Woman's Hour Drama on BBC Radio 4
BBC Radio 4, 19 December 2011 - 6 January 2012
In Timberlake Wertenbaker's dramatization, Possession came across
as an academic detective story, in which research assistant Roland Michell (Harry Hadden-Paton) joined forces with academic
Maud Bailey (Jemma Redgrave) to track down letters describing a hitherto undiscovered love-affair between Victorian poet Randolph
Henry Ash (James d'Arcy) and Lamotte (Rachael Stirling). That quest begins at the London Library, where Michell pockets
two of Ash's letters - which seem at first to be anonymous - and moves northwards, first to the University of Lincoln
(where Bailey teaches), and thence to the estate of Sir George (Kenneth Cranham) and Lady Joan (Joanna David), which includes
the house where Lamotte used to reside. However Michell and Bailey do have a rival; the American academic Mortimer Cropper
(Matthew Marsh), who wants to find every single piece of Ash ephemera and purchase it for his archive in New Mexico.
Wertenbaker's dramatization was severely critical of most academics,
who sacrificed all standards of objectivity and scholarship in the vainglorious pursuit of fame. In Matthew Marsh's performance,
Cropper came across as a shameless manipulator, who deliberately used social occasions - such as lunch - to wheedle information
out of Ash's descendants. He was not really concerned with his subject; rather he wanted to consolidate his reputation as
the world's leading authority, as well as the curator of the world's principal archive on the Victorian poet. In his desire
to find out more about Ash's affair, Michell steals two letters from the London Library, and then deliberately plays on Lady
Joan's generosity so as to be able to look inside Lamotte's house. In Haddon-Paton's performance, Michell came across as supremely
indifferent to the feelings of those closest to him, taking little or no notice of his partner Val's (Laura Pyper's) feelings. All
he could do was to repeat the off-hand phrase "sorry!" - a word which had no significance for him. Michell's inability
to express himself emotionally contrasted starkly with the articulate way in which he talked about his professional interests,
both with Bailey and with his employer Professor Blackadder (Bill Paterson).
As their quest unfolded, however, so Michell's and Bailey's feelings began to change.
Although concerned with enhancing their reputation, they also began to fall in love with one another, despite their age-difference.
At first this was nothing more than shared academic respect (one of them looked at Ash's letters, while the other looked at
Lamotte's), but as they warmed to their task, their feelings for one another began to change. Wertenbaker's dramatization
contrasted the two academics' affair with that of Ash and Lamotte; whereas the academics mostly talked to one another,
Ash and Lamotte communicated their emotions in epistolary form. However their feelings remained much the same: Michell understood
he was falling in love with Bailey, while at the same time professing love for Val. Similarly Ash declared his love for Lamotte,
while claiming to be in love with his wife. By such means Wertenbaker underlined the continuity of past and present; despite
the difference of context, the academic's and the poet's experiences remained the same. This became something of a voyage
of self-discovery - especially for Michell, who slowly began to understand that academic status was not the be-all and end-all
of one's life. The parallel love-affairs gradually became more significant (which helps to explain why A. S. Byatt called
her novel "a romance").
As someone who has spent much of his professional life engaged on similar research
tasks, I was fascinated by ways in which Wertenbaker showed how the desire for academic success can become an obsession. This
Woman's Hour Drama production was directed by Celia de Wolff.