22 January, 2006

Greenmantle. Radio review

BBC Radio 4 broadcast a dramatic adaptation of John Buchan's Greenmantle on Mon 26 and Tue 27 December 2005. Thanks to the marvels of technology, both episodes are available for the time being on the BBC's excellent Listen Again service, on the Classic Serial page.

I read Greenmantle a long time ago when as a not-quite-teenager I discovered the books of John Buchan, Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle at the local town library and got hooked on their adventure stories. Strictly speaking these don't count as historical fiction because they were contemporary when written, but never mind. I have fond memories of Greenmantle as a derring-do spy story in which our hero Richard Hannay foils a dastardly German spy plot in the Middle East around the time of the First World War. (I wonder if there's an equivalent cadre of popular German fiction from the period in which clean-cut German heroes foil dastardly British plots? I'd be most interested to hear from anyone who knows). Certainly that's how Radio 4 pitched the adaptation in their trailers. However, it turned out to be a disappointment.

All the heroes seemed to be identikit upper-class, stiff-upper-lip, I-say-steady-on-old-chap jolly good fellows, even the Dutchman and the American. The villain was a stereotyped bull-necked Hun. The principal female character, German aristocrat Hilda von Einem, was a mysterious, beautiful, enigmatic ice maiden with some mystical power over men and a plan for world domination, who reminded me irresistibly of CS Lewis's White Witch of Narnia. Not necessarily a problem so far; I don't go to a John Buchan spy story for subtle or complex characters.

But I do expect a rattling good yarn, and that seemed to be missing. The set-up was promising - German agents are trying to stir up a holy war against Britain in the Middle East; the only clue is a mysterious code scribbled on a scrap of paper by a dying British spy; Richard Hannay and friends are despatched across war-torn Europe to Constantinople in a desperate race against time to crack the code and foil the plot. But the most exciting thing that happened in the whole of the first episode (the journey across war-torn Europe) was a rather lacklustre fist-fight between Richard Hannay and the villainous Hun. The plot relied on a string of implausible coincidences; Richard Hannay's journey happens to bring him into contact with the Hun villain; he overhears a conversation that links Hilda von Einem to part of the code; he and the Dutchman get lost while out hunting and happen to walk into Hilda von Einem's villa to ask the way; he happens to look into the Hun villain's study (which conveniently happens to have shutters that don't meet) at just the moment that the villain is studying a map of vital strategic importance and just then the villain happens to walk out of the study so that Hannay can break in through the ill-fitting shutters and steal the map. Oh, please. By this time I'd given up and picked up my embroidery. The Russians came into it later, there was a battle, the villains all got killed and that was the end.

I shall have to re-read Greenmantle and find out whether my memory is at fault, or whether it's suffered in the adaptation process. Did anyone else hear the adaptation? Anyone else read the book?


Sarah Cuthbertson said...

Hmm. Holy War + Middle East sounds intriguing. I haven't read the book and didn't hear the adaptation but the way you describe it, it sounds like one of Michael Palin's "Ripping Yarns", which are being reshown on BBC4 TV on Thursday evenings. This week it was "Tomkinson's Schooldays" which was a hoot, but my favourite was "Across the Andes By Frog."

Richard Lee, founder of the HNS, did an MA or PhD or something on the novels of John Buchan, which he said was languishing unpublished somewhere. It might be interesting to know what he made of "Greenmantle".

Talking of drama adaptations, I see that Mon-Fri this week BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting R F Delderfield's "To Serve Them All My Days" about an idealistic schoolmaster who'd been shellshocked in WW1. I thoroughly enjoyed the TV version which I saw, oh, 20+ years ago, and read the book soon after.

Rick said...

Even if I had broadband, your review wouldn't send me rushing out to download this.

I have the impression - though I don't know where I formed it - that popular fiction of a century ago loved implausible coincidences. In the age of "muscular Christianity," perhaps they were a sign that God was tipping the balance in favor of Our Hero.

Though maybe it is much the same thing as the current convention by which the hero defuses the bomb just as the bright red timer readout reaches 00:00:01.

Carla said...

Sarah - Alas and alack, I've never seen 'Ripping Yarns' and I haven't got BBC4. Curses! But I believe it's exactly this sort of Boys' Own tale that Michael Palin is taking off. ('Across the Andes By Frog'! Wonder if you can get it on DVD?).

Do you suppose Richard Lee could be induced to put his thesis up on a website somewhere? It would indeed be interesting to see his views.

I liked 'To Serve Them All My Days' when it was on TV too, and also went out and bought the book. Thanks for the reminder; it'll take me at least a week's worth of ironing to catch up on a whole week of Afternoon Theatre, but it's usually worth it.

Rick - yes, like destitute Jane Eyre seeking shelter at a remote moorland cottage that just happens to belong to her long-lost cousins? Oh, please. Perhaps the idea of Divine Providence is indeed behind it? (God is an Englishman, doncher know? I wonder if in popular fiction of the same period but other countries, God is a Frenchman/German/American/whatever. Or is it just a British thing?)

the current convention by which the hero defuses the bomb just as the bright red timer readout reaches 00:00:01.
Or in the case of 'Naked Gun', trips over the power lead and pulls the plug out :-) I reckon these all come under Terry Pratchett's concept of Narrative Causality. Have you come across that?

Rick said...

Carla - No, I haven't. "Narrative causality," I like the term. It sort of explains itself, but can you expand on it?

Bernita said...

You're all too sophisticated.
I love Greenmantle - and Sandy Arbuthnot.
The book, that is.
Have they removed all the humor?

wil said...

I'm not familiar with "Narrative Causality" either, but it sounds suspiciously similar to "deus ex machina."

Carla said...

Narrative Causality is not deus ex machina. As with many things in Pratchett it's a lot more interesting than it appears at first sight. I'll post an extract and you can see if you agree with me.

Bernita - I like a good action/adventure yarn too (after all, I write them myself), which is why I (a) listened in the first place, (b) was miffed, and (c) went and requested the book from the library. Shall I report back when I've read it?

Gabriele Campbell said...

Seems like I should try to get my hands on the book, too.

Bernita said...

It does sound as if they also left out the irony kicker at the end.
Greenmandle did appear to the waiting people.

Carla said...

On a random sample of a couple of chapters, it has a lot more style, humour and pace on the printed page. But there's also some pretty icky racism/chauvinism, which I'm not sorry the adaptation lost. Of its time and place and all that, but still.
They did keep the ironical line at the end, but it didn't work for me in the adaptation because the story had already lost me - I'll post about the plot when I've read the whole book.