BBC Radio 7, 21-24 July 2009
This 'load of old Trollope' to quote a phrase memorably bandied about at the time of the BBC television version of the novel, boasted a clutch of memorable performances. Alec McCowen's Harding, diffident in manner, outwardly agreeable yet with an inner steel to his nature, contrasted with the youthful Simon Russell Beale's Slope, an outwardly polite, well-mannered cleric with all the sliminess of a Tartuffe. Rosemary Leach rehearsed her familiar performance as a dominant grande dame riding rough-shod over her husband (David Horovitch), who made such efforts not to offend anyone that he remained virtually silent. Add to that Stephen Moore's bluff, kind-hearted Dr. Grantly, and one can see why Cherry Cookson's production proved such enjoyable listening.
I have not encountered Trollope for over thirty years, not since I wrote a little paper on 'flawed heroes,' implausibly contrasting Slope with Michael Henchard of Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge. Listening to Barchester Towers I was struck by its superficial resemblances to Austen: the bulk of the action takes place in a small country town, involving characters from a restricted milieu whose entire lives revolve around endless social gatherings. This affords them ample opportunity for verbal jousting as well as exploiting one another's social weaknesses. But Trollope wrote half a century after Austen; his world is one where the church struggles to retain its significance in a rapidly-changing world. It is of paramount importance to find out who will be its future leaders, and what visions they might possess for the church's future. Trollope's characterization has a sharp edge to it, as he shows how people like Slope will stop at nothing to achieve their objectives. Barchester Towers might end happily, with Harding turning down the chance to become dean, while welcoming the prospect of marriage for Eleanor (Juliet Aubrey), but we nonetheless wonder how long this idyll will last in an increasingly dog-eat-dog world, where social climbers like Slope gradually assume more and more influence.