Monday, 28 March 2011

Worse than expected...

Wuthering Heights
BBC Radio 3
Sunday 27 March,2011

Ellen Dean                 Janine Duvitski
David Birrell              Mr Lockwood/Linton Heathcliff
Russell Boulter         Hindley Earnshaw/Hareton Earnshaw
Samuel Barnett         Edgar Linton
Carl Prekopp             Heathcliff
Natalie Press             Catherine Earnshaw/Catherine Linton

Produced in Bristol by Tim Dean

Review by Chris Went:
Lovers of Emily Brontë’s novel  have endured much over the years, from William Wyler’s abbreviated Hollywood rendition through Juliette Binoche’s French accented Cathy, the BBC’s radio serial which made the house the narrator, to Tom Hardy sniffing his way through the last TV version.  “Oh, damn my soul! but [it’s] worse than I expected – and the devil knows I was not sanguine!”  So said Heathcliff on first meeting his son.  As a comment on this latest offering, it seems appropriate.

Jonathan Holloway’s new radio adaptation promised a ‘modernised and hard-hitting’ version, and listeners were warned that it contained strong language and racist terms.  According to Holloway this  was ‘.....part of my attempt to capture the shock the book caused when it was published.’  The Daily Express told its readers that the play would ’.....portray Cathy and Heathcliff as listeners have never heard them before.’  This proved to be true, but not entirely in the way the Express reporter meant.

 Andrew McCarthy of the Brontë Parsonage Museum has been widely quoted as saying that ‘It doesn’t take much imagination to fill in the blanks’ referring to the part of the novel where the child Hareton horrifies Ellen Dean with his ‘string of curses’ and his admission that it is Heathcliff who taught him to swear.  There are many points in the story where a modern adaptation might insert the words which Brontë undoubtedly knew but could never write - at least not for public consumption:  Heathcliff’s first encounter with the Lintons when his swearing shocks old Mrs Linton; Hindley who ‘entered, vociferating oaths dreadful to hear’ and any number of lesser occasions.  In a dramatisation the inclusion of the F-word for such scenes makes some sense: Brontë meant us to imagine stronger terms than ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ so there is no point in being mimsy about it.  The problem was not the word itself, but how and where it was used.  Its insertion it into dialogue for which Brontë allowed no such implication was irritating but to have it interjected into a massacred version of Cathy’s great ‘I am Heathcliff’ speech was unforgivable.  Several  terms of abuse used of, and by, Heathcliff jarred horribly less because they were offensive but because they were wildly anachronistic.  In a thoroughly modernised version they would have been appropriate but, inserted into the fractured remnants of the original text, they sounded ridiculous.

However,  the use of offensive language was not the problem.  That aspect was a mere curiosity, artistically defensible if properly executed within a high quality production.  In this case it was little more than a gimmick, and the whole best forgotten.  Whilst there are many difficulties in the way of a satisfactory visual rendition of Wuthering Heights, it would seem perfectly possible to produce a creditable – even a great – radio version of the book.  What we had was a disjointed script which gave the impression of being written by someone who had relied on a précis based on a skim-reading of the book.  A listener new to the work would have been hard put to follow the plot, while those who know it well could only be infuriated.

Jonathan Holloway’s script did manage to keep the main characters more or less to their correct ages – something virtually every film adaptation has failed to do – though Ellen Dean was played by Janine Duvitski as a middle-aged woman throughout.    It was Ellen who opened the play with a fanciful speech about the moor,  and who was given dialogue and opinions which come straight from Holloway’s mind.  According to his Ellen: Hindley Earnshaw’s wife, Frances, was ‘an impoverished, doll-like idiot’; Isabella broke into the Grange after her escape from Wuthering Heights, and the mingling of Cathy Linton’s and Hareton’s light and dark hair were reminiscent of the light and dark curls which went with Catherine to her grave.  But the worst is not yet!

