Radio 4 is to challenge critics who argue that the BBC is dumbing down by clearing its New Year’s Day schedule for a 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace starring John Hurt and Simon Russell Beale.
In a scheduling move that may appeal to fans of TV boxset binges – but not all regular Radio 4 listeners – the BBC station will shift all programmes apart from The Archers, news bulletins and one other show to longwave between 9am and 9.30pm on 1 January to make way for the Leo Tolstoy adaptation.
Other Radio 4 festive highlights announced on Thursday include a 90-minute Archers special focusing on character Lynda Snell’s Christmas show Blithe Spirit, an adaptation of the Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman novel Good Omens, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby on Desert Island Discs, and the final episode of Cabin Pressure, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
Playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new dramatisation of Tolstoy’s Napoleonic wars epic – described by Radio 4 controller Gwyneth Williams as “arguably the best book ever written” – forms the centrepiece of the station’s Christmas and new year lineup.
Williams said she hoped Radio 4 listeners would “really enjoy” the dramatisation, which will be broadcast in hourly instalments between regular news bulletins, The Archers at 2pm and 7pm, and an early evening comedy.
The bold dramatisation is thought to be the biggest time commitment Radio 4 has ever given a drama. In 1995 the station broadcast an adaptation of Len Deighton’s second world war documentary novel Bomber, featuring Tom Baker . The action played out in real time, interspersed with regular programming across several hours.
Radio 4 also cleared its Boxing Day schedule in 2000 for an eight-hour reading of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by Stephen Fry.
War and Peace took a month to record, with a cast that includes Lesley Manville, on locations such as a hotel in Lewes. It has been made by Pier Productions, the company responsible for the radio adaptation of The King’s Speech, starring Alex Jennings.
Accompanying the broadcast will be online extras including tweets, a family tree, maps, historical trivia and a live running commentary to aid listeners unfamiliar with the book, which Tolstoy insisted was not a novel.
The production will be available on iPlayer and repeated in 60-minute segments over the following 10 weeks on Saturdays.
The BBC is also scheduled to start filming an Andrew Davies TV adaptation of War and Peace in January, which is expected to screen later in 2015. The cast has not yet been confirmed.
Archers fans will get their present on Boxing Day at 2.15pm when the cast presents a show within a show - Noel Coward’s classic, Blithe Spirit – in Ambridge’s first extended Christmas special. Snell, the show’s eccentric busybody and amdram fan (played by Carole Boyd), will assume the role of Madam Arcati in what the BBC promises will be a faithful interpretation of the play. The regular cast will be joined by guest stars, including Julian Rhind-Tutt.
The Radio 4 Christmas schedule also includes the first dramatisation of Pratchett and Gaiman’s 1990 novel Good Omens – described as a “comedy about the antichrist” – starring Mark Heap, Peter Serafinowicz and Josie Lawrence, with cameos by the authors.
The Archbishop of Canterbury will be Kirsty Young’s castaway on 21 December, while actor Ray Winstone appears on 28 December.
Other festive highlights include a special Christmas Day edition of the science panel show Infinite Monkey Cage, with hosts Brian Cox and Robin Ince taking a sideways look at the history of the Bible with Brian Blessed and the Rev Richard Coles.
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