Search This Blog

Sunday, 21 October 2018

The Bloody Chamber on Radio 4 – Review

Since her untimely death in 1992, Angela Carter has become recognised as one of Britain’s greatest female authors. Her vivid and often fantastical approach makes her a fascinating counterpoint to Britain’s traditional social realist literature, and her focus on unique and independent women navigating a world dominated by predatory males is more relevant than ever in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp. This increased interest in Carter’s work has led to a variety of projects inspired by her book and short stories. A documentary about Carter’s life and career aired on BBC2 in August, and a theatrical adaptation of her final novel Wise Children has just opened at the prestigious Old Vic theatre (which recently hosted the stage version of A Monster Calls). Coinciding with these two major productions is BBC Radio 4’s Get Carter season, which aired in the last week of September.
Despite the inappropriate title (Michael Caine’s gritty, masculine gangster movie of the same name represents the antithesis of Carter’s fantastical, female-centred and often eccentric approach – surely Radio 4 could have come up with a better Angela Carter-related pun?), the Get Carter season is a must-listen for Angela Carter fans, with almost seven hours of Carter-related programming. The season contained radio adaptations of her screenplay The Christchurch Murders, and her novel Nights at the Circus and retellings of her radio plays Vampirella and Come Into These Yellow Sands. However, the highlight of the season was a series of five 15 minute adaptations of stories from her seminal adult fairy tale collection The Bloody Chamber. The five most iconic stories from Carter’s 1979 anthology (The Bloody Chamber, The Erl King, Wolf Alice, The Tiger's Bride and The Company of Wolves) were adapted into radio plays by director Fiona McAlpine and writer Olivia Tetreed and aired on consecutive mornings between Monday 24th and Friday 28th September in the prestigious '15 Minute Drama' slot. Here are reviews of all five adaptations, listed in the order they aired.
All five of these retellings can be currently heard on iPlayer Radio. Whilst you can only watch iPlayer television programmes in the UK, you can hear BBC radio shows all around the world, but you must listen quickly, as The Bloody Chamber (the first of the five stories to air) will be on iPlayer for just two more days. However, an ‘Omnibus’ episode putting all five episodes of The Bloody Chamber together will stay on iPlayer Radio until 29th October. Overall, this series represents an excellent early Halloween treat for fairy tale fans….

(Warning: These Reviews May Contain Spoilers)

Storyline: A young women gets married to a sinister Marquis whose previous three wives died in mysterious circumstances. When they have arrived at his grand castle, the Marquis gives her the keys to all the rooms but prohibits her from visiting one in the basement. However, curiosity gets the better of the girl, and when she uses the forbidden key and enters this room, she discovers a horrible secret...

At 40 pages, The Bloody Chamber is by far the longest story in Carter’s collection, so it is not easy to reduce this tale to a 15-minute time slot (in comparison, The Tiger's Bride is 20 pages and the other stories which were adapted are approximately 10 pages long). The plot is simple – this is a pretty conventional adaptation of the Bluebeard story with a few creative updates - but a lot of the appeal comes from the lurid descriptions of the murderous Marquis and his twisted world. Unsurprisingly, many of the excesses are toned down in order to stay within the time limit, but enough of them remain to reinforce the primary theme of this story, that unlimited power and wealth can conceal unlimited depravity. Sophie Cookson voices the protagonist Anne, making us care about the safety of a character who is a lot more frightened and passive than other female leads in this series. Jaspar Britton makes a pleasingly sinister Marquis, keeping enough flamboyance to remain a memorable and unique villain. Nigel Pilkington is Anne’s blind ally Jean-Yves – an unusually conventional love interest in the Carter canon - whilst Rakie Ayola voices her idealised mother, bringing maternal tenderness to a character defined by her fighting prowess. Despite the constraints of the 15-minute slot, this adaptation succeeds in retelling the story and delivering the messages, but the edits dilute the atmosphere and ensures that it is one of the weaker adaptations on this list.
The Erl King

Storyline: A women gets lost in the forest, where she meets the mysterious Erl King. He takes her to his home, and she is fascinated by his knowledge of the forest and disturbed by his cages full of birds. She allows the Erl King to seduce her, but when she finds out what he plans to do with her, she is forced to take desperate action.

Whilst most of the other Bloody Chamber stories are based on French fairy tales such as Red Riding HoodBluebeard and Beauty and the BeastThe Erl King is based on Jorinde and Joringel, a fairy tale almost exclusively associated with the Brothers Grimm. This lends it a unique feel which adds to the eeriness. Rakie Ayola narrates the story as the unnamed protagonist, and she provides an everywoman quality which suits the tale well. Ariyon Bakare is a charismatic and earthy Erl King, with enough of a sinister side to make the reveal of his plans effective. However, this is more than a direct adaptation. Some of the narrations are provided by a mysterious childlike voice (referred to as the Goblin in the credits) enhancing the atmosphere, and seemingly guiding the protagonist as she fights back at the end. Although it is not as flashy as the ones before and after it, The Erl King is a creative and mysterious story, and this adaptation does justice to it.
Wolf Alice

