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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.

Brother Hermes, a Colombian priest, prepares for an exorcism in Bogota. Photo: Getty Images
What possessed you? Brother Hermes, a Colombian priest, prepares for an exorcism in Bogota. Photo: Getty Images

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)