Live And Let Die Radio Play Review
19th May 2019
Matthew Kresal listened to the new Javis & Ayres radio play starring Toby Stephens
On something of a regular basis since 2008, Jarvis & Ayres Productions has been making its way through the Ian Fleming Bond novels, adapting them into radio dramas for broadcast on BBC Radio 4. From in 2008 to in 2018, they have presented an opportunity not only for more faithful adaptations of works such as 'Moonraker' and 'Diamonds Are Forever' but also for actor Toby Stephens to play the role of 007 numerous times. Spring 2019 saw the broadcast of their eighth adaptation, one that saw them tackling Fleming's sophomore novel 'Live And Let Die'.
Of the original dozen Bond novels, there is (with perhaps the exception of 'The Spy Who Loved Me') none more controversial than this 1954 outing. Viewed from a perspective 65 years after its original publication, the casual racism and at times stereotypical portrayals of non-white characters are just as likely to jump out at modern readers as the pivotal moments of the plot. That Fleming also seemed to buy into what was for the time a widely held view that the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement was a communist front (as noted by biographer Andrew Lycett in the 1990s), something which he worked into the plot, is also an issue. All of which is something that the 1973 film starring Roger Moore dealt with but, with another four decades on from that film and with the reputation of these audios for being faithful adaptations, it was hard not to wonder how it would deal with the issue.
The answer is with a slight change of emphasis. There's no getting around the fact that Mr. Big and his organization is made up of those of African descent and to change that would likely negate attempting to adapt the novel at all. What this radio adaptation does is move the emphasis from their race to their criminal actions and their working alongside Bond's enemies behind the Iron Curtain. Archie Scottney, having scripted all but one of the previous adaptations, once more proves himself adept at bringing the Fleming books to life both faithfully and for a 21st-century audience. Perhaps it's something that the Eon film team could learn a thing or two from?
The drama also subverts it by doing something that Live And Let Die film screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz suggested back in the 1970s: changing the ethnicity of its female lead. Rutina Wesley, perhaps best known to audiences from her roles in TV series such as Hannibal and True Blood, proves to be inspired casting for the part of fortune teller Solitaire, bringing a sense of world-weariness to the character. That her and Stephens’ Bond have some charming scenes and chemistry together further cements the casting, as does Scottney retaining much of the original lines written in the novel. It's a perfect example of how a slight change in emphasis helps the adaptation remain at once faithful and fresh.
That it manages to be so faithful is also in the production's favor. Though elements of the novel have shown up on screen not just in the film that shares the book's title but also in 'For Your Eyes Only' and 'Licence To Kill', it is indeed a pleasant experience to hear everything presented all in the same place and in the right order. That's especially true of the confrontations between Bond and Mr. Big or the sequence in which 007 investigates the Ouroborous Worm and Bait Shop, avenging Felix's shark attack in the process. There's perhaps no sequences of more interest to Fleming fans than that of the swim to the villain's island and the climactic keelhauling of Bond and Solitaire behind the yacht Secatur, both presented here in all of their tense glory via the combination of actor's performances and sound design. Martin Jarvis (who once more directs) also steps in from time to time in the role of Fleming, acting as a narrator to get across details and even bits of the author's prose that would otherwise be lost. Though there are places where the production feels a little too condensed (such as Bond's escape from Big's henchmen in Harlem which ends up relayed in a phone conversation rather than being portrayed), the overall effect is a solid dramatization of the novel.
It's also worth noting that, with this being his eighth time playing the character, Toby Stephens has now played the role more times than any of his on-screen counterparts. Despite that fact, the man who brought us Gustav Graves in 'Die Another Day' always seems to find something new to bring out in his performances as Bond. In the case of 'Live And Let Die', there's a more vicious streak at times that brings forth the "blunt instrument" description of the character that Fleming used on occasion. Nowhere is that more apparent than in his dealing with the Robber in the aforementioned scene at the Ouroborous. And yet, there's also a certain lightness to Stephens’ depiction of the character as well which leads to some genuine laughs such as the various interactions over the phone with John Standing's M with them keeping up the pretense of being uncle and nephew. Even after more than a decade in the role, it's something that there remains new aspects of 007 for the actor to bring out.
As a result, Live And Let is yet another successful production from Jarvis & Ayres. Indeed, it also means there are only four novels (Casino Royale, The Spy Who Loved Me, You Only Live Twice, and The Man With The Golden Gun) that they have yet to tackle. Anyone of which will undoubtedly make for interesting listening but, for now, fans can enjoy this latest outing and discover Fleming's 1954 adventure all over again.
Live And Let Die was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 4th May 2019, at 14:30 BST.
James Bond…..Toby Stephens
Mr Big…..Kevin Daniels
‘M’ …..John Standing
Tee-Hee…..Michael A. Shepperd
Whisperer/Blabber….. Lovensky Jean-Baptiste
Quarrel…..Ron Cephas Jones
‘The Robber’…..James Morrison
MC/Maitre d’…..Gilbert Glenn Brown
Connie/Operator…..Anna Louise Plowman
Mrs Stuyvesant…..Anna Mathias
Voice of Ian Fleming…..Martin Jarvis
Other parts: Darren Richardson, Alan Shearman, André Sogliuzzo, Matthew Wolf
Written by Ian Fleming
Dramatised by Archie Scottney
Sound Design: Mark Holden
Specially composed music: Mark Holden and Julian Nicholson
Producer: Rosalind Ayres
Director: Martin Jarvis
A Jarvis and Ayres production for BBC Radio 4
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