Last night, at a quarter to midnight, Radio 4 began an epic serialisation of Salman Rushdie’s 1981 bestselling, reputation-making novel Midnight’s Children. Nikesh Patel stars as the narrator Saleem Sinai, born on the stroke of midnight, August 15, 1947, when his subcontinent was partitioned by religion into India (Hindu) and Pakistan (Muslim). A history, a fantasy, a glorious mingling of visions, sights and insights, it remains the kind of work that tumbles down a reader’s road once in a lifetime. If you haven’t already read it, after this you will.
Ayeesha Menon’s adaptation captures its soaring spirit, a superb cast gives it breath, producer/directors Tracey Neale and Emma Harding have brought us the drama of the year. Radio 4 has scheduled it boldly right across this week. Last night, we heard the episode we will hear again this morning at 9.45am, as Book of the Week. Before it, at 9am and for a whole hour, comes the real first episode, going back to Kashmir in 1915, Saleem murmuring into our ear the history of his Muslim grandfather and grandmother. I intend to listen all day against, I must add, all previous expectations.
I am, you see, fed up with the BBC being in thrall to vast seasons. The First World War drags on day by day in Radio 4’s Home Front. The current all-media Gay Britannia season has become more of an obstacle than an inducement to listening. I am even fed up with Henry James. It feels like going to your Grandma’s and given too much of food you once told her you liked. Enough, it says on the bottom of my favourite pie dish, is enough.
I thought I knew enough about the birth of India and Pakistan. Kavita Puri’s Partition Voices (Radio 4, Mondays) over the past three weeks has shown me I did not. This series was drawn from real lives, people who came from post-Partition necessity to Britain. As one speaker said yesterday, comparisons with the Holocaust mislead. The number of deaths was greater but, more significantly, the Partition led to neighbour murdering neighbour. I hadn’t grasped that. Meanwhile, The Man Who Drew the Line (Radio 4, Friday) passed harsh verdict on the judge, Cyril Radcliffe, appointed to establish the new nations’ dividing lines. He stands accused now of being the architect of millions of consequent deaths. But did presenter Jannat Jalill understand why Lord Mountbatten would rush him into such disastrous misjudgments back then? I doubt it.
The “then” and “now” of Tony Blair’s prime ministerial years swam before us in the first of Peter Hennessy’s hour-long Reflections (Radio 4, Thursday). Hennessy’s vital book, The Prime Minister (first published in 2000), considered holders of the office since 1945, ending with Blair, then prime minister since 1997. Later, of course, Blair would surrender the office to Gordon Brown in 2007. This Blair-Hennessy interview was no gladiatorial contest, more a counselling session, in the “how does it feel now?” style. Yet, behind every gentle enquiry lurked the feeling that Blair was being enticed to skewer himself. No chance. Blair did, however, nick himself twice or thrice, discernible whenever he began an answer with “It’s a debate I often have with myself…” or redistributed some major blame. I’ll be fascinated to see what Hennessy makes of it in any updated edition of The Prime Minister.
Until now, the BBC’s annual search for new comedians has taken place on Radio 4 Extra. Now it’s been moved up to radio’s premier league and there, to show it, was a big bundle of it bursting, live, onto Radio 4 last Sunday at 6.15pm and, stopping only for the news and The Archers at 7pm, carrying on until 7.45pm. Six acts were introduced by Mark Watson, who talked to the audience in the Edinburgh tent and, more patronisingly, to the far-bigger audience at home. For the latter, it was like being at someone else’s children’s end-of-term concert.
The judges, Radio 4’s commissioning editor of comedy Sioned William and comedians Jenny Éclair and Hugh Dennis, retired to consider and emerged, post-Archers and yet another frantic monologue from Watson, with a winner, Heidi Regan. This was for her comic reflection on the philosophical proposition of whether it is ever justifiable to kill a monster at birth (eg, Hitler) if allowed the opportunity. Dennis said it took us to “a very, very weird place”. They all commended her confidence. If Radio 4 does it all again this way next year, someone should bear in mind the endurance capacity of us poor listeners. Where’s our award?