Review: Publish and Be Damn’d – The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson / Philip and Sydney, Radio 4

“What next, dear reader?”

Every time I think I won’t bother listening to any more radio productions, something irresistible pops up and so it was last week when the first part of Publish and Be Damn’d – The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson was on Radio 4, with Nancy Carroll in the leading role and Charles Edwards and Anna Francolini among the supporting cast. A real life memoir of a scandalous courtesan from the early 19thcentury, Wilson’s was probably one of the first tell-all books which laid bare the shenanigans and proclivities of much of the ruling patriarchal elite and proved to be a bestselling hit with a public who lapped up its details voraciously.

Adapted most effectively here by Ellen Dryden, Carroll takes on the role of Wilson as both narrator and agent within the stories she tells which means we get huge amounts of her mellifluously beautiful voice and acres of gorgeous characterisation as Harriette negotiates the step from lover to lover, adroitly managing the simultaneous social climb but not always able to keep her emotions from being bruised. She’s also an excellently charismatic narrator, her matter-of-fact-ness about her lack of writing experience deliciously conversational.

As just some of her lovers Lord Posonby, the Duke of Wellington and the Duke of Argyle, Charles Edwards, Barnaby Kay and Blake Ritson gave brilliant depictions of the varying idiosyncracies of the English aristocratic male, and Anna Francolini gave a lovely Fanny, the much-loved wife of Posonby. I’d highly recommend giving this a listen but as is usually the way with these things, it has left the iPlayer today.

What is still available is Alan Pollock’s Philip and Sydney, a short drama which attempts to explore the difficult relationship between Philip Larkin and his father Sydney. In 1937, Sydney, the City Treasurer of Coventry took his teenage son on holiday to Germany and appears to have been somewhat interested in the Nazi regime as it was then, yet nothing about the trip was ever mentioned by Philip. Pollock thus imagines what might have transpired on the holiday.

On the one hand, it is a compelling, if slightly difficult piece of drama as it makes assumptions about Larkin senior (although his diaries are cited as inspiration), painting him practically as a Nazi sympathiser. Simultaneously, it holds up Larkin junior as a bastion of all things good and honest and calling the regime for what it is as his burgeoning relationship with a girl in the same hotel reveals what life is actually like for those outside the master race. For me, there’s a slight sense of hindsight creeping into the latter part here which stretches credibility a touch, we’d all like to believe we’d’ve been so virulently against Nazism but at the time, in the very place, I’m not so sure it would have been so clear cut.

Where Pollock’s writing really works though is in the dismantling of a boy’s idealistic view of his father, the realisation that fathers are indeed only human and therefore fallible, which finds a persuasive truth here. Tim McInnerny’s increasingly blustering Sydney unable to prevent the inquisitive Philip, a delicate yet powerful performance from Pip Carter, from discovering the world through his own eyes and seeing how it sits at odds with the way his father sees it. Just 45 minutes long and well worth your time before next Friday when it will expire into the ether.

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