Magazine article The Spectator

Coarse Work

Magazine article The Spectator

Coarse Work

Article excerpt

If the forms of media are merely `delivery systems' as the BBC Director General John Birt described radio and television last year, you might think that drama, documentary and news would sound pretty much the same however it was delivered. But we know that isn't the case. The differences between radio and television are obvious as they are with stage and film. What may sound and look right on the stage needs to be adapted for radio and television.

Radio is the more intimate medium; the power of the words penetrates more deeply because it's all the listener has, apart from sound effects. The listener cannot see what's happening, be distracted by pictures or stage movement; what is taking place on radio has to be imagined. How language is written and spoken matters most. Few who saw it were offended by the opening lines of the film Four Weddings and a Funeral which consisted of continual swearing but, drenched in light comedy, Hugh Grant's curses became funny in themselves and worked beautifully.

It would offend on radio, which brings me to a remarkable play on Radio Three, Howard Barker's The Love of a Good Man, broadcast in the Sunday Play slot and directed by Richard Wortley, a Unique Broadcasting production. I might have lived a sheltered life but it was certainly the first time I've heard on radio the line, 'I want to fuck your cunt'. I don't mind swearing in drama when it's necessary, and earlier in the play some of it is, but I wonder if Barker, when the play was first performed at the Studio Theatre in Sheffield in 1978, was merely trying to shock. It may even have been appropriate on stage but what it did was keep me pondering on its relevance so that I missed the next few lines.

It's a pity, really, that the coarseness of the language sometimes distracts the listener from what is a brilliant play, forged from a marvellous idea. Barker set it in the battlefields of Flanders in 1920 when the British authorities had the gruesome task of recovering the bodies of the fallen for listing and reburial, as well as finding a suitable corpse for the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey. Out of this bleak scenario Barker creates black, sometimes surreal comedy, whilst managing to get across his main messages about the horrors of war as well as class conflict.

In some ways it's more effective than Richard Attenborough's new film In Love and War about Ernest Hemingway's lost love during the first world war. …

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