A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr, adapted by Dave Sheasby

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BBC Radio 4, 20 November 2010
 On the face of it Carr’s story concerns Birkin (Rupert Evans) a soldier with traumatic memories of World War One, who spends the summer of 1919 in Osgodby, a Yorkshire village, uncovering the remains of an ancient wall-painting in the local church. At first he is treated with suspicion by the villagers – especially the vicar Keach (Stephen Critchlow), who does not want him there in the first place, but has to accept him in order to fulfill the terms of a bequest. While the other villagers are more accommodating, they view Birkin’s presence in their midst with a degree of suspicion, which can only be overcome through prolonged interpersonal contact. The summer proves cathartic for Birkin himself, who manages to come to terms with his past, as well as learning something from his father, who also travelled through small communities as a door-to-door salesperson in the years leading up to the outbreak of war.


David Hunter’s production concentrated on the way the past determines the present through the metaphor of uncovering. As the narrator, Birkin looked back on his experiences in Osgodby and tried to uncover the truth about them. On the one hand he understood how that summer helped him come to terms with his wartime memories; on the other hand he also understood how frustrating his experiences actually were, as he failed to understand the depth of feeling existing between himself and Mrs. Leach (Hattie Morahan) that prevented them from declaring their love for one another.


The uncovering metaphor also applied to Birkin’s work as a restorer; through painstaking labour he discovered something about Osgodby’s past and the sufferings experienced by those involved in making the painting in the first place. Beneath the painting lay a heap of human bones, the remains of the artist; and beneath the bones lay the remains of another church. Through such discoveries Birkin understood that the present comprises a sum of different pasts; the two are inseparable.


The third meaning of the uncovering metaphor in a sense contradicted the second. If history in a sense promotes ways of understanding one’s relationship to the past, it can also inhibit one’s present behaviour, particularly in terms of communication. The dead hand of history prevented Birkin and Mrs. Leach from acknowledging their feelings for one another; more specifically understood as a fear that their illicit love-affair might upset the social status quo in Osgodby village. This notion of ‘respectabililty’ actually represses individual feelings.


According to this adaptation, history had both positive and negative implications, both promoting yet limiting human understanding. Perhaps the only way to survive is to find a way of negotiating between the two extremes – something Birkin learned to do as he recounted the tale for listeners. He understood his past mistakes; none of which could be rectified, but which might help him determine his future behaviour. Hunter’s production became a voyage of self-discovery operating on two levels; Birkin in the present (i.e. the real time of the adaptation) looking back on his past (when he visited Osgodby), and Birkin in the past (when he was actually in Osgodby) trying to make sense of his wartime experiences, while uncovering the village’s past as represented by the wall-painting. The production proved a fascinating exercise in dramatic historical archaeology.