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Radio review: City of Refuge, and Luke, Acts

18 April 2019


Syrian refugees in Tripoli, Lebanon: the subject of City of Refuge (Radio 4, Monday of last week)

Syrian refugees in Tripoli, Lebanon: the subject of City of Refuge (Radio 4, Monday of last week)

ANYONE concerned about the levels of migration into Europe might learn a thing or two from the Mayor of Tripoli, in Lebanon, Ahmad Qamareddine. His city is hosting 100,000 refugees from across the border. One in four of the current population of Tripoli is Syrian. The same or similar is true across this small country, such that Lebanon has the unenviable honour of having the densest number of refugees per capita in the world. It is inconceivable that the UK would accept the equivalent number from a neighbouring country: something in the region of 16 million people.

In City of Refuge (Radio 4, Monday of last week), Mr Qamareddine maintained an impressive equilibrium, expressing the hope that it would be only temporary, yet in the same breath admitting that that was what they thought about the Palestinians. He did not, however, pass up the opportunity to remind his listeners that the EU might be in a better state to take Syrian refugees, since there are plenty of jobs which the natives don’t wish to take. It is the UN’s resources that are largely protecting Western democracies from having to realise their responsibilities.

Dr Myriam Francois’s documentary might just as easily have been positioned as a celebration of the human instinct for hospitality. She was not complacent, however, about the longer-term dangers of such large-scale displacement of people. But this is not — at least, not yet — the humanitarian disaster that it might have been.

Now is the season for sword and sandals; for Charlton Heston and Robert Powell. The radio equivalent of the epic Easter blockbuster is provided this year by Luke, Acts (Radio 4, Saturday and Sunday): a two-hour drama from Michael Symmons Roberts’ adaptation of the two books of the New Testament that are attributed to the doctor-evangelist.

The challenges of the genre are significant: how to frame the story; how to transform an iconic text into something realistic; and, crucially, how to avoid clunky expository dialogue when retelling the best-known story ever told.

Roberts is one of the best radio dramatists around, but here his production team may have let him down. His framing conceit is deft: the story is told as if in preparation for a legal defence of Paul as he languishes in a Roman prison; and his decision to adapt the King James Version lends the script a dignity without sacrificing accessibility.

But why is it that Galileans must now routinely speak with a northern accent, as if it makes them sound more honest? And did Jesus’s appearance to the disciples in the upper room really sound like a rugby-club reunion? In truth, these are minor irritations in the context of a drama with impressive ambition and intelligence. It is Roberts’s deference to the poetry of his source, and the beauty of the KJV, that leave the final, haunting impression.

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