A beautiful radio adaptation: Radio 4’s The Housing Lark reviewed

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

The Housing Lark

BBC Radio 4


BBC Radio 3

Nineteen fifty-six: the Suez crisis, the first Tesco, Jim Laker takes 19 wickets in a match. But also: Trinidadian pianist Winifred Atwell becomes the first black woman to have a UK number one with ‘The Poor People of Paris’; Kenneth Tynan announces a playwriting competition in the Observer, which is won by the Trinidadian dramatist Errol John, and a third Trinidadian, Sam Selvon, publishes his most enduring novel, The Lonely Londoners. He was photographed the same year by Ida Kerr, looking up out of shot past a crooked nose, a frown half creasing his forehead as a smile plays around the corners of his mouth.

Selvon’s novels are fatalistic comedies, written with a keen ear for the ironic possibilities of spoken language. They are well studied but not much read. It’s a shame. The Lonely Londoners had been a breakthrough for him. Like his previous novels, it focused on the lives of West Indian immigrants in 1950s British society. But unlike his previous novels, it was the book in which he began to use creolised English — the patois that his characters had always spoken — for the novel’s narrative voice. It’s a technique that gives his sentences an impetus towards the spoken word, which might be one reason why The Housing Lark, currently airing daily on Radio 4, has lent itself so beautifully to radio adaptation.

Over the past week, the novel has been read with great affection and intelligence by Martina Laird. In her reading, Selvon’s narrator is recast as a maternal figure, one who indulges the characters’ fecklessness while gently despairing of them. The book has a decent-sized cast of characters, who are all carefully delineated for the listener, and its quick tableaux of scenes and set-pieces never feels confusing or jumbled.

‘Everybody know what hell it is to get a place to live.’ The Housing Lark is a bumptious comedy set in a bleakly unjust world. Barred from a decent room or a mortgage by the colour of their skin, a group of friends decide to club together and save up to buy a house. It doesn’t go to plan. Though they all swear off booze and fags, the pot of money never seems to grow, and the harder they strive upwards, the less purchase they find on the slippery ladder.

It’s difficult not to add that in 1956 300,000 homes were built. That’s over 30 per cent more than went up last year. It’s not a perfect picture —those 300,000 homes weren’t all wonderful places to live — but the basic point stands. Fewer and fewer people can afford to own a home, and once again it’s not a problem they can fix by swearing off the pints for a while to scrape a few quid together. A whole generation is playing the housing lark now.

A confession: I love a reading. I love a recital. I have a crusty, scratchy, slightly ill-tempered preference for the original text of any work over any updated, reinterpreted or rewritten version. I’m not always right. Who would want to live in a world without Patrice Chéreau’s centenary Ring cycle, or Clueless? But updates do strange things to texts. I once saw an updated version of Hedda Gabler set in 1990s Notting Hill. Removed from her restrictive 19th-century milieu, Hedda stops being a great tragic heroine and turns into a furious woman who, for undisclosed reasons, refuses to get a job.

So perhaps I wasn’t the ideal audience for Kate Clanchy’s update of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s strange, unfinished work ‘Christabel’. ‘Christabel’ is frequently described as the author’s ‘lesbian vampire poem’, only somewhat fancifully. It is stark, frosty, high romantic stuff, written in forward-looking rhythms and language that is archaic and demotic at once. ‘Sir Leoline, the Baron rich,/ Hath a toothless mastiff bitch’ is everyone’s favourite couplet. But the poem runs out of steam, and Coleridge could never find a way to finish it: the failure may even have precipitated his notorious artistic decline.

Radio 3’s update is about a brother and sister, Sam and Bella, who are making a podcast recording, in lockdown, of the poem ‘Christabel’. If you’re still reading, then know that it becomes both more complicated and more boring from here. Sam has taken in a mysterious musician, Taylor, who he found playing in a nearby bog, to live with the family; rather like how Christabel encounters the enigmatic Geraldine in the poem. Bella is drawn to the church of ‘St Leoline’ to make the podcast recording, where a mysterious choir of ghostly women can be heard singing. The plot that emerges between bursts of processed choral music was designed to teach plastic, prescriptive PSHE-style lessons to the audience. At last, when it was over, I went on YouTube to hear Richard Burton reading ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. Unimprovable.

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