The best thing about returning to normal after the Christmas and New Year break is that you know what day of the week it is. But before then, festive ennui led to an unusual experiment in radio drama reviewing – listening to the second instalment only of a three-part series.
This proposition was arrived at after I’d mixed up the episodes of Rose Tremain’s adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds and then did the same thing with John Dryden’s latest trilogy, The Reluctant Spy.
In both cases, I was able to enter the action 33% of the way through and latch on to characters, intrigues and deceptions due to the superior quality of the writing as well as direction, by, respectively, Gordon House and Dryden himself. Any bafflement I had was as a result of not being conscious that I was participating in a self-concocted trial until it was over.
The exordium to The Eustace Diamonds no doubt fleshes out the dramatis personae and solidifies traits and motives, but the opening to episode two is a neat encapsulation of both. Lizzie Eustace, the philandering widow who refuses to return diamonds from her late husband to the family estate as specified in his will, is visited by his spectre.
Obsession battles with conscience, but in Lizzie’s case the latter is easily overwhelmed. She is an inveterate liar and adept at juggling her admirers, who include her cousin Frank (a louche Joseph Kloska) Lord Fawn (Jamie Glover as a chinless wonder) and Lord George (Adrian Scarborough, with the swagger to match Lizzie’s girlish romantic fantasies of a ‘corsair’ lover).
Building on the first episode and paving the way for Lizzie’s fraud in the final instalment – selling the diamonds while claiming they were stolen – the central episode is inevitably the least satisfying to hear in isolation. Yet it offers more than many stand-alone dramas. Tremain is fond of hungry, lusting heroines, and I enjoyed the dissection of Lizzie (Pippa Nixon, winning the sympathy vote – her amorality is a survival strategy) and her mirror image, Lucinda (Lydia Leonard), who valiantly spurns marriage and convention despite Lord George’s chilling words that “the life of a spinster is bitter”.
Part two of The Reluctant Spy opens with the inspection of a friend’s body by Coptic art expert Duncan (Nigel Lindsay, maintaining the equilibrium between innocence and knowing too much). I assume the author is launching us straight into the conspiracy, as excitement mounts and a mysterious beauty (Sarah Goldberg as Tara) – that thriller must-have – appears to know Duncan rather better than I know her.
Dryden has written several drama trilogies for BBC Radio 4, including Pandemic, which won the Writers’ Guild best radio drama award. He is adept at intertwining plot lines and giving a tremendous sense of place. Here, it is post-Arab Spring Egypt. Scheduling the plays on consecutive days makes good sense – even more so if you listen in the right order.
Trevor Preston is a BAFTA-winning scriptwriter whose work includes thriller and action TV series alongside more experimental work, and he merges these two strands in Second Body. Tara Fitzgerald plays artist Anna, for whom dreams filled with symbols and prophecies seep into the daytime. Beautifully scripted, it is a thriller of the unconscious with more than a touch of Salvador Dali.
Meanwhile, Clare in the Community is back and – eek! – it opens with a body. Have Harry Venning and David Ramsden turned our favourite social worker into Miss Marple? The corpse turns out to be one of the many furry animals in Clare’s household named after husband Brian. I shall return to the series, but this is a brilliant opener.
The Eustace Diamonds, R4, from Sunday, December 23
The Reluctant Spy, R4, from Wednesday, January 2
Second Body, R4, Wednesday, January 9
Clare in the Community, R4, from Wednesday, January 2