A delightful walk through the Park

16th May 1997 at 01:00
Mansfield Park. Radio 4 Sundays May 18 - June 1, 2.30-3.30pm. Age range:14+.

Bernard Adams hears a Jane Austen novel on radio as good as any on TV.

Rakish Mr Crawford fancies Fanny Price like mad. Considerate Edmund Bertram asks if she has noticed. "I was sensible of a particularity," answers Fanny with wonderful propriety. Propriety is very much to the fore in this splendid dramatisation of Mansfield Park, which mixes liveliness and seriousness in just the right proportions.

In Jane Austen's original there's a lot of moral prize-giving, and the dialogue is sometimes sparse. But its spirit is cleverly rendered on the radio through an authorial voice (Hannah Gordon) and by giving the main characters short soliloquies - more like confidences imparted to the listener - in which they vent the turbulent private feelings which lie behind their social facades.

Bound together by energising splashes of music (composed by Andrea Gomez), all three episodes bubble along as Fanny's understated and excitingly proper love story exerts an increasing grip on the listener. Fanny is played by Amanda Root with a diffidence which almost becomes wimpishness, but she gives her an appealing, low-key determination as the story progresses.

From the very start, Jane Austen has set a series of moral tests for her characters. When Fanny is rescued from poverty by her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram (the excellent Michael Williams), and taken to live at Mansfield Park, he and Lady Bertram fail Test One: they do not treat her the same as their natural daughters, Julie and Maria. But their son, Edmund (Robert Glennister), passes the test by being considerate, kindly and brotherly towards Fanny.

Sir Thomas has to go away to the West Indies on business and another moral test looms: should the family indulge in in-house theatricals with two new friends, Mary and Henry Crawford, while the head of the household is away? Everyone except Fanny thinks it's okay, but when Sir Thomas returns unexpectedly just before the play begins he disapproves mightily. The theatricals are called off and Edmund - who is destined for the Church - admits his moral error to Fanny.

All these dilemmas occur in the first episode, and so it goes on with every tiny action and speech minutely weighed. Later on there is a horrifying scene when Henry Crawford (Andrew Wincott) proposes to Fanny, and Sir Thomas Bertram tries blackmail and browbeating to persuade her that it's her duty to marry someone she feels is "by education, nature and habit" totally unsuited to her.

This theme of the powerlessness of the dependent female runs right through the whole story. Fanny is shackled by obligations she feels to her adoptive family.

More interesting social and moral distinctions come up in the last episode, when Fanny goes back to her Portsmouth roots and we are presented with her noisy, disorderly, book-less blood-family who make her long for the civilisation of Mansfield Park. This is dangerously near social snobbery, but Austen unapologetically feels that domestic order is the base-line for enjoying the finer things of life.

Like all Austen's heroines, Fanny has to endure long trials before finding happiness and the proper mate. In this dramatisation the journey is a continuous delight, and Sue Wilson's production makes this Mansfield Park as good as any of the recent screen Austens. Radio and Miss A are - in the right hands - made for each other. The costume department of the mind can be even better than the BBC's.

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