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Demonic sounds

28 February 2014

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WHEN it was shown for the first time in Melbourne, Australia, an actor was employed to run around the cinema shouting like a man possessed. In truth, The Exorcist scares pretty much everybody who sees it, with or without such stunts.

Regularly identified in polls as the scariest film ever made, the 1973 classic manages to upset believers and unbelievers alike. But, as the film critic Fr Peter Malone said, when he was interviewed on Sunday (Radio 4, last Sunday), it is the lapsed Christians who are most freaked out by William Friedkin's creation.

Having now finally encountered The Exorcist through Robert Forrest's adaption for Radio 4 (Thursday and Friday of last week), I understand Malone's point. After all, Damien Karras, the priest/psychologist initially given the task of evicting the demon from the tormented Regan, is a man of doubt, whose half-hearted adherence to the tenets of the faith is mercilessly exposed by the filthy-mouthed temptress.

Yet one has to wonder whether Beelzebub's strategy is really effective; for if there is one thing that would drive a lapsed Catholic back into the pen of faith, it would be an encounter with a demon.

The question is, can a radio adaptation ever be scary enough? Here, Forrest and his cast are to be commended for keeping up a fierce pace, and exploiting the radiophonics toolkit. I particularly enjoyed the transformation of Regan's voice from precocious girl (Lydia Wilson) to Whore of Babylon (Alexandra Mathie).

But whether or not any of this was scary would have to depend on when and where you were listening. This was not a production designed to be heard against the background of one's daughter practising her Grade 3 piano scales. But put me in a darkened room with only a crucifix and the wind and rain for company, and I could allow myself a shiver or two.

This followed hard upon another drama with religious content. Is Your Love Better than Life? (Radio 3, Sunday before last) presented itself as a modern take on T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. Fortunately, Frances Byrnes's drama was less turgidly worthy than her inspiration; and even if the promisingly enigmatic start settled down a little too soon into a familiar story of Church and politics in conflict, the play rolled along nicely.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is coming to the end of his term in office, but his desire for smooth departure is upset when the politics of immigration and repatriation come knocking and asking for sanctuary. Diminishing resources have made such questions much more pressing, and it does not help the Archbishop that he is good mates with the Minister for Overseas Development.

Along the way there is a second plot-strand, involving the Archbishop's Evangelical adviser and the social-media campaign that he is waging in expectation of anew incumbent. The technique by which Byrnes evokes for radio the twittering of the Twitterati provided a pleasing counterpoint to the earnest expositions of statehood and ethics. I could see Eliot's play being enlivened by the occasional smiley face, and other assorted emoticons.

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