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Radio 4 Classic Serial, 2002

In all pointed sentences, some degree of accuracy must be sacrificed to conciseness
(Samuel Johnson, The Bravery of the English Common Soldier)

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Update December 2002: The Radio 4 press office has confirmed by email that it was intended to bring this dramatisation out on tape, but that this plan has now been scrapped. I don't know the reason for this change of heart, but I'd guess at one of two things: either it was a straight commercial decision, or there were problems with the rights (perhaps because of the existence of the Penguin/Puffin audiobook). Whatever the cause, I think it's a great shame - bad show, Beeb.

The arrival of a brand new adaptation of Watership Down is a rare event, and on no account to be missed, so the broadcast in September and October 2002 by BBC Radio 4 of Neville Teller's two-hour dramatisation, in two hour-long episodes in the station's Classic Serial slot raised a considerable degree of excitement (well, it did for me at any rate). My hopes were very high that it would become a worthy companion, if not to the book, then at least to the film, and the fact that Mr Teller was responsible for the widely praised Penguin/Puffin audiobook abridgement (read by Andrew Sachs) was a good sign, too. In the event, I found that, while there was a good amount to praise about the programmes, there was also a distinct lack of passion in some of the performances, and it was this disappointment that led me to post some somewhat uncomplimentary reviews to the Yahoo Group and to uk.media.radio.bbc-r4 on Usenet (see the end of this piece for the link.)

However, after a complete listen through to the tapes at the weekend, I wonder whether I might have been a little harsh. In any case, the following review is far more comprehensive - perhaps overly so, but it's my site, in case you hadn't noticed =:P - and, as if you needed telling, will give away pretty much the whole damn plot of WD. Let's face it, if you didn't practically know the whole story by heart, you wouldn't be wasting your time here...

Unfortunately, this version shoots itself in the foot right at the beginning, with some irritating "ooh-arr" style folkish fiddle music, which is repeated, with only minor variations, the whole way through. Angela Morley's score really lifted the film version, and I think a great opportunity was missed here. The fiddler was Chris Leslie, from amazingly venerable folk-rockers Fairport Convention, so I'd have expected better. Then we discover that the story is in the form of a story told some time after the events - well, fine, except that surely Dandelion and not Hazel is the one to tell a story, and we really could have done without the audience being addressed as "my little bucks and does" - ugh.

Things get worse, as the whole of "The Notice Board" is yanked, and instead we start off in the Threarah's burrow. Fiver tells him about his awful vision of the field being "covered with dead bodies". You what? Yes, dead bodies. Blood's out this season, it would seem. (Number Of Great Lines Wrecked So Far: One, and we've barely begun.) (Please see "Second opinions" at the end of the review for Mr Teller's justification for this change.) Still, the Threarah's character seemed pretty good to me - the sort of incredibly irritating genial old buffer he might well have been in reality. Nice to see the rather pointless reference to May being "the mating season" in the film has gone, too.

While we're on the subject of dialogue, it has to be said that some of the pronunciation of Lapine in this version is extremely odd. Try as I might, I can't see any reason for pronouncing "hrair" as two syllables, or "Hyzenthlay" as "Hy-ZAN-thlay" ('sright, with an A). (I've since discovered that this pronunciation is also found in Roy Dotrice's reading, which might be a clue to its origin. I still don't see the point, though.) And why the hell do we get laughter? TFWD notwithstanding, rabbits - other than Cowslip's lot - don't do laughter.

Okay, time to dish out a bit of praise. The film left out several of the rabbits who left Sandleford - Buckthorn, Hawkbit, Acorn and Speedwell - but they're all present and correct here, though nothing is said about Hawkbit being a "rather slow, stupid rabbit". So no-one's missing, though for some completely incomprehensible reason, Pipkin is allowed no dialogue in the whole serial. Anyhow, the rabbits have their confrontation with Holly and proceed to the wood in the appropriate manner, and Bigwig (as he should) swims the Enborne and sees the dog coming. All good stuff here.

One thing that is missing, though, is Dandelion's telling of the Story of the Blessing of El-ahrairah in the wood to take the rabbits' mind off their stress and strain. Unlike in the film, he does get to tell it eventually, when the Honeycomb (which is never so named) is finished. Once we get to it, it's a pretty faithful rendition of the book version, though it stops rather abruptly, without even mentioning Frith's great promise! The film manages to get this in almost twice (the line at the end isn't the full version, which has always irritated me), so there's no real excuse. (NOGLWSF: Two).

Moving on a bit (crow? Beanfield? Common? Hazel-rah? Your guess is as good as mine), we come to Cowslip's warren. Cowslip's portrayed as a rather creepy type of cult religious leader - all calm and smarmy - and it works pretty well. British readers will probably get my meaning if I say he reminded me of Robert Kilroy-Silk! It's great to see Strawberry included too, and he provides one of the best lines of the play, when he calls to Nildro-hain to get the flayrah: "Come on Nil, bring out the goodies"! The "where?" taboo is made a bit more obvious than in the film, though of course Pipkin, being the world's only lapine Marcel Marceau impersonator, is unable to do his "Trees in November" routine. (NOGLWSF: Three.)

