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A Vague Vibration in the Earth and Air: The Dickens Season on BBC Radio

I don't really know what this is either.

Earlier in the week on The Drive-in Bingo, I reviewed the first bit of flagship output from the BBC’s Dickens Season, the underwhelming The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, as sprawling a mess as the alleyways of Oliver Twist’s London (but with none of the character).

But the Dickens Season actually spluttered into life just at the end of November, as Radio 4 presented a recent Dickens biography – Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens, A Life – as their Book of the Week and has continued since across BBC Radios 3, 4 and their diminutive, clammy handed cousin 4extra.*

Much of it has involved the BBC spicing up and roasting that old radio chestnut, monologue. Monologue (simply, one person speaking) is an excellent form for radio, which the BBC does very well on strands like Four Thought. There’s something primal and personal about monologue that harks back to the days of public oration, preachers and proclamations. Indeed Dickens himself, famed for his huge, popular public readings, put this sense into the very fabric of his writing.

Tomalin’s biography, however, is read by Penelope Wilton. You may remember Wilton as Harriet Jones in the David Tennant days of Dr Who, the Prime Minister whose entire premiership the Doctor topples by simply whispering “doesn’t she look tired” into a nearby ear. She sounds it too. Wilton sounds less like a broadcaster, more like the reader on a language-learning tape: refined, clear, unnatural, slow. To be fair to Wilton, who is an engaging screen actor, broadcasting alone without a live audience is, as I’ve learnt myself on the odd occasion I’ve had to do it, quite a challenge.

Similar problems are initially true of the Radio 3 output, which presents 15 minutes on Dickens each night this week in its regular segment The Essay. But things really got going on Wednesday with A L Kennedy’s impassioned, and subtly politicised, speech on misery and suffering in Nicholas Nickleby. The writers amongst you will also be interested in Thursday’s edition in which Alexander McCall Smith discusses the craft of writing serialised fiction. Listen out for the repeated use of the phrase “serial author”, used as if McCall Smith is unwittingly admitting to some terrible crime.

Elsewhere, 4extra repeated a reading of Dickens’s surreal short, ‘The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton’, a whimsical tale of a graveyard invaded by monsters. It’s hammed up in fine style by Clive Francis, an entertaining tale for family audiences, true to the campness of the original.

But radio doesn’t really come alive until there’s an element of discussion – whether the other side of that discussion is an interviewer, a co-presenter, an opponent or a live audience: radio needs voices.

It should be no surprise, then, that by far and away the best Dickens programme of the season so far was the Christmas edition of Andrew Marr’s Start the Week. Canon Giles Fraser, Claire Tomalin (a far fiercer speaker than she is a writer) and Susan Hill discuss the interlocking themes of the meaning of Christmas, Dickens’s society, and ghost stories. The opposition of the speakers brings out the most startling intellectual and emotional insight into their topics, cutting through spirituality, art, politics and morality much as Dickens himself might have if he had, like those writers just a generation and a half below him, lived into the age of the wireless.

A Victorian on the BBC: H G Wells

*I say that purely to cast 4extra as a comic Dickensian character – 4extra is, of course, a wonderful accompaniment to the BBC’s output.

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