Matilda by Roald Dahl, adapted by Charlotte Jones

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BBC Radio 4, 20-27 December 2009
Clare Grove's production, part of BBC Radio 4's Christmas season, contained a clutch of memorable performances. Mr. Wormwood (John Biggins), father of child prodigy Matilda (Lauren Mote), came across as supremely indifferent to his daughter's talents, a nasal-voiced prig more concerned with swindling those people unfortunate enough to buy one of his second-hand cars. His wife (Claire Rushbrook) possessed no child-rearing talents whatsoever; in her view Matilda should have learned to behave like any other four or five-year-old girl - to speak only when she was spoken to and to play with her toys, leaving Mrs. Wormwood to pursue her full-time vocation of watching the telly. Both Wormwoods hated the idea of books in the house; they were the passport to the kind of knowledge which might lead Matilda to question her lowly status in the household. Better to remain ignorant and passive rather than learn anything. At the other end of the intellectual sphere stood the mousey librarian Miss Phelps (Kate Leyden) who, although initially stunned by Matilda's voracious appetite for books, eventually provided a considerable source of support - both academic and moral - for the little girl's endeavours. Miss Phelps eventually faded into the background, and her role as Matilda's guide was assumed by idealistic teacher Miss Honey (Emerald O'Hanrahan), who as her name suggests was perpetually concerned for the welfare of the children in her care.
However this adaptation was dominated by two towering characterizations - one from Lenny Henry as the narrator and the other from Nichola McAuliffe as Miss Trunchbull. Henry came across as a childlike figure, not only telling the story but engaging in frequent verbal sparring matches with the characters, some of whom found his presence in the story rather irritating. Why should he enjoy such a privileged position, they seemed to say - particularly when it was they (i.e. the characters) who were responsible for the development of the plot? But Henry did not seem in the least fazed by such objections; he carried on in his own sweet way, telling the occasional joke and bringing the story to its close. However the characters eventually had their revenge on him - despite his assertion at the end of the two-part adaptation that "that's your lot," both Matilda and Miss Honey subverted his narrative authority by deciding to keep the story going a little longer.
As Trunchbull, McAuliffe clearly relished her role as the fearsome head teacher taking a sadistic enjoyment in being cruel to the children while keeping the staff under control by means of filthy looks. However her villainy was mostly of the pantomime sort; we were not encouraged to take it very serioualy. She gamely accepted her inevitable fate as Matilda first established mental control over her, and later forced the head teacher to admit her past sins, such as depriving Miss Honey (actually her niece) of the house and other goods left by Miss Honey's father in his will.
And yet despite all the high jinks, I couldn't help thinking that Matilda reinforces patriarchal attitudes towards women. In Dahl's moral scheme, they are either virgins (Miss Honey) or viragoes (Miss Trunchbull); they are not allowed to develop their characters. Matilda possesses unusual mental and intellectual powers; but she is simultaneously identified as deviant - someone who will never 'fit in' to what people expect from her. She eventually leaves her parents and establishes a new 'family' by going to live with Miss Honey; but we are left wondering whether the idealistic teacher will prove any better than Matilda's natural parents at coping with a childhood prodigy. The little girl remains an outsider, in a perpetual search for security.