BBC Radio Four’s From Russia With Love
The latest adaptation for radio of Ian Flemming’s From Russia With Love, pits James Bond against some pretty imbecilic Russian hoods, as they attempt to undermine MI6 by brining down and trapping Bond in a sex and murder scandal. While Ian Flemming’s fantasy creation of James Bond isn’t a patch on the detailed realism and depth of John Le Carre, and his chief protagonist George Smiley, Bond is still, after all this time, full of brutish charm and a blasé attitude to violence, murder and misogyny.
This third adaptation of a Bond story for BBC Radio Four by Jarvis & Ayres, is superbly dramatised for audio and handsomely cast. While there is some sense of hamming-it-up, it’s clear that the cast relished the chance to perform these roles and tell this story. There is a clear need to achieve a balance between performance, extemporisation and action in the adaptation of a Bond story. In cinematic adaptations the over-blow spectacle rules. In an audio adaptation the director and cast have to achieve a heightened sense of narrative intimacy or danger in the dialogue. This adaptation has a great sense of interaction between some truly larger than life characters.
It’s a pity that Bond is such a shallow character and that his brains don’t kick-in earlier, enabling him to follow some well voiced suspicions that Tatiana might be a double agent. The chances of Bond being led into such a shallow and obvious honey-trap seem obvious. Perhaps this seems more obvious now when we are more familiar with the levels of corruption and destruction wrought by the security services, but which Flemming couldn’t imagine when he was writing in the mid 1950s?
It takes Kerim, Bond’s minder in Istanbul, to voice these fears. Flemming’s story only gives a hint of the risk and associated violence that would be wrought on the heads of a failed agent in the field. It is left to Kerim to reflect on Bond’s willingness to be led by his more physical, sexual urges. This is a world of British gentlemen spies who can’t imagine double bluffs and double agents, and in which the truth of a woman only comes out when she is being made love to in bed.
Directed by Martin Jarvis, who also narrates the story, and adapted by Archie Scottney, there is just enough control and restraint to hint at some pretty terrifying consequences for the players involved in this game. Indeed, Scottney in his well balanced script, draws direct references to chess and gaming, with a vivid analogy of the balanced powers being like a game of billiards – all balls in motion and pre-set rules of engagement. Flemming’s story, however, feels like a warm-up for a much more complex and larger scale game that will carry on once this local skirmish is over – as is pointed out, beyond the confines of the ‘billiard table’.
Bringing this to life is a brilliant cast of performers. Tim Pigott-Smith is larger than life as Kerim, while Eileen Atkins is nothing but viciousness personified. Toby Stephens brings his calm assurance and charm to Bond, who after all is actually a bit thick and is dependent on his quick reactions, the strength of his fist and a lack of scruples with a gun. Jarvis brings this world to life with an unobtrusive and fluid sense of sound design, and while obvious echoes of the Bond theme of the movies is never far away, the world and the story are immersive and very entertaining.