Tuesday, May 3, 2011

It's not a book, jackass*

I fell into the dramatization trap again with a recent download from Library2Go. The catalog made it all seem very normal until the last sentence: "Una Stubbs stars as Aunt Gwen in this BBC Radio 4 full-cast dramatisation." Up until I began listening, I believed it was a dramatization a la Full Cast Audio, but I've learned my lesson now. I'm only blogging about this so that others can be warned and stay away. What I listened to wasn't an audiobook. And who the heck is Una Stubbs anyway? (Ooh ... she played Mrs. Hudson in that updated Sherlock Holmes series with Benedict Cumberbatch [whose name I could say over and over again].)

Okay, now I am seriously distracted.**

In Philippa Pearce's Carnegie-Medal-winning novel, Tom's Midnight Garden, young Tom Long is sent away for the summer while his brother Peter recovers from the measles. He and Peter had dreamed of whiling away the long summer days in the family garden, but his uncle and aunt live in a dreary flat with only a paved-over "back yard." Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen (Una Stubbs) warn him repeatedly not to disturb their cranky old landlady who lives upstairs, Mrs. Bartholomew. Tom wakes one night to hear the grandfather clock ring 13 times and when he looks out his window, he sees that the backyard has been transformed into a beautiful garden. He steps outside to join the children playing there, but only one of them -- a young girl -- seems to notice him. She's dressed in old-fashioned clothes and introduces herself as Hatty.

Eventually Tom realizes that he can only play in the garden with Hatty when the clock strikes 13. But every time he does, he finds that Hatty has grown slightly older. Despite the fact that each thinks that the other is a ghost, their friendship blossoms. Tom shares his adventures with Peter by writing him every day.

After listening to this, I am able to better articulate what I don't like about dramatizations: There is no context to the story you are hearing. Everything you learn is related to you through artificial dialog -- these are not human beings (or ghosts) having a conversation, they are stolidly propelling you toward the next plot point. If there were descriptions of the enchanted garden (possibly through Tom's letters to Peter) I missed them in the listening. Near the end of the story, Tom and Hatty skate on a frozen canal and climb the tower of the cathedral at Ely. I've got no visuals of what those might have looked like. There was a lot of heavy breathing as the two children climbed the tower, though.

Does Tom's garden look like this? Some garden designers won a prize at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show in 2007 with their "small garden" inspired by the novel. [This photo is from The Reckless Gardener.]

The radio drama is augmented by sound effects -- walking steps, creaky doors, the tick-tock and the chiming of the clock, plus many more. In places, these are really intrusive and occasionally they overpower the speakers. There are many musical interludes (evidently, the original radio broadcast was in four 30-minute slots) that break up an already choppy narrative.

It is quite possible that the young actor playing Tom, Peter England, portrayed Will Parry in The Amber Spyglass, while Steven Webb -- who played the younger Will in The Subtle Knife -- read Christopher Robin in the last (much more audiobookish) dramatization I listened to: The Collected Stories of Winnie-the-Pooh. The only other actor whose name was familiar to me was Rachel Kempson (mother of the Redgraves) who played Mrs. Bartholomew. The actors all read professionally, but having to instill emotion in what is essentially a narrative description sounds so terribly fake.

I should have read it.

Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, dramatized by Judy Allen
Narrated by a full cast
BBC Audiobooks, 2006. 2:05

*Homage to Lane Smith. (And I am the jackass.)


Listener said...

I won't say I hate the BBC audiobook full cast productions, but they do make me frustrated. When I read an audiobook, I want a full unabridged copy, not a dramatization that cuts a 300+ page book down to 2 hours. If a library has a copy of one of these, they're not likely to buy the actual audiobook too, so I have to be faked out every time I visit the library, thinking that a book I want is in stock. Grrr.

Anonymous said...

I think that a product clearly marked BBC Radio 4 Full-Cast Dramatisation is pretty self-explanatory (unless they've changed the meaning of dramatisation the last time I looked).

I happen to think that these dramatisations are - for the most part - excellent. But then I enjoy radio drama. I also enjoy single-voice and full-cast audiobook *readings*, and therefore don't feel the need to run down either one because they are not the other. Each to their own, I say.