Holloway’s script used several scenes from the book which are invariably omitted from dramatisations but in virtually every case there was distortion.  Ellen’s vision of Hindley as a child at the stone pillar is a notable example.  In the book this incident is so sharply evocative that one wonders whether Bronte had her brother in mind when she wrote it.  Holloway reduced it to the banal by making the vision a real child – Hareton.  Again and again there were changes, additions and contradictions.   Mr Earnshaw was away to Liverpool for six days;  Isabella went to live in Surrey;  Heathcliff had been in the army; Catherine’s final illness was brought on by her being out all night on the moors; Cathy Linton was pleased to discover that Hareton is her cousin; Hareton turned against Heathcliff and threatened him; Ellen told of the ghosts of Catherine and Heathcliff peeping through Joseph’s bedroom window.  Joseph, incidentally, was referred to but never heard, while Zillah was made to give Ellen an account of the wedding of Cathy and Linton Heathcliff.   We also heard that Edgar Linton gave his nephew up to Heathcliff before the latter made a single demand.  To be fair to Holloway, his portrayal of Linton Heathcliff as a self-obsessed, whining, unpleasant wretch was true to the book, but not the deception by which Cathy and Ellen were imprisoned at The Heights.  The mangling of the plot at this point was particularly exasperating.

The disjointed nature of the plot as portrayed by Holloway has already been noted as bewildering to anyone unfamiliar with the novel.  Based on this portrayal, anyone who has heard of ‘Wuthering Heights’ as a story of a passionate love affair, of Heathcliff’s and Catherine’s obsession with eachother, would struggle to understand just why Heathcliff cared twopence for Catherine.  Her part was reduced to a few words here and there other than what might be called her great speeches.  ‘Great’, however, is not an appropriate word in this context.  The scene in which Catherine confides in Ellen about her intention to marry Edgar even though she does not love him as she loves Heathcliff was edited and ’modernised’ into trivial, contradictory nonsense.  The interchange in the kitchen of Thrushcross Grange which culminates in Edgar’s attack on Heathcliff and Catherine’s hysteria was similarly reduced.  Worse still, Natalie Press’s Catherine delivered her lines in an early BBC accent strongly reminiscent of Joyce Grenfell.  As for passion, Violet Beauregard exhibited far more in her desire for a Wonka golden ticket!  Doubling up as Cathy II, Press’s voice and flat delivery were exactly the same. 

This doubling up – David Birrell as Lockwood and Linton Heathcliff and Russell Boulter as Hindley and Hareton Earnshaw – was occasionally confusing and, with the omission of the character of Joseph, implied underfunding.   A few seconds, here and there, of incidental music failed to inject any desperately needed atmosphere.  Heathcliff, played by Carl Prekopp, did manage to sound devastated at Catherine’s death but, particularly in the second half of the story, his voice lacked the necessary harshness so that his Heathcliff came across as a nice man with a sense of humour trying hard not to be.

A Lockwood soliloquy closed the play, but what the character had to say – thankfully not much - simply carried the awfulness to the bitter end.  The dereliction of Gimmerton chapel was applied to The Heights, Bronte’s lyrical ending was ignored, and Lockwood, echoing the opening words of Ellen Dean, cursed and blessed the moor.  The listener would be heartily forgiven for cursing the BBC for this infliction and blessing it for having the charity to limit it to ninety minutes.  


Jilly said...

This blog is wonderful. Where else would you find such an intelligent - and lengthy - review? Can we have more like this please?

Boris Skilet said...

Thanking for putting into words what I am sure many people- who had eagerly anticipated an evening of listening to Sunday night's adaptation- would be feeling.
I was so disappointed that my very favourite words from the book, words which end the masterpiece which is 'Wuthering Heights' so wonderfully, were omitted. What could be better than;
'I lingered round them ,under that benign sky, watched the moths fluttering amoung the heath and harebells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.'
I recall Dr Stevie Davies' lecture given to the Bronte Society, which I had heard way back in 1998, when she said this quiet ending lays the three leading characters to rest with an 'echoic music' using many of Emily Bronte's poetic techniques. She went on to say that the four verbs alternate lulling 'l' and whispering'w' sounds; lingered, watched, listened, wondered. Heath delicately evoked Heathcliff- harebells Hareton Isabella, Ellen.
It would have been good to hear those final words- however it could be that the actors on Sunday evening would not have done them justice.