Editor's Note: The first episode of Far From the Madding Crowd, adapted from the classic Thomas Hardy novel, is being broadcast on Radio 4 at 3pm on Sunday 23rd September. Producer and director Jessica Dromgoole writes below about adapting the book for Radio 4's Classic Serial - CM.
When a three hour Classic Serial I was working on fell through suddenly, due to rights issues, we had to come up with a replacement quickly. The adrenalin of getting a big Classic Serial together fast pushed Far from the Madding Crowd up through the primordial gloop of favourite novels and evolving ideas. It's a beautiful novel, with an extraordinary complex heroine, three psychologically fascinating men, and a world that sings of both isolation and community. The strangeness of it is the strangeness of the unrecognisably true.
And as soon as the thought was there, it all came together. Rereading the book with radio in mind brought the soundscape out in stark detail - Gabriel's wooden flute, the sheep, the whistling wind, the swishing of Troy's sword, the singing at the harvest feast, it felt more audio than visual, despite the influential charms of Christie and Bates. Graham White was the obvious choice to write the scripts. We both come from the rural West Country, and get Hardy; Graham's brilliant at adaptation, and we've been friends for a long time, and - with these deadlines - this would be a very collaborative production. Years ago, we worked at the Finborough Theatre together, and he wrote his first play, Bleat, set on an isolated West Country farm, and - perhaps inevitably for a London audience - ultimately as much about sheep as the psychology of remoteness. And then there was one more personal connection to the story: I raise sheep on a farm in Kent. Jeremy Howe, the drama commissioner for Radio 4, who had spent a day both eating and admiring them, commissioned the project on condition our sheep would feature.
And they do. Just. We didn't drive them off a cliff (although Graham's children did get them to stampede past a couple of times). But studio manager, Jenni Burnett spent a weekend on the farm with a big fluffy microphone that nearly got adopted by a very motherly dam, waiting for them to express something other than silent contentment. Sheep are - on the whole - pretty quiet, so we had to resort to fairly extreme measures to get any sound out of them. One track - that we used for the baby lambs that Gabriel brings into the Maltsters - includes the comment 'where's my castrator?' which we thought it best to cut.
While it is wonderfully psychologically incisive - there's no greater achievement in Hardy's literature than Boldwood's consuming and offputting obsession with Bathsheba - Far from the Madding Crowd purports not to see into anyone's heart, or mind, but just watches their actions. Witnessing becomes as notable an activity as the action itself. Coming from the West Country, Graham and I had both grown up surrounded by chuntering men, who sat together at any social event, drinking deep, and constructing stories together from scraps of information, prejudice and lies.
Jessica Dromgoole is the producer and director of Far From the Madding Crowd.