BBC Radio 4

    Dramatising Ulysses

    Editor's note: Robin Brooks dramatised James Joyce's 'Ulysses' for BBC Radio 4. Here, he writes about the challenges of adapting Joyce for radio. Ulysses is broadacst in seven parts on Satuday 16th January -CM.

    So, Ulysses, whose idea was that then, eh? Reader, it was mine. But it was producer Claire Grove's idea to do it all in one day. Brave - foolhardy - at the time we said were looking for a challenge. We got one.

    We also got a chance to do some development work; I was sent away to hash out sample scenes, and made a deceptively encouraging discovery. Part of the difficulty of reading Joyce comes from the fact that he doesn't often distinguish between voices on the page: narration - interior monologue - dialogue - all flow one into another, and it bewilders the eye. But when you lay out the work as a script, you have to apportion those voices, and as soon as you do, suddenly everything becomes much, much more accessible. That was the good news. But then work started in earnest.

    The very worst thing about that utter cad Joyce is that he's such a slippery little beast. Just when you think you've worked out what some of it means and how to have a go at it, he moves the goal-posts. Throughout the book he makes radical changes to the style in which he presents what might otherwise be the simple story of a day in the life of an advertising canvasser. He does this with every one of the eighteen chapters that make up the novel. Sometimes he moves the goal-posts an inch or two, sometimes he transports them to another country entirely. There's the chapter which is written as if words are musical notes. There's the chapter which is written in factual question and answer form, as though compiling entries for an encyclopaedia. There is, my personal least favourite, the chapter in which Joyce changes the style with each paragraph, in order to chart the history of English prose - why does he do this? I don't know - starting with pre-historic gibberish, up through Anglo-Saxon, Mallory, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pepys, a tour round various eighteenth and nineteenth century prose writers, and ending with modern slang - that's to say more gibberish.

    All this takes a while. More people are press-ganged onto the project; some highly experienced sound engineers, and producers Jeremy Mortimer and Jonquil Panting. It's years, for me, from our initial proposal to the afternoon when I am sitting in Studio 60A listening to Niamh Cusack performing the last chapter. This is Joyce's consoling lollipop: a dramatic monologue that doesn't have to be dramatised at all, nothing to do with me, so this bit I can recommend to you with a clear conscience. Niamh is utterly fabulous, and so is Joyce, really. The more we worked on him, the more we dealt with his infuriating, bizarre, wilful, lunatic excesses, the more respect we came to have for him and his bloody great book.

    Robin Brooks dramatised this weekend's adaptation of Ulysses.

    • Visit the Ulysses website and meet the main characters
    • See when the episodes are being broadcast on Saturday 16th June
    • Read Jeremy Howe's blog about celebrating Ulysses on Radio 4.

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