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Words v. pictures

24 April 2015

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IN 1816, a French naval frigate, the Méduse, ran aground off the coast of Mauritania. Survivors of the wreck took to a raft, but few survived the two-week wait for rescue. The episode caused a scandal in France, and inspired the dramatic, harrowing painting by Théodore Géricault The Raft of the Medusa. It is this painting that inspired Simon Armitage's play of the same name (BBC2, Saturday), just about the time as a boat carrying 700 migrants capsized near Lampedusa.

That Armitage's play is about the plight of the migrant, cast adrift in a dysfunctional world, renders this coincidence more than a little chilling.

Armitage's reworking of the story is set at Medusa Farm, in a near future where the sea-levels are rising dangerously. The two inhabitants are joined by a third - a Romanian seeking refuge from his own flooded world; and the drama then turns on the response of the two "natives" to this interloper. So far, so obvious. But what gave this play its texture was the environment of Dungeness, that bizarre moonscape on the Kent coast which also inspired the paintings and films of Derek Jarman.

The other element that raised this drama from standard Afternoon Play-fare to something a good deal more memorable was the visual realisation of the play, created by Richard Heslop. The Raft of the Medusa was thus, using current jargon, a "multi-platform" production: to be enjoyed either as a straight radio play, or as a film (viewable on the Radio 4 website).

Again, the prompt for this came from the films of Jarman, whose "illustrated soundtracks" were more painterly than cinematic in their style.

Although a radio critic, I am not so partisan as to deny that, almost without exception, the visual trumps the aural. Thus, even when Heslop's images were slow-moving, it was the beauty of the image that was ultimately the more captivating aspect of this production rather than the dialogue and well-paced narrative.

The marriage between the visual and the aural is always an unequal one; or, to put it another way, in a multi-platform scenario there are some platforms that are set higher and are better lit than others.

Mere words can also be side-lined by other aural distractions. Last week's Lives in a Landscape (Radio 4, Wednesday) provides a case in point: a programme whose atmospheric ambience lingers well beyond what people actually said.

Perhaps this is the point. Certainly, the accounts of living in Lindisfarne which Alan Dein drew from his guests provided us with nothing more than we might expect: a picture of a community growing old, where traditional skills are disappearing.

The essentially downbeat tone of the programme was established from the outset, when the Vicar of Lindisfarne, the Revd Paul Collins, was heard announcing to his congregation the presence of a BBC recording team, except, as he admitted, he could not remember the name of the programme.

On the other hand, it was a documentary that was suffused with the crunch of shingle and the cry of gulls - such that one could almost smell the salt-sea air. Now that really would be multi-platform broadcasting.

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