None of the various adaptations over the years seem to have much idea how to handle Silverweed. Denholm Elliott (as Cowslip) did the poetry bit in the film, and to be honest I think his version was better than Mr Adams'. Here, though, the whole scene is removed, which means that Fiver doesn't dash out, which means that he can't cower under the yew tree and moan about a "roof of bones". (NOGLWSF: Four.) This in turn means that Bigwig can't say to him: "I'm finished with you". (NOGLWSF: Five.) Instead, it feels as though he's actually trying quite hard to get himself caught in the snare! He's rescued mostly as in the book, and Cowslip's refusal to come is mentioned, but we don't get Fiver's "O embleer Frith" (NOGLWSF: Six). Worst of all, just about my favourite line in the whole story is removed: "My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today". It's a deeply moving bit of dialogue, thankfully retained in the film, so what on earth Mr Teller thought he was doing I don't know. (NOGLWSF: Seven.)

The next thing of real importance to happen is the arrival of Holly - and Bigwig, as he should, takes him at first for the Black Rabbit of Inlé. No Bluebell, mark you - like Silverweed, adaptors don't seem to have a clue how to fit him in. Oh well. This is a passage which scores over the film in terms of accuracy, as we get a reasonable account of how Holly had to fight Cowslip and co., but I do think that the film's depiction of the destruction of the Sandleford warren is particularly memorable. As usual, of course, the book beats both of them hands down, but then you knew that already.

Kehaar (whose voice is terrible to start with, but improves rapidly) is discovered by both Silver and Bigwig, which is good, and the right rabbits - Holly, Silver, Buckthorn and Strawberry - go on the embassy trip to Efrafa with him. Meanwhile, there's the farm raid to consider, and here things rather depart from the book. There's only the one trip, for a start - hey, guess what? That means Pipkin's squeezed out again - and there are no bucks in the hutch, just Clover and Haystack. The escape has a reasonably good tension to it, and here we reach the end of episode one, though the cliffhanger is badly judged - it should have been immediately after the gunshot rang out, but instead we go as far as Fiver telling of the "fourth rabbit ... limping and covered with blood" and calling for a rescue party to be got together. This is faithful to the book, but I have a sneaking regard for the film's appropriation of the line "The Black Rabbit serves Lord Frith, but he does no more than his appointed task" from the Story of El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé. As this story isn't in the radio version either, they could profitably have borrowed it too. Still, I can't give a NOGLWSF black mark for being too faithful to the book, can I?

Here we are in part two, then. And we hear Holly's tale of Efrafa as told to the recovering Hazel - we know from the book that this happened, so no problem there. I do think that the book's version, having "You Can't Imagine it Unless You've been There" told while Hazel is missing presumed dead, is better, though, as it creates a particularly black sense of hopelessness, which in turn allows a huge wave of sheer joy when the other rabbits are told that, as Bigwig says in the book, "Hazel's alive?". By this time, we're starting to notice the increasing use of "Hazel-rah", something that is introduced quite gradually, as in the book, and I think very effectively, though Bigwig uses it too soon, for example when they meet Campion on the way back to the Down - it's very important that he should only use the honorific after the final battle with Woundwort, as mentioned by Mr Adams at the end of "Hard Going" (unless you've got a version - eg the US Avon paperback - that suffers from the infamous "Chapter 11 edit").

As we don't have the story of the Black Rabbit, there's no call for the fox attack at the end of Chapter 32, so next up is The Big One - Bigwig's departure for Efrafa. He's told, rather awkwardly I feel, "may our legendary hero El-ahrairah go with you" - anyone who's been listening properly should already know who El-ahrairah is! The others go off to the River Test in the correct manner, and I'm glad that the line about how "Fiver ... loves crossing bridges" has been included.

The Efrafan setup is, on the whole, extremely well done. The place's military nature is emphasised, and Campion's voice vies with Bigwig's for the Most Suited To Character award. It's all very convincing, which is why it's a shame that the first scene is a ridiculous "court-martial" of Bugloss by Woundwort himself. What are the Owslafa for, eh? Woundwort, who reminds me of a slightly less insane General Melchett from Blackadder Goes Forth, works pretty well, but describing the train as a "man-made hrududu" is a fundamental error, as all hrududil are man-made by definition. (I suppose the audience needs to be told what hrududu means, but this seems a very clunky way of doing it. And why's it a diesel, anyway? The book clearly implies it's a steam train.) And Bugloss gets sentenced to death, whereas in the book he's merely reduced to the ranks. For all Woundwort's viciousness, I'm not sure he'd have had an (ex-)officer killed.

