Radio Review: From Russia With Love / My Own Private Gondolier

“It doesn’t do get mixed up with neurotic women in this business”

Martin Jarvis and Rosalind Ayres have now produced three James Bond stories for Radio 4, the enduring popularity of the spy evidently insatiable and so From Russia With Love was the latest to be broadcast in the Saturday drama slot. I was being a bit of a glutton for punishment in listening to it as I really wasn’t a fan of Goldfinger which I listened to at Christmas, and the same thing that struck me about how old-fashioned it seems with the insistence on keeping Ian Fleming’s voice squarely in the production as the narrator. Fortunately, there aren’t too many interjections but each one breaks the mood of the story and makes it seem annoyingly quaint. This is exacerbated by the very old-school nature of the writing which feels rather out of place in the modern world, at least to me.

I seem to have tumbled for Toby Stephens’ charms though which meant I was much more engaged in the story, which cleaves closely to Fleming’s original in this adaptation by Archie Scottney, which focuses on Bond’s attempts to extract a Soviet army clerk who wants to defect along with a code-breaking device whilst attempting to foil a Rosa Klebb-led plot by the KGB to assassinate him. Stephens made a very personable Bond, unafraid to be a bit more human as his relationship with the Soviet Tatiana Romanova – ex-Holby City’s Olga Fedori in a lovely turn – begins to cloud his judgement.

Throw in Eileen Atkins in cracking form as Rosa Klebb and a supporting cast full of the likes of Mark Gatiss, John Sessions, Janie Dee and Tim Pigott-Smith, then a certain degree of quality carries the show so far. But these are hardly classic pieces of literature in my humble opinion and even the best production can’t hide that. Radio offers much opportunity for new writing too though, like Bethan Roberts’ first play for radio My Own Private Gondolier. Following a summer in the life of famed art collector Peggy Guggenheim as she receives her daughter Pegeen at her Venetian retreat, as she has left her children and her failing marriage in the US.

The relationship between mother and daughter is somewhat strained: Pegeen is determined to be an artist but instead of taking in the Venetian splendour, focuses on painting darkened rooms, and Peggy’s attentions are fixed on a British sculptor, a sample of whose work she is determined to add her collection and she will do anything to achieve this. Roberts has a great ear for a floridly poetic turn of phrase which captures perfectly the attitudes and experiences of foreigners abroad who think they know it all and yet are so easily impressed. Doing much of the impressing is Peggy’s titular personal gondolier Gianni who, in a brilliantly realised sex scene on a boat, begins to revive Pegeen but this mainly serves to heighten tensions all around.

In a neat parallel to her extraordinary performance in A Doll’s House, Hattie Morahan plays another mother who abandons her children, although completely differently accented, and makes a compelling case for the disconcerted, discomfortable Pegeen, still scarred by her upbringing and unable to process how it is affecting her life even now. And Fiona Shaw is predictably fantastic as the expansive Peggy, a forceful presence that will not be denied but tragically unaware of just how deep old wounds go.

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