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Radio review: An Evening with Angela Carter, PM, and Today

28 September 2018


THERE are several ways to ward off the attentions of a vampire — garlic and a crucifix being the most obvious. But what about a cup of tea and a piece of shortbread? That, coupled with some traditional English gentility, and — at least in the world of Angela Carter’s radio play Vampirella — you are all set to neutralise the wiles of the undead. And, if you don’t like to make a mess, then an innocent peck on the cheek is just as effective as a stake to the heart.

The worlds that Carter created in her writing were for ever upsetting the laws of folklore, and, in particular, retelling ancient fairy-tales from a female perspective. Broadcast as part of An Evening with Angela Carter (Radio 3, Sunday), Vampirella does all of that, with that balance of Gothic terror and wit, overwrought prose, and pithy punchlines which so characterised Carter’s writing.

The eponymous heroine here is an unwilling scion of a dynasty of counts and countesses, traceable back to Vlad the Impaler, bored and caged by her hereditary appetites. She is undone by an innocent English officer, who takes pity on the girl’s haematodipsia, and makes exclamations such as “Oh, what a pretty pickle!”

The characters in this radio play, written in 1976 and here superbly reworked by the director/producer Fiona McAlpine, narrate their thoughts and actions to the audience, as in a pantomime or morality play — an effect that situates the drama in a tradition of storytelling which is ideally suited to radio.

The Radio 3 presentation came interspersed with Carter’s own thoughts on the medium (voiced by Fiona Shaw), providing a kind of manifesto for radio drama from which all working in the field might benefit.

Radio 4’s PM programme on Thursday of last week gave more than 15 minutes of its programme to an account by the actor and comedian Rob Delaney of the illness and death of his two-year-old son, Henry. Such things are, for the most part, unreviewable.

Yet this essay in grief reinforces Carter’s “space for the invisible”. The ineluctable tragedy that unfolds after baby Henry succumbs to unexplained fits of vomiting, the half-smile of a toddler with face half-frozen, the father holding down his panicking son as blood is suctioned from his throat: on television, it is just too horrific, but, on radio, you can achieve that mix of horror and pathos which engages with a broader spectrum of emotions.

In James Naughtie’s charming, elegiac interview with Clive James (Today, Radio 4, Friday), we were invited to contemplate an altogether more congenial demise. In these last years of life, the happiest and most fruitful of his career, James talks of the mental rearrangement attendant on ill-health and old age. The materials for creativity are all, to him, present and available; and the energy to promote his recently published volume of poetry has evidently not diminished, either.

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