Storyline: A girl raised by wolves has more in common with the species that nurtured her than her own kind. She ends up in the estate of a Duke with more than a few supernatural secrets of his own. As she enters puberty, she starts adopting more human traits as the Duke’s Vampiric side becomes more apparent…

One of three stories from The Bloody Chamber inspired by Little Red Riding Hood, Wolf Alice adopts an unusual approach, with the innocent young woman and the feral wolf being one and the same. The fact that the main protagonist is more or less incapable of speech (the monstrous Duke also spends almost all of his time growling and barking, with just a single line of dialogue) means that the emphasis here is almost entirely on atmosphere, but that plays to the strengths of this story perfectly. Lily Lesser and Johnathan Tafler have the rather thankless tasks of voicing Wolf Alice and the Duke, but the narration steps in to speak where they cannot. A recurring feature of the Get Carter programmes is the use of veteran actress Fiona Shaw as Carter’s narrative voice – this is the only segment in The Bloody Chamber series to use her elegant and authoritative tone, and it highlights the quality of Carter’s mysterious and eerie prose. However, a nun and a hunter (voiced by Adjoah Andoh and Nigel Pilkington respectively) provide further narration, advancing the story for us and highlighting how society reacts to the otherworldly main characters. Out of all the tales here, Wolf Alice is probably least suited for radio, but this is still an interesting adaptation anyway.
Storyline: A young woman is sold to a reclusive lord after her father loses a game of cards to him. When she arrives in his empty Palazzo, he reveals that his one request is for her to appear undressed in front of him. When she eventually submits, she sees his true form, but it soon turns out that the Beast is not the only one hiding his animal nature…

The second of two Beauty and the Beast inspired stories in The Bloody Chamber book (The other, The Courtship of Mr Lyons, is a relatively conventional retelling by Carter standards), The Tiger's Bride has imaginative imagery, a creative culture-clash element (the protagonist is a Russian woman who has moved to Italy) and a memorable and subversive conclusion. There is some editing to get the story down to 15 minutes, with a lot of the set-up and world-building being removed. However, the quirks of the source material remain intact, with the clockwork servants and unusual masks staying in this story and enhancing it considerably. The voice acting is some of the best in this series, and the star of the episode is Hannah Genesisiaus, who voices Beauty. Initially, there is a contrast between her cool narration and the more emotional tone she uses when speaking in the story itself, but as the story reaches its climax, she brings the sensual conclusion to vivid life. The Beast communicates only in growls and purrs, but his requests and commands are expressed by his sniveling Valet, voiced by Johnathan Tafler in an intriguing contrast to his role in Wolf Alice. For all the Rococo and Neoclassical-inspired visuals, this story seems to adhere to the traditional conventions of the Beauty and the Beast stories, but this makes the ending even more unique and interesting.

The Company of Wolves

Storyline: One Christmas Eve, Red Riding Hood heads into the woods to visit her grandmother. On her journey, she befriends a handsome young Hunter who is actually a werewolf. The werewolf eats her grandmother and intends to eat Red Riding Hood as well, but she comes up with a very unusual way of ensuring her survival…

For the last of the 15-minute Dramas, McAlpine and Tetreed make an impressive effort as they adapt one of the most iconic stories in The Bloody Chamber. For this version of The Company of Wolves, they find a creative way to translate it to radio which highlights the power of oral storytelling. The mysterious anecdotes about werewolves which begin the story are told by several old women as they explain the mythology to Red Riding Hood. These storytellers then go on to narrate the rest of the story, maintaining the mystery and creepiness and providing a genuine sense of menace during the scene where the hunter transforms into a werewolf for the first time. Lily Lesser gives Red Riding Hood an element of mischief and playfulness which makes it easier to root for her.  As the Hunter, Alexander Vlahos has a smooth and formal delivery which fails to conceal his monstrous true nature. The ending takes the subtext of these five stories and makes them explicit, as Red’s sexual awakening allows her to tame the werewolf. This represents a fitting conclusion to this series, showing that the female leads from fairy tales can be stronger and more independent than we usually assume.
This series of 15 Minute Dramas certainly live up to the advertising tagline that they are ‘Stories to Gobble you Up’. With such strong source material, it was almost impossible for Olivia Hetreed and Fiona McAlpine to fail, and they manage to provide five entertaining takes on Carter’s work. All five retellings stick as closely as they can to the source material, although they have varying degrees of success in condensing the stories and adapting them to the world of radio. The weakest adaptations in this collection, (The Bloody Chamber and Wolf Alice) are limited by the constraints of the medium, but are still mysterious and entertaining, whilst the strongest, The Company of Wolves, adapts the story in a unique and innovative way. In conclusion, all five of the 15-minute dramas represent an excellent way of introducing audiences to Carter’s brilliant work, and it goes without saying that fans of her work will have a deliciously fun time listening to these.

No comments:

Post a Comment