Bigwig's joining Efrafa is pretty faithful (except for the fact that he doesn't get offered a pick of the does!), and the explanation of how the whole setup works is good, except for one thing: we hear Marks mentioned in passing, but at no time are we told of the brutal reality of what the word actually means! Bigwig almost immediately comes across Thethuthinnang and Nelthilta listening to Hyzenthlay doing a small part of her "long ago" poem, which I was pleased to see left in. I can't believe that even a rabbit as impulsive as Bigwig would have told them all the escape plan so quickly, though, especially stroppy little Nelthilta, who only has a small part but plays it with great verve. "[Bigwig?] More like Big Head" - <grin>.

The most annoying thing in this second episode is the diminution of what is quite a complex escape plan, thanks to two things. Firstly, there is the (all too common) downplaying of Hyzenthlay's vital role. I suspect that some of the critics who accuse WD of lacking strong female parts have based their opinions on the various adaptations: in the book, she's absolutely vital to the whole enterprise. Secondly, there is a much worse error: the complete removal of Blackavar from the story. He's by far the most important rabbit to be left out, and it shows. (An honorary NOGLWSF for this.) Still, Bigwig's confrontation with Woundwort is fine.

I've already whinged about the egregious "Hazel-rah"s from Bigwig, so we can move on to the final battle. Holly's gibbering terror when he comes face to face with them feels right, as does the meeting between Hazel and Woundwort, and the planning meeting between Woundwort and Campion. Fiver's vision is more accurate than in the film (ie he does "get out!", but doesn't explicitly mention the dog), though as the phrase "get out!" is a reference to the Story of Rowsby Woof and the Fairy Wogdog, which isn't here, that's not necessarily a good thing! When Hazel has his idea, the runners are right - if you look at the book, you'll see that Hyzenthlay can't possibly join them, as she's pregnant! - and we get "El-ahrairah has shown me what to do", though I think the film, unlike this version, was right to leave out the line about "gnaw[ing] another rope".

Meanwhile, things are looking bleak for the Watership crowd. One might almost say they were in danger of going tharn... except that, astonishingly, this word isn't mentioned once in the whole two hours. Given that it's the one word of Lapine even the most casual WD fans know, that takes some doing. (Definitely the Eighth NOGLWSF, and lucky it doesn't get a couple more!) When Bigwig starts to beat Woundwort, it appears to be Campion who's described as the "most hated rabbit in Efrafa". Wrong - it should be Vervain, head of the Owslafa (who are just "Council Police" here, but that's okay, I think).

One thing often overlooked about the final confrontation is that it takes place mostly at night, though of course radio versions don't have to make much of this. It's certainly light once the dog comes racing up the hill, though Hazel has other, feline, problems by this time... Woundwort hears the dog coming, and yells at his rabbits for cowards as they flee, though - I should have guessed it by now - half of his classic last line, "Dogs aren't dangerous!", gets the blue pencil. (NOGLWSF: Nine.) Oh, and we're not told that "such was Woundwort's monument: and perhaps it would not have displeased him" - all we get is a rather feeble "wicked General Woundwort was never seen again". That gives us a final NOGLWSF score of a nice round Ten, plus the honorary one for Blackavar's omission.

I'm going to jump ahead of myself briefly, as I want the next paragraph to be the last, and say that I was irritated by the woman who read the cast list at the end. Why on earth did she say "the does were played by..." without identifying them individually? Really not good enough.

After the "human interlude" with Dr Adams and co. (which is well done, though I don't like it much even in the book!), only one more scene of any note remains, Hazel's death scene - perhaps the hardest to get right of all. Thankfully, Mr Teller has judged it perfectly, and although the dialogue differs somewhat from the book, it has just the right effect, and - yes - I did find myself close to tears. "Come on, Hazel-rah. Come on" - those five words spoken by the Black Rabbit/El-ahrairah/whoever don't look much, but they were actually extremely moving. How nice that a rather mixed adaptation should end on such a high note.

Second opinions

Neville Teller himself has been in touch with me about this page. His email concerned my first major moan, about the loss of the field "covered with blood". This is what he had to say:

I thought you might be interested to know that, when I was dramatising the book, I felt there was a genuine inconsistency between Fiver's vision and what is later described as actually happening on and to that field. It seemed to me important, for dramatic purposes, that Fiver could say, in response to Holly's account of the massacre and subsequent bulldozing of the field, "It's what I dreamt! It's what I dreamt!" So I deliberately made Fiver's dream and Holly's account consistent with each other. Just thought you'd like to know!

I disagree with Mr Teller for two reasons: one, that the bloody field is perhaps the most famous image in the entire story, and as such ought to be sacrosanct; and two, that Fiver's visions seem to me to work as they do precisely because they're not exact, but mere "shadows of the future". Having read his reasoning, though, I understand much better why he chose to make that change, and thank him for his kindness in allowing me to reproduce his views here.

Elisabeth Mahoney in The Guardian considered it a "superb adaptation", though there was no detailed review.

You can read the Usenet discussion mentioned at the start of my piece via Google Groups. This thread discusses the first episode, and this one the second, although the first especially contains quite a bit of wider discussion about WD, and some of the things I said there I can't quite see why I said! (For example, my whinges about the long digressions - I must have been in an odd mood at the time, as usually I like them!)