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Script in the docks

23 October 2015

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IT DOES not seem right that we should be marking the anniversary of Arthur Miller’s death. It is not that he is undeserving; rather, the surprise comes in being reminded that he is but ten years gone.

As a result of a career that was both blessed and cursed with early success — Death of a Salesman had its première in 1949 — we tend to associate him with the ambience of 1950s and ’60s theatre and cinema. Certainly, The Hook, presented on Radio 4 last Saturday as part of an “Unmade Movies” season, took us back to the Miller of A View from the Bridge and Elia Kazan’s film On the Waterfront, sweating in the cultural and political claustrophobia of post-war America.

The story of this unrealised Miller screenplay is itself an exemplary vignette of the period. Developed with Kazan, The Hook was pitched to Harry Cohn at Columbia Studios. This was Miller at the start of the Marilyn Monroe years, when the playwright was flying high. Nevertheless, Cohn insisted on a substitution of villains, replacing corrupt union bosses with Communists. Miller’s refusal ended the project, and his friendship with Kazan soon ended also, after Kazan’s disloyal submission to the McCarthy trials.

Perhaps it was just as well. The Hook is an interesting piece of work, but lacks something of the power of the two scripts that it spawned. Like A View from the Bridge and On the Waterfront, it is set in the Brooklyn docks of the early ’50s. Marty is a stevedore, determined to do the right thing in spite of the organised corruption, supported by organised crime, that he sees all around him.

It is a world of filching and fisticuffs, whose politics mirror those of the nation. We are invited to sympathise with the liberal patriotism of the immigrant worker who has fled fascism in Europe in search of a promised land of democracy in America.

None the less, Laurence Bowen’s adaption of the screenplay for radio was admirably clear, crisp, and never dull. Screenplays can translate surprisingly well to radio: with an ever-present narrator we are never in any doubt about where we are, or who we are with. So cine-literate are we nowadays that we quickly get used to lines such as “for all that you can tell, his tears are sincere”, which complicate the narrator stance in ways that could keep a post-structuralist critic happy for hours.

The passing of the choir director Sir David Willcocks last month has prompted many tributes, but one that had been in the planning stage well before his death was the release of a new CD boxed set, in which are collected all his recordings from 1954 to 1973.

CD Review (Radio 3, Saturday) thus represented a different kind of obituary: one that, guided by the music scholar Jeremy Summerly, knitted together anecdote with close attention to some of those iconic recordings from King’s College, Cambridge.

It is not all about Christmas carols: there are ground-breaking recordings of Handel and Bach with orchestra, of Tallis’s 40-part motet from 1964, and the famous Allegri Miserere top C, sung by a boy who had just come off the rugby field. The display of effortless nonchalance is as English as the angelic sound.

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