BBC Radio 4 Extra, 1 July 2012
To celebrate Sir Tom Stoppard's seventy-fifth birthday, Radio 4 Extra
broadcast two plays from the archives.
The Dog it was That Died was written in 1982 to commemorate the BBC's sixtieth
anniversary. Rupert Purvis (Dinsdale Landen), tries to commit suicide, but only succeeds in falling on top of a dog, which
was travelling up the Thames on a barge. It turns out that Purvis is a spy who wants to kill himself on account of the fact
that he no longer knows which side he's on; having spent his life playing games of bluff and double-bluff, he has lost all
sense of right and wrong.
The play is a product of the Cold War era, when the concept of 'us' and 'them' was
very much part of the spy's lingua franca. Its structure reminded me very much of the old Olsen and Johnson film
Hellzapoppin, in the sense that incident piled upon incident with little or no logical connection between them. Purvis'
boss Blair (Charles Gray) pretended to investigate Purvis' case, but was more interested in maintaining the status quo.
He employed Hogben (Kenneth Cranham) as his chief investigator, but took little notcie of what the investigator discovered.
Other characters included the Chief (Maurice Denham), who preferred smoking opium to running a department, Blair's wife Penny
(Penelope Keith), who kept donkeys in her house, and a lunatic doctor Seddon (John le Mesurier) working in an asylum who transposed
consonants in sentences just for the sake of it.
Parts of John Tydeman's production were extremely funny, especially when Purvis was
consigned to the asylum under Seddon's crazy jurisdiction. But there was a serious point to the play: Stoppard shows how the
world of espionage deprives all language of meaning: people are so engaged in deceiving one another that they no longer understand
the relationship between language and thought. Words become a means to obfuscate rather than explain. Purvis eventually comes
to understand this, but sees no other way out other than to kill himself.
First broadcast in 1964, and remade in 1978, The Dissolution of Dominic Boot
is a farcical little piece whose eponymous hero (Derek Fowlds) travels round London and the suburbs in a taxi in a series
of desperate attempts to raise money for his ever-increasing fare. None of them actually work, of course, and the only way
he can pay off the taxi-driver (John Junkin) is to sell most of his worldly goods. As a result Dominic turns up
to work in his pyjamas. This short - 15 minute - drama introduces us to Stoppard's characteristic preoccupation with a random
world, over which people have very little control. The more they try, the less they are likely to succeed. Glyn Dearman was