The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope, dramatized by Michael Symmons Roberts

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The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope, dramatized by Michael Symmons Roberts.  Dir.  Gary Brown.  Perf. Maggie Steed, Samuel Barnett, Blake Ritson.  BBC Radio 4, 21 December 2014 – 4 January 2015. 

Download from BBC IPlayer  till 3 February 2014.


Writing radio drama reviews over an extended period of time gives me the luxury of being able to compare one adaptation with another.  The previous version of Trollope’s novel was re-broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra in March 2011; directed by Cherry Cookson and starring Alex Jennings, it focused on the destructive effect of social aspirations, especially involving Lily Dale (Julia Ford) and Adolphus Crosbie (Jennings).  My review of that production can be accessed on


By contrast Gary Brown’s production concentrated more on the local community and its response to particular actions.  This was achieved through the ingenious strategy of casting Mrs. Baxter (Maggie Steed) as the narrator.  Although intimately involved in the action as a gossip and provider of tasty seed-cakes for Mrs. Dale’s (Alexandra Mathie’s) parties, Mrs. Baxter also worked hard to establish a close relationship with the listeners as reporter and commentator on what was happening.  She not only set the scene for the burgeoning love-affair between Lily (Scarlett Alice Johnson) and Adolphus (Blake Ritson), but she took time to describe the villagers’ reactions to what was happening.  Through her observations we understood just how ambivalent everyone was; while appreciating the social advantages of contracting an alliance with a London-based gentlemen, most people could not help but sympathize with the effect the news had on Lily’s childhood friend Jonny Eames (Samuel Barnett).  Hence they were prepared to excuse his rather excessive behavior when he encountered the two lovers together.


Symmons Roberts’s adaptation was careful to situate the action in a wider context.  As the action progresses, Mrs. Baxter reminded us of the progress of the seasons – the promise of spring, the endless days of summer, the vibrant colors of autumn and the crisp frost of winter presaging the onset of Christmas.  Life proceeded much as it had done for centuries in the village, with the inhabitants happily going about their business and looking forward to festive occasions.  There was something unchanging, almost satisfying about such rituals; against this background, the turbulent love-affairs involving Lily, Adolphus and Jonny, or Bernard (Henry Devas) and Lily’s sister Bell (Lisa Brookes) seemed strangely unimportant; the kind of things that might preoccupy younger people but which bore little significance for the older, more well-established members of the community.


Yet such impressions flattered to deceive.  As the adaptation unfolded, it became increasingly apparent that the world of London society, represented by Adolphus and Jonny, was in the ascendant; by contrast, the world of Barsetshire (and specifically Allington) appeared parochial and archaic.  While Mrs. Baxter was a loveable person, the kind of personality that could appear immediately attractive to listeners, she was necessarily limited in her horizons, both intellectual as well as social.  The endless world of country balls, parties and social occasions, so revered in Jane Austen’s time, had become outmoded by the time Trollope published his novel.  Hence it could be argued that The Small House at Allington, in this adaptation, represented something of an elegy for a world that was doomed to die in the face of rapid urbanization and the ideological changes wrought by the process of socio-historical change.


Yet this was not quite how Mrs. Baxter saw it; why should she, when she had absolutely no experience of the industrialized world?  Rather she perceived each misfortune befalling her fellow-villagers as a consequence of an impersonal fate over which no one had any particular control.  The only way to cope with it would be to accept it; if Lily wanted to marry Adolphus and reject Jonny, there was no way of stopping her.  Such explanations might have seemed convincing to her, but to listeners living in the post-industrial world of the Noughties, they appeared rather archaic, the product of a mind unable (or unwilling) to accept the process of change.


This was a highly intelligent interpretation of Trollope’s novel, one that confirmed his status as a social critic equal to Charles Dickens.  I look forward to hearing further adaptations in Radio 4’s season.