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Dramatising Ulysses

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Clarissa Maycock 14:44, Tuesday, 12 June 2012

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.

Henry Goodman and Niamh Cusack

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    'Ulysses' looks set to be recalled as a fine homage to Joyce, and all the more so-I'm sure, because of the brave pint potness of it's single day.

  • Comment number 2.

    Well, thanks to Melvyn Bragg's insufferable behaviour on today's In Our Time, quite a lot of the intense analysis of this difficult subject the three guests tried to provide got tangled.

    If Lord Bragg wants to take over the discussion and do a solo programme, why bother to engage academic experts?

  • Comment number 3.

    Why waste the whole day on this? If you need to put it on, why not do the abridged version? But then you have already spoilt Saturday's on Radio 4 with the extension of Saturday Live and the loss of distinctive Excess Baggage.

  • Comment number 4.

    I tried to read Ulysses many years ago, like many others I gave up.This radio 4 version is wonderful, I have not yet opened my newspaper, something I do regularly every Saturday, I am so enthralled and do not wish to miss a second of the richness of James Joyce,s work and the pure beauty of lilting spoken Irish. Dare I say I am turned on and only now beginning to understand lust.

  • Comment number 5.

    i've made Finnegans Wake far more readable yet keeping Joyce's words -
    here for an example -


    I've done the whole book if any publisher is interested

  • Comment number 6.

    Thank you for the superb production of Ulysses. I left school at 16 and have had my subsequent hunger for education satisfied, in large part, by Radios 3 and 4. It was an inspired decision to leave gaps between episodes because most of us do have other things we have to get done in the day. Now that I understand it a bit, I would love to hear it again, without the breaks. Productions like this, and In Our Time, and Honest Doubt - lots of which is over my head - make life worth living. Don't let anyone stop you broadcasting difficult, minority-interest stuff. The world - my world - would be so much poorer.


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