Classic Serial on BBC Radio 4
BBC Radio 4, 2-16 September 2012
Memorably filmed in 1939 with Henry Fonda in the title role, The Grapes of Wrath recounts the experiences of the Joad family, who migrate from Oklahoma to California in search of work during the Great Depression.
Kirsty Williams' production comprised a series of discrete episodes, designed to focus on the famly's reactions to adversity. Economic hardship had hit them hard, both financially and personally; they had little or no self-esteem - especially when they arrived in California, only to discover that they were nothing more than "okies," or vagrants. Basically a gregarious family - Ma (Michelle Fairley) was always willing to share food and time with strangers - they now discovered that no one would accept them.
However the prevailing tone was not always pessimistic. By travelling out of Oklahoma state Tom (Robert Sheehan) violated his parole; nonetheless Pa (Steven McNicol) vowed to look after him through thick and thin. Little Rosashan (Melody Grove) became bored very easily, especially during the twelve-day trek across America; however Ma made every effort to buoy her spirits up with the promise of food, even if there was very little to go round. Although becoming increasingly desperate as the prospects of work or future prosperity decreased, Tom came to understand how his family provided a necessary source of moral as well as emotional support. Adversity brought them closer together; even if they had nothing else, they had each other.
At the same time director Williams suggested that the Depression had transformed America into a dog-eat-dog world in which only the fittest survived. No one wanted to know or to help the Joads: the Californian police refused to let them pitch their tents, even for one night, while the townsfolk formed vigilante groups to keep the okies from crossing the boundaries. Their wanton brutality was suggested by their vocal tones - rough, uncouth, full of staccato phrases - that contrasted with the softer, more relaxed delivery of the Joads.
Sometimes the American accents seemed a little forced, but nonetheless this classic serial communicated the greatness of Steinbeck's text. It might be set in a particular historical period, but its portrait of a family trying to survive can be appreciated by everyone.