BBC Radio 4 Saturday Drama
BBC Radio 4, 4 February 2012
Michael Morpurgo is very much in vogue at the moment, following the phenomenal success of War Horse in the West End and on Broadway, with the subsequent film version produced by Steven Spielberg. His novel Private Peaceful played a significant part in the campaign to obtain posthumous pardons for those soldiers who had been executed by firing squad for desertion in the First World War - even though many of them were suffering from shell-shock at the time.
Simon Reade's radio adaptation told a familiar tale of two brothers, Tommo (Ted Allpress/ Paul Chequer) and Charlie (Harvey Allpress/ Mark Quartley) growing up in a community in rural Devon, being educated at the local school, working on their father's farm; and then deciding to join the army at the beginning of the First World War. Predictably they find the experience of war a hair-raising one - especially when their commanding officers have no real understanding of the realities of trench life. Tommo, who was under age when he joined, tries his best to remain calm but is eventually traumatized with fright; Charlie, on the other hand, is more resourceful, as well as being a stronger personality. He defies his commanding officer Sergeant Hanley (Nicholas Lyndhurst), and is executed for his pains.
What set Susan Roberts' production apart from similar First World War tales was its use of location. Much of it was recorded on location in Iddesleigh, Devon; the village that provided the setting for the book. We heard the familiar of a pre-war farming community, interspersed with more ominous noises - the buzz of an aeroplane flying over, signalling the onset of war. The music (by Coope Boyes and Simpson) comprised a series of folk-songs not only evoking the edenic world of pre-war England, but expressing the frustrations of the ordinary Tommy caught in a war over which he had no control.
By coincidence, in the week leading up to the production Radio 3's Composer of the Week series had focused on Elgar's music composed during the First World War and beyond - evoking an Edwardian world of peace and tranquillity that was brutally destroyed by the war, never to return. I felt much the same while listening to Private Peaceful: the rural Devon community based on tradition and familial stability would never recover from the effects of war.
In a restrospective sequence the local vicar (played by Morpurgo himself) blessed the infant Tommo at his christening, calling on God to protect him throughout his life. Unfortunately this could not help the young man in later life, as he witnessed his brother's execution.
Ingeniously structured, with past and present continually overlapping, Private Peaceful depicted a long-established world torn apart by injustice and suffering.