On Radio 3: The Carhullan Army

“You won’t like it … but you will remember it” says ‘Sister’ midway through her statement. A week after Radio 3 attracted a bit of attention for making Wuthering Heights all northern, gritty and a bit sweary, Drama on 3 returned to being a bit more low level with a blistering adaptation of Sarah Hall’s challenging novel. It was likewise northern, gritty and a bit sweary. And it was brilliant radio.

As a novel The Carhullan Army is hard to describe. The totalitarian regime of the future is something of a tired trope. Similarly the idea of liberation via female radical collective isn’t necessarily maintained by too many people with a straight face. So a novel whose narrator is called Sister, who escapes a totalitarian brutalised city for a liberation in the hills with a female radical collective shouldn’t work. It does. It is uncomfortable, challenging and never allows the reader to settle. At the end its morality is still impossible to summarise, let alone support. Innocents have been killed without remorse and the revolution has failed.

Perfect for a Sunday evening on Radio 3.

Adapated by Sarah Hall with Dominic Power, Anne-Marie Duff took the lead role and led her police interrogator through the story of her departure from the city, arrival in the group at Carhullan and how said group changed from living free in the hills to militraristic aggressors. The novel’s moral ambiguities – the presence of men, the notions of innocence and complicity – remained and were neatly explored. Some of its more unsubtle elements – the forced submission of women via birth control implant, the perpetual war to distract the masses – did too. As in the novel it made for a uncomfortable but exhilirating mix.

The cast were excellent – I particularly liked Zawe Ashton as Shruti – and the production got its soundscape spot on. The clinical prison of the interrogators and harsh reality of the life in the hills came through excellently. Even the combat scenes sounded right for radio. Overall this came across a production that built on the original novel and added further layers to an already complex and demanding source. A few neat lines made it all nice and current as well. The only downside for me was that the female interrogator came round to sympathising with Sister. It felt wrong and a bit too easy. Someone at that level wouldn’t suddenly become ‘a good nazi’ because yet another prisoner told yet another story. But that’s a minor point. The final line packed the appropriate punch. Such that even when you know it’s coming, it can still take the wind out of you.

Enjoy may not be the right word but I certainly won’t forget The Carhullan Army in a hurry.

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