Magazine article The Spectator

There Was a Soldier

Magazine article The Spectator

There Was a Soldier

Article excerpt

Sometimes radio can transform the familiar into the exceptional, a thought which occurred to me when I heard Tunes of Glory dramatised on Radio Four last Saturday. Many of us will have read James Kennaway's novel or seen the excellent film with Sir John Mills. Hearing it on the radio for the first time I felt this wonderful psychological drama reached new heights.

It was a repeat - there seem to be rather a lot during this election period but I'm glad I had the opportunity to hear it. Kennaway's plot was straightforward enough and one which rarely fails: new, younger, more highly educated man arrives to take over from experienced but now expendable older man. He set it in a Highland regiment where war hero and whiskysoaked Colonel Jock Sinclair is acting commanding officer of a battalion. His background: the Gorbals and a spell in Barlinnie prison as a youth. The new man, Lt Col. Basil Barrow, fresh from a desk job at the MOD, is from Eton, Sandhurst and Oxford. There you have the classic ingredients of drama: class, age and cultural conflict.

But Barrow was imprisoned by the Japanese in the war and is still quietly enduring the pain. 'I think I would have preferred Barlinnie,' he tells Sinclair. His marriage has ended and he's clearly heading for a nervous breakdown. In fact, it's worse than that; no one realises he's a potential suicide case. He's pushed towards it by his inability to impose his will on a battalion that's used to doing things differently under Sinclair, the responsibility of his new position and his agonising over whether or not to report for Court Martial Sinclair's striking of a corporal in a local bar. He shoots himself instead.

I think the quality of the acting turned this promising plot into a radio play of brilliance. Bill Paterson played Sinclair with great vigour, skilfully conveying the Glaswegian brew of drunken bullying and self-pity and making us aware that he too was heading for a breakdown. Where the play really triumphed, though, was in Alexander Morton's portrayal of Barrow. Barrow was introverted and sensitive and Morton captured it beautifully in his tone of voice and, particularly, in the hesitant sometimes faltering speech.

It's a subtle play, too, in that there are no real heroes or villains. It is not a simple struggle between good and evil. …

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