The Diary of Samuel Pepys (Radio 4)

A messy execution ruins Pepys’s afternoon, writes Antonia Quirke.

A five-part adaptation of Samuel Pepys's diary (8-12 August, 10.45am) was unusual in restricting its reach to a few months in 1660, rather than dipping in and out of the later Greatest Hits (the burning of London; the burying of a cherished Parmesan cheese in the back garden forsafekeeping; the coming home to discover Lady Sandwich "on the pot" in his living room.) One scarcely thinks of Pepys as a young man, but here he is at 27, married to the doughty Elizabeth and veteran of a terrifying bladder operation - bound to a cousin's parlour table, he was cut "up through the cods" and relieved of a stone the size of a tennis ball.

Pepys kept his diary keenly - writing in code - for nine years. The entries were sweetly, if camply, dramatised here ("Unhand me sir!"; "The king has curls. Natural! Such a head of hair. Or is it a wig? I've never touched his hair. I've thought about touching his hair . . ."). Where one episode embraced the mundanity of having the paperwork for a patent stamped at the Admiralty, another beautifully conveyed the fallout of afternoons spent watching regicides being hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.

After the execution of Major General Harrison on a Thursday in October, Pepys returned home, irritable. To him the whole thing had seemed lousy and undistinguished, but the crowd had been agog. (No wonder. After being hanged for several minutes and then cut open, Harrison leaned across and hit his executioner. Pepys reported that he had looked "as cheerful as any man could do in that condition".) But not even a snifter in the Sun tavern afterwards had lifted Pepys's suspicion that although high treason was the most egregious offence an individual could commit etc etc, some sort of ineffable bigotry had been visited on him.

At home, he found Elizabeth fondling her "turd-dropping dog, Fancy" and in no fine mood herself. "I thought it would be good to see," Pepys admitted, with an audible, skirting-board-kicking shrug that fans of his would applaud, plucking at his wife to relieve the sensation of being tangled in grossness. "Good to see?" she withered, hoisting Fancy under her arm and marching the pair of them to the roof to watch the sun set over Seething Lane.

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 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?