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THE PRISONER OF ZENDA by Anthony Hope
BBC Radio Dramatisation
Starring Julian Glover, Nigel Stock and Martin Jarvis.
Sometimes titles are so memorable, so vivid you feel know the story already. Sometimes they’re the best thing about it. I wonder if Prisoner of Zenda has been afforded ‘classic’ status and been adapted for film and television so much, not because it rises above the pulp trappings of other novels printed around the same time but because it has a interesting and evocative title. So what can we make of this radio adaption?
I doubt if feminism was a word in the common lexicon when Anthony Hope wrote his novel so there are no decent roles for the women of the fictional Germanic kingdom of Ruritania, except the countess Flavia, a love struck plot device.
This is a 100 minute full cast adaptation of the classic, and archaic novel. The Prisoner of the story’s title is the soon-to-be-crowned Prince Rudolf who is the spitting image of a tourist to the country, Rudolf Rassendyll, even down to their distinctive red hair. They first encounter each other whilst the prince is out hunting but this chance meeting is fortuitous because his rival, Black Prince Michael tries to prevent his cousin from attending the coronation first by drugging him, then by kidnapping him and holding him in castell come fortress at Zenda. Rassendyll must attend the coronation and be crowned king and continue with the impersonation until the royal personage can be rescued: if he doesn’t Black Michael can use the no-show to highlight how his cousin is unfit for high office. It’s an intriguing and involving tale built on a huge coincidence. Though perhaps not one for feminists.
The men are all honourable swordsman types, socially gifted aristocrats or utter cads, while there are really only two parts for women; the insubstantial Madame, who wishes to protect Black Michael from ascending the thrown (out of fear that his power would see him find someone else) and Countess Flavia, your classic princess; reserved, well spoken and honest. Both thinly characterised purely by their devotion to the men in their lives.
It is when this play strays from the bearable political machinations to the love story between Flavia and the imposter king that things became trying, for me. All the great and grand proclamations of love become ever more elaborate as the play goes on. What plays in the book as something delicate and mostly unspoken is ground down to two haughty people telling each other how they feel in increasingly over the top ways. I’m a bit of a sucker for a love story but this subplot is not a love story. He’s infatuated because she looks terrific in a frock, and he’s the king. They’ve got nothing in common, and actually he isn’t the king. Price Rudolf himself is a womanising, wine drenched fop but the moment the crown gets plonked on “his” bonce she believes he’s suddenly changed by responsibility. The story here is that she loves Rassendyll (not the prince) but can never know for sure. In the book its all sparkly eyed looks and star crossed admiration. Here it’s grotesque parody that doesn’t even realise it’s parody.
Romantic subplots are meat and drink for melodrama such as this, so really I have criticised this for being what it is however the over the top lovey-wovey stuff did wear me down and obscured the body-double element of the story, which is the main thrust of the narrative, and the apparent threat from Michael. In this radio play he is a slightly more sympathetic than the character in Hope’s book. Here, he is shown to have loyal subjects among the people, and though he is a cad, may be a benevolent and capable one. It almost lends pathos to his plot to gain the throne, but not quite. Given a slightly stronger emphasis, this adaptation might have found a new angle with which to approach the character, to make him more than just resident moustache twirling baddie. He’s just an archetype, but then in fairness so are all the characters.
Flavia, your archetypal breathless damsel, Rassyndyll the typical swashbuckling hero, albeit a reluctant one and the King’s right hand men, Colonel Sapt and Fritz Von Tarlenheim are the sound council and loyal soldier archetypes respectively. Zenda, whilst set in a believable grown-up world, is really a fairytale. Kidnapped princes, sieges, castles moats, derring-do – it’s all here. If that’s the bag that you’re into, you’ll have a lot of fun with this.
Nigel Stock plays Colonel Sapt, is always a reassuring presence in any production, as is Julian Glover the famous film and stage actor who lifts the clichés of the script yet still fails to make us believe he really loves Flavia, as opposed to merely infatuated. That’s not Glover’s fault though.
So is Zenda more than just an enticing title? As you’d expect from a BBC Radio production, this play boasts fine performances and high production values. Zenda, like Rassendyll prompts us to ask ourselves what’s in a name. So, if you’re in the market for some classic romance and adventure melodrama then this is fine fare . You may even enjoy it more than I did.
You can download The Prisoner of Zenda or listen online at radioechoes.com
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Copyright Martin Gregory 2020