The Eustace Diamonds radio adaptation

The wonderful Rose Tremain, author of Merivel, has written a piece for the Vintage blog about her radio adaptation of The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope. It has been adapted into three parts for Radio 4, the first of which will be broadcast on December 23rd. 

A diamond necklace; a feisty young widow; a vengeful lawyer; a Scottish castle; two disreputable jewellers; a lover torn between two women…

These are the beguiling ingredients of Anthony Trollope’s great novel, The Eustace Diamonds, which I have adapted in three parts for Radio 4, the first of which will be broadcast on December 23rd, directed by Gordon House.

Like many classic novels, this story turns on a very simple premise. A beautiful 23 year-old widow, Lizzie Eustace, is determined to hold onto the sumptuous diamond necklace she declares was given to her by her late husband. The Eustace family, urged on by their lawyer, Mr Camperdown, are equally determined to take it away from her, declaring that the jewels are a family heirloom, to which Lizzie has no entitlement. The book asks the question: what is to become of a young woman alone in a man’s world? Will that world destroy her, or will she win through?

For all that it has a simple core idea, the plotting of the novel is complex, so it was a colossal gift to be given just short of three hours for the transfer to radio drama. The word ‘serial’ is music to all adaptors’ ears. This form enabled me to do justice to Lizzie’s tempestuous emotional and moral journey, as she wrestles with alternative futures and entertainingly alternating states of cowardice and bravery. 

To play Lizzie, Gordon found a rising star called Pippa Nixon, who’s about to play Rosalind at the RSC. The core problem with radio drama is that performances have to be realised almost instantaneously, with the scantiest of rehearsal time. There is no opportunity for the slow burn. This – as I know from 25 years of writing for radio – can sometimes mean that even the most reliable and starry of actors can turn in second-rate performances. But, with Gordon’s never-failing help, Pippa burned brightly from the first hour of the first day. She’s captured with wit and flare the character’s essential contradictions. Lizzie Eustace is both vamp and villain. With the vamp comes, of course, a winning sweetness; with the villain, a surprising hardness of heart.  

In Pippa’s performance, we are wonderfully entertained by both modes.

I shall admit that I think that I loved Lizzie more than her creator did. Trollope can’t resist pointing out to us that there is ‘something terrible’ about his heroine. My adaptation firmly suggests that Lizzie’s faults (and she has many) arise from her admirable determination to stay afloat in a sea of trouble. Though Trollope purists may accuse me of being too kind to Lizzie, I think that I was actually right to be so. If the audience doesn’t warm to this heroine, then the drama fails.

We enjoyed six entertaining and good-natured recording days, both in the Essential Music studio and on location at Charterhouse, in the Barbican. David Chilton and Lucinda Mason Brown were exceptional studio engineers.  Pippa was admirably supported by a lovely cast, all in fine form.  Joseph Kloska, Jamie Glover and Malcolm Sinclair particularly impressed me and there was a touch of sheer genius from Alison Pettitt. Directors, go grab these actors now!

© Rose Tremain 2012