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
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
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.