or Federer’s sleek, cat-like occupation of the court, but hearing, not seeing, the atmosphere on court intensified the sense of drama.