A 1912 illustration of War and Peace. Photo: DeAgostini/Getty Images
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Antonia Quirke on the best New Year's radio

Antonia Quirke rounds up the best of the New Year's radio, including War and Peace and The Supernatural North.

That BBC Radio 4 is giving over its New Year’s Day schedule almost entirely to a ten-hour adaptation of War and Peace is a good idea . . . though perhaps not nearly as good as ten hours of Tolstoy a day over ten days. (Now that would be a publicity stunt worth getting excited about.)

All programmes bar The Archers and news bulletins will find themselves moved to long-wave between 9am and 9.30pm on 1 January to make way for the adaptation, the opening episodes of which give the impression of a fat man stretching out on a duchesse brisée: comfortably sprawling. Any cuts to the 1,200-page book of 1869 feel un-brutal – War and Peace is cuttable. Not as tight as Anna Karenina, it contains expendable divagations on the Freemasons, for a start: a bewildering touch of the Balzacs, in which you suddenly find yourself next to a man in prison rambling about social justice.

Starring Simon Russell Beale as Napoleon (sublimely contrary casting: does he not personify the earnest good guy? Was he not born to play Pierre Bezukhov instead?), the adaptation is perfection in the party scenes, recorded on location in echoing halls and ballrooms – ah, the cockamamie crushes and hushed corner-conferences. The crestfallen dashes across rooms, the drunkenness.

Two other seasonal highlights to look out for, or catch up on. The Supernatural North (Radio 3, 14 December, 6.45pm), a documentary about all things far-northern – mountain trolls, demons and dire wolves, white walkers and Sámi shamans. Listen for the unprissy interview with Philip Pullman in which he describes C S Lewis’s Narnia cycle as “life-hating” and A S Byatt trippily recalling reading Asgard and the Gods as a child under a dim light (“When I got to the end of the book and all the gods were destroyed and there was nothing left, I thought, this is what the world is like”).

Correspondents Look Ahead (BBC World Service, 2 January, 1pm) is ever the most sobering but undeniably useful of start-the-year shows. A live discussion with four international news correspondents giving detailed and often opposing predictions on what is likely to shape our world in 2015, the topics slated include Russia and Ukraine, Iraq and Syria, and Iran’s current nuclear negotiations. War, then. Or rather, grievously little peace. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.