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26 February 2020

Stanley Tucci’s The Californian Century is perfect radio

Written by the talented producer Laurence Grissell, each episode sounds like the ripped pages of a film script.

By Antonia Quirke

A ten-part series about “how California changed the world” (28 February, 1.45pm) is midway on BBC Radio 4 – and incredibly exciting. Written by the talented producer Laurence Grissell, each episode sounds like the ripped pages of a movie script (“Fade in, LA, day…”) narrated by the sainted Stanley Tucci. He plays “the writer”, considering ten notable Californians who, via ingenuity and greed, wrested cities and industries out of the state’s dunes and hills. Hollywood, naturally, looms largest. “Oh! The light,” croons Tucci, as though he was F Scott Fitzgerald in the 1930s, trying (unsuccessfully) to write scripts there, and marvelling at the bougainvillea. There are episodes on actresses, progressive female governors, Nazi hunters, and revivalist preachers.

Episode two explores the life and legacy of William Mulholland, the civil engineer who in 1924-26 built the dam that feeds the thirsty maw of Southern California. This has the most Chandleresque tone, with its woozy music and mention of “the city fathers, the city manipulates, the Dr Frankensteins” determined to create apricot fields from dust. Episode six centres on William Shockley, the inventor (and white supremacist) who brought silicon to Silicon Valley. Each edition speaks of the racism that underpins so much of Californian life; the marginalisation of Mexican communities, the African Americans banned for so long from swimming pools and parks.

As I listened, motionless, I thought that sometimes it feels like we’ve been watching LA our entire lives, more than any other city. Chinatown, LA Confidential, Inherent Vice, The Long Goodbye, There Will Be Blood. California’s dirty deeds (or as Tucci calls them in his laconic, humorous voice, “dark dealings in dark corners”) exist firmly in the universal mind. And yet this marvellous series offers us flashes of an Eden;  the sense of the age and scale of the Californian land, and of how it might have affected the pioneers in their wagons. These are moments that come at you like that final shot of Hitchock’s The Birds, where Tippi Hedren drives through golden mountains, which somehow seems simultaneously and frighteningly like a judgement. Like the end of the world. Perfect, perfect radio.

The Californian Century
BBC Radio 4

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This article appears in the 26 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The death of privacy