Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: My Brilliant Friend

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: My Brilliant Friend

Article excerpt

It's a brave dramatist who would seek to adapt for radio the hit novels of the Italian writer Elena Ferrante. As soon as her quartet of novels set in Naples from the 1950s onwards began appearing in English translation a few years ago they created a bestselling stir because of the unusually bold flavour of the writing and the brutal honesty with which Ferrante is prepared to expose the dark underside of female friendship and motherhood, its jealousies and bitterness, the betrayals and self-centredness. It was even rumoured that Ferrante must be a man (she has never given an interview) because no woman, surely, would be so critical of her own sex (which doesn't explain why she is not kind to men either).

But the acclaimed adapter Timberlake Wertenbaker has taken up the challenge and her two-part dramatisation of the first book in the sequence, My Brilliant Friend , is the Sunday-afternoon classic this week and next (as part of Radio 4's Reading Europe season). Lila and Lena grow up together in a tenement area of the city but then their lives diverge as Lena goes away to pursue a career as a journalist and novelist while Lila chooses to stay behind. There's a good deal of plot -- wife-beating, child abuse, madness, gang warfare, illicit affairs, the thumbnail pressure of the Mafioso. You could say the books are written in Technicolor prose, that it's high-octane and rather schlocky. But what matters are the interior lives of Lena and Lila, their reactions as things happen. Ferrante never spells it out. She leaves it up to us to work out what's really going on. This kind of delving into how we think behind how we behave can work really well on radio, but not, I suspect, with Ferrante's particular combination of in-your-face dramatic events and essential elusiveness.

The only way to listen is to forget the books and focus on whether it works as radio. To me the background music was wrong in flavour, the child actors too English and stilted, the voices of Lena and Lila as grown-ups not distinctive enough. I wanted to be taken to the baking hot streets of Naples, but found myself rooted in London.

On In Business this week (Radio 4, Sunday night), Ruth Sunderland went back to Teesside, where she grew up, to find out whether the region has yet begun to recover from the devastating impact of unemployment in the 1980s as the steel and chemical industries went into rapid decline. Her father was one of those made redundant after having worked all his life for one company, stoking the boilers for the firm and the local economy. …

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