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
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