Amazonia by Garry Lyons

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BBC Radio 3, 7 February 2010
Best known as the author of Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome (1884-1967) was born in Leeds in 1884 and educated in Windermere and Rugby. In 1902, Ransome andoned a chemistry degree to become a publisher's office boy in London. He used this precarious existence to practise writing, producing several minor works before Bohemia in London (1907), a study of London's artistic scene and his first significant book.

An interest in folklore, together with a desire to escape an unhappy first marriage, led Ransome to St Petersburg, where he was ideally placed to observe and report on the Russian Revolution. He knew many of the leading Bolsheviks, including Lenin, Radek, Trotsky and the latter's secretary, Evgenia Shvelpina. These contacts led to persistent but unproven accusations that he spied for both the Bolsheviks and Britain.

Garry Lyons' play focused on this aspect of Ransome's life. Reporting for the Daily News from the Russian Front during the First World War, Ransome (Rory Kinnear) found himself swept up in the extraordinary events of the Bolshevik Revolution. Useful to both sides, he began a dangerous double life as journalist and agent for the Bolsheviks and M15. War, revolution, espionage and love feature in a biographical portrait of a man more commonly associated with childhood adventure fantasies and English holiday idylls.

With its subject-matter and episodic structure, where Ransome encountered and overcame problem after problem, Amazonia resembled Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps in structure. It might not have told us too much about the author, but it did remind us of how the idea of the 'Great Game' still dominates the British psyche, with an (invariably male hero) involved in the world of espionage and emerging intact, to a large extent. Even in the novels of John le Carre - which adopt a far more cynical tone - the idea still lies at the heart of their basic structure. Perhaps it is a throwback to the days of Empire, when Britain really did rule the waves, both in terms of territory and (more importantly) in terms of influence. On the evidence of Amazonia, this is what Ransome was trying to prove.