❉ One of the great missing masterpieces of British television, The Road is rising again at long last, in the form of a new BBC Radio 4 adaptation written by Toby Hadoke.
“The Road is a piece that’s known because of this brilliant genre concept, but actually what most of the play is about is two very well-drawn characters sparring with each other against the backdrop of a haunting. Kneale does that so well and you don’t need Hadoke to mess with it.”
Just over 55 years since it was broadcast, on a Sunday night in September 1963 just after Songs of Praise, The Black & White Minstrel Show and an episode of Perry Mason, Nigel Kneale’s BBC TV play The Road continues to exert an uncanny power. It’s particularly extraordinary given that no-one has actually seen it since. It fell victim to the BBC’s eager tape-wiping policy and no copy is known to exist. An Australian TV version was made in 1964, but that hasn’t survived either.
What has survived though is Kneale’s script and The Road‘s towering reputation. It’s regularly cited as one of the great missing masterpieces of British television and there have already been several abortive attempts to get it remade. This Halloween season, though, The Road is rising again at long last, in the form of a new BBC Radio 4 adaptation written by Toby Hadoke.
What’s more, the adaptation makes a virtue of staying as faithful to Kneale’s script as possible. Hadoke says: “I thought it was important for there to be a lot of original Kneale in there. As an archive fan and somebody curious about the television version, I would be disappointed if I listened to it and found that it didn’t bear much resemblance to the original apart from the basic premise. There was a radio version of Kneale’s The Stone Tape [in October 2015] and I listened to that and thought it was very good, but it was totally different to the original. The set-up, the characters, everything. That was a different commission, though. Because we were recreating something lost, I felt we had a duty to preserve much of what was lost.”
For many We Are Cult readers, The Road will need no introduction and the uninitiated are advised to stay that way until they hear the new radio version. Suffice it to say that in terms of its setting alone, The Road is remarkable as it’s Kneale’s only original period piece. The setting is a remote village in 1768, as well as the nearby woods. The themes involved, though, are Kneale favourites: superstition clashing with reason, and the past colliding with the present. Oh, and it’s all seriously unsettling. Strange things are afoot in those woods – though in an interview with the News of the World to promote The Road back in 1963, Kneale insisted: “One thing I never do is put something in a plot just to frighten the customers. Any effects like fear are demanded by the story. It’s not proper to try to horrify the lights out of people. One uses the unknown to stimulate people’s thinking. And one points things out.”
In terms of how he’s gone about adapting Kneale’s TV script, Hadoke says “this is choppier, because it’s radio so you go back and forth. I’ve done a bit more ‘haunting in the woods’ stuff to introduce it more like a traditional ghost story. I’ve had to cut the number of characters down, too. With telly in those days, you could have quite big casts. We were limited in the size of cast that we could have, so a few characters got consolidated, at no great loss I think. Actually it really helped with the clarity of it and to slightly dilute the ‘terrified yokel’ stuff that might seem a bit of a push with the sort of characterisation we’re more used to nowadays. So there have been consolidations, there has been a bit of trimming. I’ve added in a sort of sub-plot, but large bits of the dialogue and all the characters are the same. Some of the characters are so well-drawn and some of the lines are so brilliant that I think it would be an act of monumental arrogance on my part to change them.”
Sometimes there’s a risk that Kneale’s reputation as a great ideas writer can obscure the fact that he knew exactly what he was doing with characters and dialogue too. “He was very good at character and this is a character piece,” Hadoke says. “It’s an argument between two men who have very different ideas and whose input into the plot is one of the most surprising elements. The ostensible goodie and the ostensible baddie are actually both responsible in their different ways for the terror that is unleashed, which is very clever.” You’ll need to listen in to discover which is which, but the two lead characters are local squire Sir Timothy Hassall (Adrian Scarborough) and visiting London intellectual Gideon Cobb (Mark Gatiss). Hadoke says, “The Road is a piece that’s known because of this brilliant genre concept, but actually what most of the play is about is two very well-drawn characters sparring with each other against the backdrop of a haunting. Kneale does that so well and you don’t need Hadoke to mess with it.”
Around eighteen months ago, having received acclaim for his own original radio dramas, Hadoke put in a pitch to Radio 4 to adapt Kneale’s script. It was just one of a number of proposed adaptations, including a collaboration with regular Doctor Who writer Peter Harness. It’s the nature of any proposed BBC radio drama project that it will need to get past various stages and gatekeepers. “It was a chancey pitch that I got away with,” Hadoke says. “A lot of this stuff is just very speculative so you throw in lots of ideas in two-line form. Then, for various reasons, different things fall by the wayside and to my surprise this was the one that carried through. I certainly didn’t expect The Road to be the one, but I’m very happy it was. We weren’t sure what the situation was with the rights so that could have been complicated, but it turns out it wasn’t. Then we had to get the project OKed by the Kneale estate, which we thought would be complicated and it turned out it wasn’t particularly. Then they had to OK me as the writer and then they had to OK the script, so every time there’s a potential hurdle, and usually a potential hurdle is a hurdle for a reason and you fall over it. When things get complicated, they need excuses not to make stuff, because there’s only so many slots. So I kept expecting it to fail because none of it was straightforward. I was waiting for the call to go ‘no, it’s not happening’ – and it just never came. Then it was like, ‘right, we’re doing it!’.”
Produced by Charlotte Riches for BBC Radio Drama North, Hadoke’s version of The Road was recorded at the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios in London on 1 February, with an extra day’s recording at MediaCity in Salford on 23 February. “In London we had one long day. We got a really good cast and the price of that is that nobody’s ever available at the same time. It was supposed to be a two day recording. We used the second day to do stuff in Manchester and we mucked about with the resources slightly. So that we could afford to do it, instead of everyone coming to us in Manchester, me, Charlotte the producer and Emily [Demol, production assistant] all went down to Maida Vale. We were free to go ‘we’ve got a bit of an illustrious project here, let’s cast as big as we can, especially as we’re only going to have one day’. You can push it a bit because you’re not paying everybody for two days, so we got an amazing cast.”
Amongst the cast, playing Lady Lavinia Hassall, is the marvellous Hattie Morahan, a choice that has a particular poignancy as her late father Christopher Morahan directed the original 1963 TV version. Nor is Morahan the only echo of the past here. The radiophonically-treated effects from the original, recorded at BBC Lime Grove’s Studio R on 1 September 1963, have been unearthed from the archives and pressed into service. “[Radiophonic Workshop archivist] Mark Ayres uncovered the original sound effects tape and I sent it on to Charlotte the producer. She listened to it and went ‘my god, that really spooked me out – we’ve got to use some of that’. So we have, and I think that’s a perfect piece of symmetry, that we’ve been able to feature some of the original radiophonic sounds.”
Having heard the finished radio play, We Are Cult can confirm that Hadoke and co have honoured Kneale’s original work with very evident love and respect and the result is something special. If you’ve ever longed to experience The Road, this is your chance.
❉ The Road will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 2.30pm on Saturday 27 October and available via BBC iPlayer shortly after.
❉ During the broadcast a special live listening event, followed by an audience Q&A with Hadoke, will be held at HOME in Manchester as part of the Film Fear festival: https://homemcr.org/film/listening-event-nigel-kneales-the-road/
❉ Image credits: © Tricia Yourkevich/BBC