Painting Words with a Picture; Three Famous Paintings Are the Starting Points for a Series of Plays This Week on Radio 4. Andrew Davies Talks to Producer Peter Leslie Wild and the Author of the First in the Series, Which Focuses on Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery's Pre-Raphaelite Classic, the Last of England
Byline: Andrew Davies
Aman and a woman sit, huddled up and wrapped in blankets against the side of a sailing ship.
Their faces are bravely held in mask-like composure, concealing a maelstrom of emotions echoed by the turbulent sea, iced with white horses, behind them.
As the white cliffs of Dover recede into the background, the well-dressed, middleclass couple sit, their umbrella braced against the wind and spray, staring straight ahead, as behind them a minor cast of distributable rogues lurch, threaten, wave their fists, and get on with their rumbustious life.
The scene is Victorian painter Ford Madox Brown's The Last of England, which is to be featured in the first of Radio 4's three-day series Beyond the Canvas, a themed mini-season in the popular Afternoon Play slot from tomorrow until Thursday.
The series is produced by the BBC in Birmingham and is an unusual coproduction between two producers from different departments - BBC Drama's Peter Leslie Wild, and Rosie Boulton of BBC Factual, who usually makes documentaries.
'This is the second series of Behind the Canvas,' says Wild. 'Originally, Rosie and I were very interested in finding a way of doing something about art which utilised the medium of radio to the maximum: rather than being purely descriptive, using art as a starting point for creating something new for radio.
'The idea for the original series was to take three paintings and try to create a drama documentary looking at the circumstances in which the painting was created. We interviewed art experts about the picture, then the dramatist would try and create the world and circumstances surrounding the painting.
'The second series is slightly different in approach: we still asked the experts to talk about the painting, but then the dramatist wrote a drama inspired by the painting and the interviews - we took it one step further imaginatively.
'With The Last of England, we took that one step further and interviewed members of the public as well, and included their own personal responses to the picture.'
Considering its basis in visual art, it might seem a project more appropriate to the visual medium of television on first reflection, concedes Wild.
'That instinct is quite understandable, but having said that, there's that old clich that the pictures are better on the radio.
'We have taken great care to make sure the paintings are very well described on the radio, and all three paintings will be on the BBC website.
'One of my favourite radio plays of all time is Scenes from an Execution by Howard Barker, about a public commission of a big painting in Italy during the Renaissance. It's really clever - you never see the painting, and in fact it doesn't actually exist, but by the end of play, the listener feels they know every detail of the painting.'
The selection process for each of the three art works depended on two factors, explains Wild - firstly that there was an interesting history surrounding the creation of the painting or the particular point in the artist's life - in The Death of Chatterton (Wednesday's play), for example, the artist eloped with the model's wife.
Secondly, the painting needed to have a particularly dramatic theme that would inspire a good story, says Wild.
'The Last of England fulfilled both these and was a particular choice because it is in Birmingham, and both Rosie and I are big fans of the painting. It's a very haunting image - there are people around who visit the painting regularly.' The subject is visually very narrativebased, says Wild, while thematically, the painting is also rich because it deals with themes such as society and isolation, identity and dislocation - both geographically and socially.
'It's very moving - it's almost like a still from a film. You could use it as an opening image.'
David Calcutt, the Walsallbased playwright behind The Last of England, said writing to a strict time-slot of 45 minutes including the interviews and the actual narrative drama had been a real challenge. …