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8 January 2015

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.

By Antonia Quirke

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. 

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