Audiobook Review | The Angela Carter BBC Radio Drama Collection #20booksofsummer21

Book eight of the challenge and something a little bit different for me.

Angela Carter was one of the most important writers of the 20th Century. A pioneer of British magical realism, her work was described by Salman Rushdie as ‘without rival and without equal’. Her radical, inventive novels influenced countless writers, while her dark, sensual short fiction turned traditional fables inside out, giving women the power over their desires and fates.

Susannah Clapp, Angela Carter’s literary executor and friend, introduces the productions and offers fascinating insights into Angela Carter’s life and work.

This landmark collection includes five new dramatisation of stories from her iconic collection of fairytales retold, The Bloody Chamber. Alongside the title story are ‘The Erl-King’, ‘Wolf-Alice’, ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ and ‘The Company of Wolves’, with casts including Sophie Cookson, Ariyon Bakare, Lily Lesser, Hannah Genesius and Adjoa Andoh. A sixth tale from The Bloody Chamber, ‘Puss in Boots’, is adapted by Carter herself and stars Andrew Sachs as Puss.

Also included is an adaptation of Carter’s award-winning Nights at the Circus, starring Roisin Conaty as Cockney trapeze artist Sophie Fevvers, and the world premiere of her unproduced screenplay The Christchurch Murder. Based on the real-life story of two New Zealand schoolgirls who killed for love, it was an inspiration for the Peter Jackson film Heavenly Creatures, and stars Fiona Shaw, Nancy Carroll and James Wilby.

Accompanying these are three thrilling radio plays: the Gothic Vampirella (starring Jessica Raine and Anton Lesser); the hallucinatory drama-documentary Come Unto These Yellow Sands (featuring James Anthony Rose as patricidal painter Richard Dadd); and an exploration of the life of Ronald Firbank, A Self-Made Man (with Lewis Fiander as Firbank). 

Finally, Liza Ross reads the short story ‘Lizzie’s Tiger’, originally commissioned for radio, in which the four-year-old Lizzie Borden has an extraordinary encounter at the circus.

A bonus documentary, Third Ear: Angela Carter, comprises Paul Bailey’s lively interview with the author, recorded shortly before her death in 1992. In it, she discusses her novel Wise Children, and examines the impact of Britishness, politics, and the oral tradition on her subversive writing.

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This book is somewhat of an unusual pick for me, I haven’t ever read any Angela Carter before and only recently heard about her through an author discussion but I was very intrigued to delve into some of her work and then I found this audiobook and thought it might be a good way to experience some of the stories, as the collection seemed like there was a lot to it.

I also have to admit that I have never really listened to radio dramas before so I wasn’t really sure what to expect and if I’m being very honest I’m still not 100% sure if this is a medium that I would come back to. It might just be because I’m not used to them but there was something about the overuse of background noise and the acting through certain scenes that felt really weird and kind of pulled me from the stories.

The stories themselves were very interesting, there were a few of the shorter dramatisations that I had to read up on because I felt like I didn’t have enough context for what was happening, but I enjoyed their dark edge and that at times there was an element of the unknown about them, that there was no way to predict how a story would play out. Obviously now there are a lot of books that have turned traditional fairytales on their head but I believe that Angela Carter was one of the first to do so and I enjoyed seeing how she would change the narrative and what effect that has had on modern stories.

I enjoyed most of the collection and I discovered that I quite like when there is a cast of actors to play out every character rather than the same voice attempting to convey everyone, and it was a pretty impressive cast with some amazing performances. It was also really interesting to get the introductions to the stories through Susannah Clapp, Angela Carter’s literary executor and friend, as a newcomer to her work I found that I could get a bit more of a sense of the author and the story that I was about to listen to in the broader context of her collection.

I definitely had some parts that I enjoyed more than others Puss in Boots and Nights at the Circus were favourites whilst I wasn’t too sure about the two biographical dramas and whilst I was surprised by the interview with the author at the end and I enjoyed listening to it for what she had to say, I really did not like the interviewer, but each to their own I suppose. I do think that this is a collection that I would revisit, I ended up listening to it in the same way that I would a normal audiobook which is continuously but I am wondering if perhaps dropping back in on certain stories now and again would endear me a little more to the style of the medium.

This was a very good introduction to Angela Carter and her work and whilst I’m still not sure about my thoughts about radio dramas I can appreciate how they have brought to life these unusual and imaginative stories, I’m sure that it is a collection that will be enjoyed by many.

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