Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Blood, Sex and Money

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Blood, Sex and Money

Article excerpt

It was a stroke of genius to invite Glenda Jackson to make her return to acting as the star of Radio 4's massive new series of dramas, Blood, Sex and Money , based on the novels of Émile Zola. Jackson plays Dide, the matriarch of the Rougon-Macquart families from Plassans in the depths of southern France. And she's absolutely brilliant. Her voice is so distinctive, yet at the same time utterly ordinary, so it doesn't stick out demanding attention but rather draws you in, like a spider weaving its web. Her timing, too, is pitch-perfect, each word given just the right weight for its meaning to be clear, whether making sinister predictions or laughing over another child's comeuppance.

Dide participates as her own character, the mother and grandmother (sometimes great-grandmother) of this unruly brood of cheats, drunkards, idealists and social climbers. But she's also the narrator of what is an incredibly complex storyline, not helped by the fact that each drama focuses on a different member of the family, often living in a different timeframe. Dide keeps them all together. The dialogue is surprisingly (sometimes offputtingly) modern for an adaptation (by a team of writers including Dan Rebellato and Oliver Emanuel) of novels that are set in the post-Napoleonic period as France struggled to find its new destiny. But throughout Jackson convinces us of her actuality. She's as real to us as if she were living now, and she's completely terrifying.

Dide was married (to Rougon) but also had a lover (Macquart) with both of whom she had children (played, also convincingly, by Robert Lindsay, Fenella Woolgar, Ian Hart, Sam Troughton, Graeme Hawley among others). The children fight, swindle each other, support opposing parties in the battle between republicans and imperialists. Nothing is stronger than blood but it can also be spilled rather too easily. 'Nothing wrong with a bit of blood,' says Dide, mercilessly. 'Blood makes things happen. Blood is a good fertiliser.'

In the novels Zola wanted to create a complete portrait of French society, fascinated by the impact of social and political change but also by new understandings of heredity. On this evidence, he's like a cross between Dickens and Orwell. 'I am mother to a pack of wolves, thieves and murderers, whores and politicans,' says Dide. 'They may look like gentlemen and ladies but I tell you plainly they are nothing but wolves...' It was difficult not to suspect that the utter conviction with which Jackson spoke these lines came from her years at the heart of power in Westminster.

Meanwhile Radio 3 is attempting to help us through the dire onset of early December gloom by launching a mammoth series of its own. …

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