Radio - Rachel Cooke

Reduced rather than boiled down, R4's <em>Couples</em> was not Updike-lite, but Essence of Updike

Why is everyone amazed that Andrew Davies's new BBC1 adaptation of Bleak House works so brilliantly? On Radio 4, classics are routinely chopped into half-hour episodes - and even, in the case of the Woman's Hour serial, into 15-minute chunks - with no ill effect. When it comes to pace and verve, the Radio 4 drama department pushes the boundaries of literary possibility on a near-weekly basis. At the end of last month, for instance, the Classic Serial (3pm, Sundays) was John Updike's 1968 novel, Couples, dramatised in only two hour-long episodes. When this was trailed, I thought at first that I had misheard the drawling American accent used. Couples is a book with a big and rather amorphous cast list. It is also introspective, highly nuanced and, on sexual matters, occasionally graphic. Only a madman - or woman - would think it suitable for gentle Sunday afternoon radio.

To my astonishment, it was almost as if Updike had written an entirely new version of Couples especially for the radio.

Reduced like a good sauce, rather than boiled down to within an inch of its life, it was not Updike-lite, but Essence of Updike. The same is also true of its successor, Father and Son by Edmund Gosse, which began last week, starring Derek Jacobi as Edmund.

In the wrong hands, this Victorian memoir could have been as dry as dust (Gosse's father, the naturalist Philip Henry Gosse, was a member of the Plymouth Brethren; the book details Edmund's claustrophobic childhood). But Nick Warburton has brought it so irresistibly to life that it is difficult to believe that over a century lies between it and its modern equivalents: Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life, or Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch. In paring it down, he has lent the book a piercing minimalism through which its psychological truths glint like glass in one of father Gosse's wretched rock pools.

The woman responsible for the Classic Serial, and much else besides, is Caroline Raphael, Radio 4's commissioning editor for drama and entertainment. Aware that, as she puts it, "you can't do Dickens all the time", she has decided that the Classic Serial must, in addition to dipping into the canon, present a new set of classics - hence the Updike and a forthcoming adaptation of John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman. By the time you read this, the fuss about the latest Rajar figures, which showed big increases in Radio 4's audience, will have died down. But that doesn't change the fact that Raphael is a hero. She knows her audience (they are book-buying fiends) and her strategy is to give them delicious surprises as often as she can. It is a strategy that has paid off.

On the subject of audiences, the big surprise is not that Radio 4's is growing, but that Five Live's continues to hold steady (6.17 million). How can this be? I listen in astonishment to Spoony's post-football chat, Brian Hayes and the incessantly irritating Anita Anand, and wonder daily why the station does not give us more Julian Worricker or Matthew Bannister. Then I remember. The figures must be skewed by the many devoted fans of radio's finest double act: Jane Garvey and Peter Allen on Drive (weekdays, 4pm). I think Garvey is a seriously funny woman, and I have a hunch Allen knows it, too. How else to explain his extraordinary - but delightfully addictive - grumpiness?