This 15 minute drama was the first of a series of five plays by different writers broadcast as the Woman’s Hour Drama in November 2006. The plot concerns a young man, the eponymous kitchen child, who wants to find out the identity of his father. The story was described by more than one reviewer as a sort of “who-dunnit” although as one review points out it is a birth or a father which is to be elucidated rather than a murderer. "The short story is not minimalist, it is rococo..." Carter was quoted as saying in a review and this short play illustrates this perfectly. Thanks to Carter’s very dense language and loading of adjectives and metaphors a great deal is conveyed, both of plot and character, within a short compass.
Like other fans of radio drama, I have decried the shift towards shorter radio plays on the BBC but this play is a wonderful exception to the general rule that more time is necessary to introduce and develop characters the listener will care about. An example of this intensity of language is, as the cook is seized by an amorous house guest: “…at first she swatted him away, her haunches twitching like a horse getting rid of a fly…” This is soon after followed by a reference to “kitchen horse-play”. Themes of the stage and theatricality are often found in Carter’s writing and they appear, by analogy and the use of simile here. The play opens with the voice of the kitchen child, in an allusion to his conception in the kitchen: “Born in a trunk, they say when a theatrical sucks grease-paint with mother’s milk, and if there be a culinary equivalent of the phrase then surely I merit it...” A Guardian podcast of Helen Simpson reading the original short story is available.
An innocent young Englishman is on a bicycling tour of the Carpathians when he has an accident and is taken by some villagers to a castle inhabited by a Countess and her governess. It reminds me of the real cycling tours, on a double tricycle, undertaken by M R James in the years before 1914. The young man finds the Countess to be “disturbingly too beautiful” although she has teeth and fingernails which are rather too long and she cannot abide daylight.
This was Angela Carter’s first play for radio which later was included under another title (The Lady of the House of Love") in the collection “The Bloody Chamber” (1979). This story stands out from most of the other stories in the collection since it is not a re-telling of a fairy tale but a Transylvanian vampire folk tale. I saw a stage production of the short story from which Vampirella is drawn in Blackpool in about 1996. I found it amusing that many in the audience were young Goths, I had no idea Angela Carter’s popularity reached out to that sub-culture, assuming they knew her work and were not just there for the blood and extended molars. Having read the story many years before and listened to the radio play (Vampirella) I was struck by how much more powerful an effect on the imagination was produced by the radio play in contrast to the stage play.
Another reminder of how whether reading a story or listening to a radio version wings are granted to one’s imagination to conjure more vivid pictures than having to work with the visions provided by others. In an essay on the collection “The Bloody Chamber” the writer Helen Simpson refers to the story’s origins: “Carter, an avid reader of Anne Rice's vampire novels, said the idea for the radio play came to her when she was sitting idly trying to work and ran a pencil along the top of a radiator - "It was just the noise that a long, pointed fingernail might make if it were run along the bars of a birdcage."
There is a fascinating discussion, which is still available to listen to, at the time of writing 03.12.14, of Angela Carter’s radio work and her love for the medium in: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01by8n1 BBC Radio 4 Writing in Three Dimensions: Angela Carter’s Love Affair with Radio Thursday 16 Feb 2012. There are interviews with Carter in which she describes herself as, having been born in 1940, “a child of the radio, or rather the wireless”. She talks about being very impressed by the fact that during the recording of Vampirella the producer found someone who knew and could recite the Greek Orthodox mass she had wanted as the background to a scene.
Carter discusses her last novel, 'Wise Children', but also how she became interested in re-telling fairy tales and folk myths and the oral tradition in: a Third Ear interview on Radio 3, first broadcast on 25 June 1991 and which is also still available.
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