Hardy's Women: Tess
R4 Classic serial slot; Three episodes from 14/2/21
Featuring Faye Marsay as Tess.
By Harry Turnbull
Reinterpreting or reimagining old classics is becoming more popular in audio drama. Not only does it enable an update of the story; it can often mean a reconfiguring of characters, gender and language. Perhaps one day soon we may even see a hip-hop version of Twelfth Night or Waiting For Godot.
In this instance it is Tess of the D'Urbevilles that comes in for the treatment. Instead of, say, bringing the tale into the present, this is narrated by Tess herself from her cell on death-row...
Producer Mary Peate tells us how she went about updating Tess twenty years after first bringing the ever popular classic to the airwaves.
How did it come about?
“Graham White, an academic and radio dramatist I’ve worked with a lot, has a deep interest in Hardy and he approached me about proposing a Hardy season to Radio 4. After a long process of thinking and negotiating, my fellow producer Emma Harding, the Radio 4 Drama Commissioner Alison Hindell and Graham and I decided that simply telling Hardy’s enduring stories from the point of view of a female character would allow us to approach the narratives afresh, highlighting the modernity of Hardy’s thinking.”
Did the perspective-shift change the story?
“Tess’s beauty is irrelevant in this telling of the story since she is the person making the observations, and this helps to put the listener in Tess’s situation, focussing our attention on the matter in hand. We feel how each step of the story is contingent on how Tess responds to events.” “In Katie Hims’s dramatisation of Tess, we go through the twists and turns of Tess’s life with her as she weighs decisions and reacts to her changing circumstances, gaining an understanding of her precarious life from her point of view.”
The soundscape is different too, previously you inserted a whimsical musical motif.
“In preparing this production I steered clear of the earlier production and just responded to the drama as we put it together in the edit, but I think you’re right - Katie Hims’s idea of having Tess tell the story from her prison cell the night before she is hanged did lead me to choose some more sombre, poignant music.”
Drama on 3, 31/1/2021
Dramatised by Roderick Smith
Another stab at innovation, albeit a rather puzzling one. What never ceases to surprise me is, not that such ideas actually occur to someone, but they actually get commissioned by the powers that be. Telling the Homeric epic in Brummie accents is a real head-scratcher.
Nothing wrong with a regional twang, even if every character sounded like Jasper Carrot, but this was like having Brummie broadcaster Adrian Chiles on the wireless in the kitchen while rustling up a classic such as a sausage and egg timbale - eventually it just becomes a background drone while you focus on what’s in hand.
But this is to trivialise a serious matter, for it seems this rendition has been worthy of academic research; whilst an earlier South African dialect version is deemed ‘nativistic and didactic’, the Brummie effort is ‘inherently self-parodic and burlesque’ and an example of ‘contrapuntal expanded translation’.
Judge for yourself as it is still on BBC Sounds. Personally, I won’t be rushing back to have another listen to Achilles mooning over a bird ‘with his arse in his hands’ or Zeus stomping about Mount olympus ‘with a cob on’.
Those West Midlands rock gods Black Sabbath provide a few background battle riffs but sadly the greatest rhyming couplet in heavy metal history is missing:
Afternoon drama 22/2/21
Featuring Christopher Ecclestone
It was a little puzzling to keep track of this until the penny dropped and I realised Christopher Ecclestone’s strange companions were actually voices inside his head. That explains the brief scattering of profanities not usually associated with Radio 4 afternoon dramas.
This poignant piece came about as the result of Christine Entwhistle’s work with the mental health charity MIND and introduced me to the term ‘voice-hearers’. Any broadcast that seeks to convey the struggles some people have in daily life is no bad thing.
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