Talking of marathons (Persephone in the last post), Radio 4 Extra has been re-running the BBC’s 1981 edition of Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm, and the four one-hour episodes are still available – you can catch them here, but you need to be quick, because there’s just one day left to hear the first episode, although the others are available for a little longer (but not much).
I like to save up radio episodes and listen to the entire production in one fell swoop if I can or, failing that, over two or three consecutive days (I don’t like waiting to hear what happens). Anyway, Gibbons’ novel is one of the funniest I’ve ever read, and this dramatisation really captures the tone of the book, and I enjoyed it immensely, all the more so as I recently read Mary Webb’s The Golden Arrow and, as I’m sure everyone knows, CCF is a parody of Webb’s melodramatic works of rural mysticism.
The drama is produced by Elizabeth Proud, who also puts in a creditable performance as the author herself and, thankfully, it follows the novel fairly closely (with the addition of a kind of introduction by the author to explain the connection with Mary Webb). Orphaned Flora Poste, possessor of £100 a year and ‘every art and grace save that of earning her own living’, takes herself off to her peculiar Starkadder relatives at run-down Cold Comfort Farm. There, amidst the dirt and grime she discovers hidden mysteries. What is the wrong done to her father by sorrowful Aunt Judith’s man? And what was the ‘something nasty’ that Great Aunt Ada Doom saw in the woodshed long, long ago? Alas, we never learn the answers…
And she gets to know her relatives, who are perfectly portrayed in this radio adaptation. Farmer Amos is a sanctimonious religious fanatic who preaches about sin and damnation, and leads his congregation in ‘the quivering’. Pin-up Seth hates farming and is obsessed by the ‘talkies’, while Elfine, who is obsessed with the son of a wealthy landowner, wears home-spun clothes, writes poetry and wanders the fields communing with nature. And there is Urk, who is obsessed with Elfine (and water voles). And let’s not forget the hired girl Meriam, daughter of Mrs Beetle the cleaner, and mother of four children because she cannot help herself when the sukebind is in bloom… They all sound exactly as I imagined they would, and the over-the-top country speech (Gibbons mocked the efforts of novelists who wrote phonetically in an effort to reproduce dialects) worked well against Flora’s cut-glass accents.
Flora, a thoroughly modern young lady (by the standards of 1932 when the novel was published), likes everything to be neat, clean, tidy and well organised, So she decides to reform her cousins, do away with the family’s sorrows and curses, and banish mud, grime and ignorance. Nature, as she observes, is all very well in her place but she must not be allowed to make things untidy…
For all her dainty ways Flora brooks no opposition to her plans, and brings order out of chaos, setting various Starkadders on exactly the right path in life. Even Great Aunt Ada Doom, who rules the farm with a rod of iron and refuses to let anyone leave (because ‘there’s always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort’) succumbs to her charms.
Listening to the radio version I was surprised at how well it brought out certain aspects of the book – the accents, the language, and all the made-up words, which are one of the delights of the book. And how crisp and polite Flora is, maintaining the decorum and conversation of the society she is used to, treating the Starkadders like children who need to be educated and shown a better way of life – she reminded me of those wonderful Joyce Grenfell ‘nursery’ monologues! I thought the whole cast were brilliant, especially Patricia Gallimore as Flora Poste, the inimitable Miriam Margoleys as Mrs Beetle, and Fabia Drake as Aunt Ada Doom.
I would find my copy of the book… but I’m staying at my elder daughter’s… so I’ll have to wait for a re-read until I get home.