“His impulse is to run away, but there’s nowhere to run to”
Philip Larkin is well known as a poet but fresh out of university at Oxford, he wrote two novels, both of which have been dramatized for Radio 4 into hour-long dramas. First up was Jill, adapted by Robin Brooks, a rites of passage tale of the experiences of introverted Huddersfield boy John Kemp as he is thrust into university life also at Oxford – Larkin clearly drawing on personal experiences to paint a gorgeously sensitive portrayal of a young man struggling to come to terms with his place in this world and following his journey into a more seasoned maturity.
Fiona McAlpine’s production works so well mainly due to the pitch-perfect casting of Samuel Barnett as Kemp, the main figure and narrator of much of the story. His melodious voice – always sounding one part on the verge of wonder, one part matter-of-fact honesty – is well suited to radio, full of character and conveying much of the social discomfort of a man both languishing out of his milieu in terms of class and dealing with the intensity of first-flush homosexual longings for his roommate, the charismatic scoundrel Christopher Warner, into whose elevated societal orbit he finds himself locked.
Richard Goulding carries off Warner’s exploitative behaviour with great élan and swagger as he takes advantage of an all-too willing John and the push/pull of their relationship as John tries to work out the frustrations of being simultaneously repelled by his arrogance and seduced by it is entirely convincing. Jessica Raine fits in well as the upper class Elizabeth who holds sway over many of the men of the story and the slightly fantastical edge that comes from Kemp’s discovery of his gift for fiction is most entertaining to listen to.
The following week saw an adaptation of Larkin’s second and final novel A Girl in Winter, perhaps the less appealing of the two on paper but ultimately it was probably the better story, one of haunting beauty that I definitely want to go and read now. Dramatised by Richard Stevens, it follows another isolated protagonist – Katherine Lind – who has fled to England from her native country due to the war and whose life has ground to a halt in a cruel limbo, stuck in a deadbeat job with unfriendly colleagues.
When she is called upon to help one of them though, a set of circumstances take her through an extraordinary day which forces her to revisit the happier times of her past and how she might get close to them again. Here, McAlpine’s trick has been to employ a German actress Carolyn Genzkow as Katherine and put her into unfamiliar surroundings to add a real depth to the alienation that she feels. And it is extraordinarily well done – Katherine is wonderfully sparky and opinionated in the face of English bureaucracy and emotional reticence and Genzkow really draws us into the interior world of this young woman.
But Larkin’s masterstroke is to keep her origins undetermined, leaving a vagueness about exactly what it is she has had to flee which really enriches the enthrallingly mysterious air. Personally, I think the implication is that she’s a German Jewish émigré which would explain so much but leaving it ambiguous really adds something. Sinéad Matthews as her ailing workmate is as listenable as ever, Nicholas Woodeson and Matilda Ziegler are both strong in their connected way and as the occupants of the happier times, Jolyon Coy and Clare Corbett make an appealing brother and sister. The jazz-flecked scores to both pieces only increased my enjoyment and overall, these were two extremely classy pieces of radio drama.