Nigel Kneale is the quiet, grumpy titan that strides across the background of contemporary British genre fiction. The creator of Quatermass, Kneale’s work is angry, literate and passionately invested in the human condition while remaining totally aware of the damage we do ourselves. If you’ve never read, or heard, him before then you’ve read or heard things inspired by him.
The Road is one of his best pieces and also one of the hardest to find. Erased because the tape it was recorded on was expensive and needed to be re-used (Doctor Who fans of a certain age have just set their jaw and nodded sympathetically) it begins as a story about a haunting in 1768. It ends somewhere very different. Toby Hadoke is staking an increasingly convincing claim to be the Indiana Jones of British genre fiction. As well as his sterling work on Doctor Who, he’s adapted Kneale’s work for radio and the play went live a couple of days ago. It can be found here.
This is phenomenally good. Charlotte Riches’ direction lets the avuncular script, and cast, breathe and pulls some major audio trickery towards the end to vastly successful effect. The cast all turn in top notch work too, managing to do that near impossible thing of suggesting these people have longer stories of their own that the play briefly intersects with.
Mark Gatiss’ Gideon Cobb plays, at first, like a cheerfully boozy detective. Mycroft Holmes at large with a fondness for coffee and a total lack of tolerance for fools because they get in the way of the future he’s desperate to reach. Adrian Scarborough plays Sir Timothy Hassall as a driven, mildly desperate man who wants to understand the world to death even as Cobb wants to ride past it on the way to the future. Lady Lavinia Hassall, played by Hattie Morahan, cleverly balances years of tolerance of her husband with something between curiosity and genuine interest in Cobb. She has, for all her husband’s partially dismembered scientific instruments, a small life. Cobb gives her the chance to see beyond that. Even small roles like Colin McFarlane’s Jethro, Susan Wokoma’s Tetsy, Francis Magee’s Lukey and Ralph Ineson’s Big Jeff register. We meet them all in the middle, meet them all on the road already and that means we understand them straight away.
But we don’t know them, and that’s the genius of Hadoke’s script. As the play progresses, our expectations and the characters’ reality are turned on their heads at about the same speed. Cobb, the performative intellectual, is revealed to be as frightened as anyone else. Sir Timothy’s country mouse becomes far more driven than any of the others, and uncaring of the lines he’s crossing as he pushes on. Lady Lavinia sees her world for what it is not what she’s convinced herself she can live with. Jethro, used as a status symbol by Cobb at the opening, is shown to be far more aware than anyone else of the liminal spaces they occupy. In the middle of the woods and in the face of unknowable peril, Jethro, a black man, is equal to the people who think they own him and he’s the first one to articulate that. Even Tetsy, Lukey and Big Jeff don’t finish where they started. One is revealed to be something more than human and the other two are faced with the same inescapable knowledge as Sir Timothy, Lady Lavina, Jethro and Cobb; that the road goes on, but not forever. And that the only escape they have is from what they see, never the knowledge of it.
This is one of the strongest pieces of audio drama I’ve heard all year and everyone involved is to be commended. The Road is a difficult play to process but an impossible one to turn away from and this is a definitive version for a century rather more in need of it than any of us may like.