The Warden by Anthony Trollope, dramatized by Michael Symmons Roberts

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The Warden on BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4, 26 January 2014
Anthony Trollope has proved a ripe subject for adaptation on television and on radio.  In the Seventies his Palliser series of novels were transformed into a 26-part serial, employing the kind of leisurely narrative strategies and studio filming now considered old-fashioned in televisual terms.  The Barsetshire Chronicles were memorably adapted for television with Nigel Hawthorne as an oleaginous Slope; and dramatized for radio by Martyn Wade between 1993 and 1998 with a cast including Juliet Aubrey, Douglas Hodge, Simon Russell Beale and Alec McCowen.  This series of adaptations still turn up on Radio 4 Extra (I reviewed them in 2009).
Although set firmly in the past, in a rural town in which social rituals - for example tea and/or dinner parties - retained their importance, the subject-matter of Susan Roberts' new production of The Warden was uncomfortably up-to-date.  Once John Bold (Bryan Dick) questioned the large incomes received by Mr. Harding (Tim Pigott-Smith) as warden of the local alms-house, he became involved in a full-scale corruption investigation.  Immediately the senior members of the church, led by Archdeacon Grantly (Malcolm Sinclair), closed ranks and tried everything in their power to frustrate Bold.  Bold responded by publishing an anonymous article in the local press, calling into question the Church's entire management of its funds.  This series of claims and counter-claims reminded me very much of recent disputes - for example, the Plebgate scandal involving the Conservative MP and the police officers outside 10 Downing Street, or (perhaps more obviously) the phone-hacking scandal that led to the Leveson inquiry).
Such associations might seem slightly far-fetched, but in my view became more obvious as Roberts' production showed how the entire scandal preyed upon Harding's existence.  Hitherto he had enjoyed a comfortable life, looking after his parishioners and ensuring that his daughter Eleanor (Claire Price) had a trouble-free life.  After the article appeared in the press, however, Harding experienced agonies of guilt: what if he had been unwittingly responsible for causing the corruption? What if Bold was right?  And how would such scandals affect the warden's public reputation?  Eventually he came to a momentous decision, which might not have been the right one, but in Harding's view was the only option he could pursue.  Roberts showed quite tangibly that it was often the innocent who suffer the most, whenever scandals arise.
The production was narrated by Mrs. Baxter (Maggie Steed), who apparently had an insignificant role as housekeeper, providing tea and provender to the Harding family.  In thematic terms, however, she assumed major importance; not only did she advance the narrative through scene-setting observations addressed direct to listeners, but her wry comments underlined Trollope's satiric purpose.  While Grantly considered himself very important within the Barchester world, he was actually a buffoon - someone who actually made Harding's agonies that much worse through his aggressive attitudes. 
With a top-notch cast including Andrew Sachs, Charlotte Emmerson and David Seddon amongst its ranks, this was a great example of what the Classic Serial should be - to shed new light on the familiar through enthralling drama.