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Bringing Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate with Kenneth Branagh to Radio 4

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Alison Hindell 14:57, Friday, 27 May 2011

Editor's note: It's been known for a while that Radio 4 were adapting Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, a great passion of Radio 4's former controller, to run over one week. It's been announced today that Kenneth Branagh will be playing the central role of Viktor.

Producing the Radio 4 dramatisation of Life and Fate has been something of a revelation to me. The brainchild of Mark Damazer, former Controller of Radio 4, for whom it is the greatest novel of the twentieth century, it was for me entirely unknown.

Most listeners are in the same boat as me although, as a Russian speaker, I was surprised I didn't even know the title. So I read it. And felt fairly convinced it was an impossible challenge. Fabulous prose, complex characters, beautifully translated but too long, too many characters to follow, what slot could possibly accommodate it?

But with the help of two experienced radio dramatisers, Jonathan Myerson (who had actually read the book) and Mike Walker (who hadn't, but read it fast) we have found a way round some of those obstacles.

The novel is a sprawling epic, telling the loosely interconnected stories of members of one Russian family and their different experiences during the Battle of Stalingrad, the battle which clinched the defeat of the Germans in WWII. It works almost like a series of longish short stories: the number of characters named in the novel runs to over a thousand though the timespan is only a few months (Sept 1942 - April 1943). And the locations range from the frontline in Stalingrad to the Lubyanka in Moscow, from a Russian labour camp to a Nazi gas chamber, from Kuibyshev to Kazan, from the northern forests to the river Volga and more.

But the storylines of each group of characters largely stand alone so it is possible, for example, to read only the chapters about Viktor (the character most closely based on the author himself, Vasily Grossman) and get a complete story. And that structural device turned out to be the key to unlock a dramatic structure.

We decided to take over every drama slot in a single week and, rather than a straightforward linear retelling of the book, try and make each play stand alone by focussing on one set of characters. So we hope listeners can dip in and out without feeling they have lost the thread if they miss an episode or two (though we are also offering chances to catch up via series stacking and downloads for those who want the full experience).

I've recorded the first three hours since last June, an unusually long-drawn-out experience for radio drama which tends to work closer to the wire than that. But we wanted to benefit from several different groupings of the Radio Drama Company, our actors' repertory, and the dramatisers needed time to write the different scripts. Jonquil Panting will direct another three hours or so in June and then I will do the final parts in July - in which, I am thrilled to say, Kenneth Branagh will take the key role of Viktor.

I have now read the book three times though still not in Russian. It's not hard or obscure though I will admit there aren't many jokes. There are such compelling characters, such sharp, tiny detail, such profound but clear comments on life - and indeed fate - that it lives up to re-reading. I hope our dramatisation can distil some of the essence of what has become my Desert Island book and raise the profile of this little-known treasure.

Alison Hindell is Head of Audio Drama

  • The eight-hour dramatisation of Life And Fate by Vasily Grossman will take over every drama slot (apart from The Archers) across a week in September.

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