Doone on the ranch

LORNA DOONE. Radio 4. Sundays, 2.20-3.20pm. Rpt Fridays at 2pm. Age range: 12-18

One of the reasons why R D Blackmore's Lorna Doone has never been out of print since it was first published in 1869 is that it's really an English Western. While Dickens and Thackery and Eliot were taking the Victorian novel in all sorts of significant directions, Blackmore constructed a rattling good yarn - with a perfect leading role for Gary Cooper, or perhaps Tom Cruise.

Consider last Sunday's first episode. Doone Valley, out west in Somerset, is dominated by Sir Ensor Doone's family of "murdering brigands", of whom the most notorious is "a very Goliath", Carver Doone. They kill young John Ridd's father and then claim with horrible conviction that it was done in self-defence.

John vows to avenge his father. As a lad he trains himself to shoot and wrestle, survives a rough initiation into horse-riding and daringly visits the enemy territory of Doone Valley, where he meets the beautiful Lorna.

John matures into a young hombre ready to take on the Doones. He rides out to see the local squire (sheriff) but he is too frightened of the Doones to do anything. John knows that Lorna is in terrible danger, adrift in a monstrous clan where "violence and robbery and pain" rule - and he vows to protect her for ever.

Then a stranger rides in, a mysterious messenger who calls John away with a King's Warrant which he cannot deny. So at the end of episode one, the young hero has to leave Lorna "helpless in the cruel hands of Carver Doone". There are two more enjoyable one-hour episodes to go before High Noon eventually comes to Exmoor.

The novel has a timeless, romantic simplicity and this dramatisation serves it well. David Schofield makes John simple and rustic, but with a nice ability to play dumber than he is and his accent stays well clear of Mummerset. Lorna is too perfect and passive a character to be easy to play, but Allison Pettit makes her sweetness bearable.

Even a three-hour dramatisation inevitably means filleting a long novel. But what survives very well is the sense of John's true nobility. He helps to rid society of the antisocial Doones, but he hates to use guns and does not take his chance to shoot Carver. When he becomes Sir John Ridd, he remains true to the simple, domestic virtues he has always espoused. Nevertheless, I did miss perhaps the most famous line in the novel - John's description of Carver's slimy end in Wizard's Slough where "joint by joint he sank from sight". But there's plenty of enjoyable gusto elsewhere in this delightful West Country Western.

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