The Reliable Narrator: Radio 4 Achieves Near-Perfection with a Selection of New Short Stories
Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)
Alan Howard Reads
The actor Alan Howard turned 70 in August. He'd probably prefer to be known as one of the theatre's great Shakespeareans, but I suspect Radio 4 listeners will know him as one of the station's most reliable readers of stories and poems. Poetry Please and With Great Pleasure rely on performers like him. His voice now is more gravel than silk, but is still full of subtlety and wit and particularly good at relaying bewildered cynicism. I remember one year in Edinburgh marvelling at his interpretation of Christopher Logue's Iliad. Even Logue's lamest plagiarisms--"How do you make the gods smile? Tell them your plans"--sounded fresh.
Anyhow, Radio 4 honoured him this past week by commissioning five writers--four distinguished and one decidedly up-and-coming--to compose stories for him to read (15-19 October). Each was in its own way wonderful, but they were complex and I got more out of each the second time I listened. If Howard were not such a master at extracting meaning from every clause, I would have been lost more than once--and that, I assume, was why Tom Stoppard, Julian Barnes, Helen Simpson, Marina Warner and Nina Raine jumped at the chance to write for him.
Stoppard's "On Dover Beach" (Monday 15 October) was, as you would expect, the cleverest tale. In fact, I listened to it three times before I realised that it was not a Socratic dialogue, but a demolition job on Matthew Arnold and his most famous poem (you know, the one that disarms the chromosome retard at the end of Ian McEwan's Saturday). Howard was required to voice two parts: the poet, enduring some kind of purgatorial posterity, and his most ruthless critic, who called him "Matt" just to annoy him. With a little help from female grunting in the background, Stoppard established the reason Arnold was so gloomy when he wrote "Dover Beach"--it was inspired less by a dread of the departure of religion and the coming of anarchy than by a bad night's sex with his inexperienced wife. The "confused alarms of struggle and flight" of the poem's final couplet were Mrs Arnold getting out from under the still young bore.
The critic also pointed out that Arnold's poem's central metaphor was a turkey: tides go in as well as out, suggesting that religion would soon be making a comeback. As for Sophocles long ago hearing it on the Aegean, the Aegean is not tidal. …