What possessed you? Brother Hermes, a Colombian priest, prepares for an exorcism in Bogota. Photo: Getty Images
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Radio 4’s the Exorcist: a restrained yet chilling adaptation

Included the writer’s many nods to literature and film, absent from the film version.

A two-part adaptation of W P Blatty’s 1971 novel about the demonic possession of a child, The Exorcist worked excellently on the radio (20 and 21 February, 11pm), even if the various voices of the demon sometimes sounded confusingly like new characters drifting in and out of the plot. Still, they drifted quietly – this was not an hysterical production and it had relatively little uproar and few expiring cries. “The sound design was a little tame,” was one of the many comments after broadcast, but in fact this was the programme’s chief strength; such low-temperature ordinariness produced something rather chilling, like the ambient sound of a transistor downstairs playing Creedence Clearwater Revival while upstairs echoed a faint scratching on walls.

The demon’s favourite persona was a woman who sounded like a cross between Lady Bracknell and Bill Hicks. Insults emerged in a withering stream: “Jesus? Enough about that Jewboy faggot. The man was a pansy.” After two hours of this, Robert Glenister (playing the disillusioned Father Karras) was completely dried up, little more than a wounded animal pulling himself up to the edge of a cliff. One of the things this adaptation did better than William Friedkin’s 1973 feature film was to show more tenderness of feeling for the possessed girl’s suffering. There are stretches of the film, with its mechanised levitations and vomit-spewing, where you uncharitably wish Regan would just hurry up and croak, so fixed is Friedkin on underlining the ugliness of the world.

On the radio, the novel was mined for its authentic tristesse. Someone remembers the 12-year-old Regan in the early days of her possession bluntly telling a feted astronaut – at a glamorous house party thrown by her famed actress mother – that he would certainly die in space (you can imagine the appalled silence). Blatty’s hundreds of nods to literature and the movies, mostly absent from the film, were here, too: Keats and Hamlet, The Maltese Falcon, P G Wodehouse, Dickens and Top Hat. Nothing decent has been allowed to obtrude on Radio 4 drama in a long time, but this was effectively, wryly forlorn. 

Antonia Quirke is a regular studio guest on “Film 2014” (Wednesdays, BBC1, 11.05pm)

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 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle