David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, adapted by Betty Davies

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BBC Radio 7, 19-31 July 2010
Dickens' episodic drama seems an ideal text for radio adaptation, with its rogues' gallery of characters and straightforward plot which nonetheless allows for the inclusion of several dramatic set-pieces. In Jane Morgan's ten-part classic serial, the actors appeared and reappeared throughout, doing their respective star turns.
In this version David Copperfield (Gary Cady) functioned as the principal focus of listeners' attention. The book became a coming-of-age narrative, in which every experience, whether good or bad, helped him acquire maturity and understand his basic purpose in life. He recounted the narrative with a mixture of sorrow and clear-eyed understanding of his past foibles.
In truthm, however, our interest was sustained far more by the supporting cast, many of whom turned in memorable performances. As Murdstone, John Moffatt was suitably stand-offish, exuding superciliousness from every pore, while being completely ignorant of how to treat young children in his care - especially Copperfield. Despite his presumed air of superiority, he could never understand how he had contributed significantly to the child's misfortunes. Mr. Micawber (Harold Innocent) was full of mellifluous vowels and elevated pronunciation - an orator manque who enjoyed composing long-winded letters and/or speeches. Every lengthy sentence was subseqently explained in simpler terms, prefaced by the phrase "in short ..." Each time Micawber uttered it, he took a breath beforehand, as if he understood reluctantly that his interlocutors preferred simplicity to long-windedness. Betsey Trotwood (Miriam Margolyes) came across as a practical personality, revealing a touching concern for Copperfield (whom she renamed Trotwood), while endeavouring to conceal her own guilty secret beneath a jolly-hockey-sticks bravado. However we admired her basic goodness of heart - particularly in the way she looked after the hapless Dora Spenlow. By contrast Phil Daniels' oleaginous Heep had no redeeming features whatsoever. He spoke his lines in slow, nasal tones, which altered radically into a threatening sneer when facing the prospect of being discovered for the fraud he actually was.
Such characterizations revealed Dickens' particular ability to write an episodic novel in which detail assumes more importance than the design, We remember the dramatic set pieces and the conflicts between individual characters (Copperfield/ Murdstone, Wickfield/ Heep, Heep/ Traddles, Rosa Dartle/ Little Em'ly) rather than the plots that produce them. In this production the cast had great fun dramatizing such conflicts which, in an intimate medium such as radio, made for riveting listening.
The only sad aspect of this mid-1980s serial was the knowledge that the ten-part adaptation now seems a thing of the past. One wishes that classic adaptations today could be spread over a similar length, allowing for greater character development, rather than being compressed into the customary two or three episode structure.