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Four-day survey

16 January 2015

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TWO epic tales to report on this week - both of which have broken out from specific cultural habitats and populated the consciousness of the world.

At the end of his survey of Magna Carta (Radio 4, Monday to Thursday of last week), however, Melvyn Bragg felt the need to remind us of the very Englishness of the document, and the pride that the nation should take in this totemic symbol of liberty. Perhaps that is because, in order to celebrate its 800th anniversary, he was forced to stand in a blustery field and endure the sound of constant jumbo jets passing overhead.

Runnymede is not the memorial to democratic justice that some might want it to be, and the only permanent structure that marks the spot was erected in 1957 by the American Bar Association: a testament both to an English nervousness about its historical contribution to international justice, and a more indulgent view of the historical narrative on the part of the Americans.

This is not to say that there was anything wide-eyed or jingoistic about Bragg's four-day survey. With the help of some entertaining experts - of whom Professors Nicholas Vincent and David Carpenter were outstanding - the story was told with a pleasing mixture of respect and cynicism; a story of how an unsuccessful peace treaty, designed by King John to last a few weeks, became the bedrock of English, then international, concepts of liberty.

It is, in fact, a story more about reception history than about the reign of King John; and the most interesting episodes told of the ways in which Magna Carta was appropriated by rebels and revolutionaries who had never read it. "Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you?" Tony Hancock cries in one memorable comedic outburst. "Did she die in vain?"

Themes of liberty and justice, as well as the way in which we construct histories for ourselves, are everywhere in Tolstoy's War and Peace, although in Timberlake Wertenbaker's adaptation for Radio 4 (Saturdays and online) they are judiciously edited. Spread out over ten hour-long episodes, this dramatisation is a worthy undertaking, and comes with a wealth of online materials.

The series was broadcast in its entirety on New Year's Day. Those of us who had even better things to do on that day than sit by the wireless for ten hours can now listen in serial form on Saturday nights, or download it as podcasts.

Wertenbaker delivers Tolstoy's narratives to us in the form of reminiscence: the main characters are together for a family gathering, and the older members retell their stories to their children. This gives the listeners breathing space between episodes to take stock. It is particularly important, since Wertenbaker does not give us the luxury of a narrator. All is dialogue, and in the first couple of episodes you have to work hard to keep track. The odd stutter here and regional accent there is all you get to distinguish one ovich from another sky.

But stick with it. Your hardy reviewer is now on episode 5, thanks to podcast downloads; and it is worth the effort. Not quite the New Year's resolution you made, but at least as worthy as taking the exercise bike out of its packaging.

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