Having spent the last two years immersed in the work of Saki and long since concluded that he is a criminally underrated writer, I was excited to hear that the Woman’s Hour drama was to be a series of dramatisations based on five his short stories. Though I did think that Saki’s savage wit, still razor sharp after a century, was a little outré for Woman’s Hour.
Oh, but how wrong I was. The operative words transpired to be ‘based on’, Sean Grundy’s adaptations throwing out so many of the babies in the Saki bathwater (comprehensibility amongst them) that they might as well have chucked the bloody bath out as well.
Where to begin? Superficially, the boldest move was to relocate Saki’s quintessentially pre-First World War stories to the present day. Not that it’s necessarily wrong to redress old settings in this way, if there’s a reason – but it’s difficult to see why anyone would swap an evocative turn-of-the-century setting for a bland modern estate, especially when the former is so much a part of the fabric of the stories themselves. If Grundy’s decision was based on the old Russell T. Davies fallacy that an audience can only identify with something they recognise from their own lives then he fouled up badly – class being an essential theme in Saki’s stories, Grundy was forced to locate them in a ‘gated community’, a notion which is surely alien even to most listeners of Woman’s Hour and which was so contrived in delivery that an Edwardian drawing room would have felt positively homely by comparison.
Immediately, then, the point of Saki’s satire, which is to turn a mirror onto his audience, was lost, much of his vicious observation being so blunted in the process that it ended up coming across as merely quirky. The childlike objectivity which gives an authentic eeriness to the horror of ‘Sredni Vashtar’ or the dark comedy of ‘Gabriel-Ernest’ became silly melodrama and as such was neither funny nor horrific. As for the definitive black humour of ‘Tobermory’, a story with multiple layers of meaning in which the key point is that an entire household conspires to have a cat destroyed because it has learned to talk: this was a production so spineless that it had Tobermory secretly rescued and set free by an uncharacteristically compassionate Clovis.
Ah yes, Clovis. In this adaptation Saki’s boyish hero was a woman, something as unpalatable as a female Bertie Wooster or a female Wilt, though I willingly admit that may be the result of preconceptions that deserve to be challenged. But gender wasn’t the real issue: where Saki’s Clovis is persistent, irreverent and youthful, undermining his society from within, Grundy’s Clovis was a world-weary security guard, an outsider carping about her rich employers. Saki’s vivid portrayal of a decadent society on the edge of self-destruction with Clovis essentially moving deckchairs as the ship plunges into the water was completely lost. And what a tiresomely 21st century character this Clovis was – sarcastic rather than witty, bored and boring, so middle-aged (Saki’s Clovis is a character who lightly declaims ‘to have reached 30 is to have failed in life’). Furthermore, the gender change couldn’t help but feel like a sop to the Woman’s Hour slot, especially in the light of another alteration which was to turn Mrs De Ropp, the nasty guardian who gets torn to pieces by a ferret in ‘Sredni Vashtar’, into a shouty businessman. Was it felt that a woman being brutally killed was a step too far for Woman’s Hour (this is evidently an audience which can’t even cope with the murder of a cat)? Or that an evil woman of any kind, however subtly drawn, would be unacceptable to the listeners? Or was this simply pandering to Jenni Murray’s unspoken but palpable desire to see (or at least hear) a man being ripped to shreds by a ferret?
Then there’s this issue of language. Saki’s use of words is known to have inspired Coward and shows the influence of Wilde, who Saki can match for sparkling dialogue and finely crafted one-liners. I know that drama can’t be slavishly faithful to its source material (I’ve been adapting Saki stories myself and I haven’t retained any of his wording at all except for the occasional quip) but in relocating the stories these adaptations substituted a tedious vernacular for all of the style and panache that makes Saki pure pleasure to read. The observed simmering politeness that laces his narratives (‘my dear Sophie,’ said the Gräfin sweetly, ‘that isn’t in the least bit clever; but you do try so hard that I suppose I oughtn’t to discourage you’) was ditched for angry expletives like ‘piss-poor’, which might verge on the shocking at 10.45am on Radio 4 but isn’t anything like as subversive as the original.
So what, in fact, was left of Saki’s masterful work in the broken fallout from this horrible car crash of an adaptation? Not a lot, really. A few names and basic plot, which of course is not what short story writing is really about. To turn stories which even today feel fresh and edgy into this tired, passé drama takes quite an ego and it was Sean Grundy, not Saki, who I sat listening to – a writer whose voice has none of the eloquence or wit of the latter. It’s available on iPlayer until next Sunday if you want to make up your own mind, but I can’t recommend the experience. Of course, if you’re in Edinburgh this summer you have the opportunity to see another adaptation, and whilst its author wouldn’t make any claim to having the wit and eloquence of Saki, I flatter myself that I have at least understood the spirit of the original having read and re-read pretty much everything Saki ever wrote over the last couple of years. Sean Grundy showed few signs of having immersed himself in Saki’s stories, less still of having understood them.