Nigel Jarrett reviews On The Black Hill, the second episode in BBC Four’s The Read series in which actors give creative performance readings of iconic British novels.
Dichotomies are central to Bruce Chatwin’s novel On The Black Hill. Landowners and tenants, middle-class and rural proletariat, town and country, Anglican and Non-Conformist, stability and uncertainty, men and women – they all represent divergent paths and interests. The resolution of these disjunctions might have been found in the identical twins Benjamin and Lewis, sons of the blunt farmer Amos Jones and his English wife Mary. But beyond the slightly corny telepathy that defines their relationship, they too take different paths, united only in adversity, gene similarity and their father’s description of them as half-wits. The overarching polarity is in Chatwin’s treatment of a subject well known to English literature. It is lyrical, almost visionary, in describing the harsh life down on the farm; or up on the farm as it applies to The Vision, the Jones family’s homestead in the Black Mountains.
On The Black Hill is the second in series one of BBC TV’s The Read, in which actor Callum Scott Howells retails an abridged version of the book – the programme’s an hour long and available on iPlayer – with short, soft-focus enactments but mostly with him reading to camera in wistful, depopulated farm settings and wearing country smart casual. Directed by Luke J. Collins, it cannot be compared, for more than one reason, with Andrew Grieve’s generally sympathetic film version of the book released in 1987 and starring Bob Peck as Amos, Gemma Jones as his wife, and brothers Mike and Robert Gwilym as the twins. The Read‘s reason for being is presumably to get the power of words across to a TV audience, but that concept properly belongs to the medium of radio, where it has a long and compendious tradition. The Read, because of the nature of the medium in which the audience is being addressed, seems unable to sustain the reader-listener format without resorting to illustration; and it’s not resorting at all but gravitating like a magnet to TV’s reason for being.
Be that as it may, we get the killing of a runt in this version, left out of the film, which nonetheless has its share of blood-letting. The twins’ grandfather, surviving like a superannuated farm animal, is in charge of pigs. A runt is at last produced by a hitherto unproductive sow and given to the boys, who call it Hoggage. Amos returns from his daily weather-beating and summarily kills it. The boys never forgive him. Thus, they hate him and they fear him. So, in the end, does Mary, who has had all her genteel ways and ambitions for herself and the boys crushed by her husband’s stubborn will, something even he probably doesn’t understand. Eventually appearing to have been thrown together, they stay together.
The book and the film begin with the twins at eighty, living alone at The Vision and, as ever, sleeping in the same bed. The narrative is then linear. Benjamin is the one walking beneath his own louring cloud. He was sickly, obsessed by death and mother-fixated (she once found him trying on her green velvet skirt); Lewis was as headstrong as his environment allowed, enduring under the stars the possessiveness of his brother and the possibilities, but not much more than that, of female attention. But despite their differences they are a pair and in the end indivisible. Amos never succumbed to doubt, only frustration, and in worrying that his wife was mollycoddling his nincompoop sons and regretting the banishment of his pregnant daughter to the ways and wiles of the world, he was onto something about human nature, in himself as much as in others. He is a good man brutalised by his surroundings.
The Great War and the Second had no problem separating the twins: in the former, Lewis is exempted by the conscription tribunal, Benjamin has to fight. He’s a poor soldier who’s dishonourably discharged and a bit of a wreck, though one suspects that not even Passchendaele, let alone barracks brutality, could have made him more overcast than he already was. As in the film, the war was over by Christmas, or so it seemed. Rosie’s handing of the white feather to Lewis is more detailed in the book as read here, part of a telling description of victory celebrations involving a disabled and symbolic ‘bombardier’ clutching in death the silver cigarette case he received as a gift from the locals to a combatant from the locality. It’s Benjamin’s home-front war experiences that furnish examples of the twins’ sixth-sense psychometry. By this stage in the reading, the visuals are creating an almost idyllic atmosphere at variance with the family’s turmoil but in accord with the book’s almost cosmic expanse, beneath which it’s being played out.
The film departs from the book in other particulars, including the circumstances of Amos’s death and the way the twins survive into the modern world: in the book a jet’s vapour trail ‘bisects’ the sky but in the film the pair are treated to an 80th-birthday flight in a light plane, passing above The Vision and its landscape in a version of Chatwinesque omniscience. Both have Lewis dying in a tractor accident, with Benjamin left to ponder the final unalterable wedge that his brother’s departure brings about.
To repeat, the reading is an abridged version, the film an imaginative adaptation. Where The Read takes away, the screenplay adds inessential value for cinemagoers. Callum Scott Howells reads expressively in a Welsh accent, giving full weight and nuance to snippets of direct speech. I can vouch that it’s not one invariable to Longtown in the lee of the Black Hill, which is a real location and a kite’s flight from The Vision, also real. One wonders if the book’s oscillation between the world of the Lewis farm and the incursions by events and people beyond it, not least the English bohemian Mrs Lambert who on the surface makes a play for Lewis much as Mary had been attracted to Amos, wouldn’t have worked just as well without inflexion. After all, Chatwin sacrificed a fair amount of characterisation to the claims of an overview going well beyond the third-person narrator’s see-all, hear-all knowingness. Even in reduced form, the story’s rustics are less important as agents attracting and deserving of the reader’s sympathies than they are as actors in a cumulative series of episodes rendered vivid and memorable, and seen as part of an all-embracing vastness.
Whether or not The Read, paradoxically, can divert viewers away from pictures and towards word-inspired images of the mind must be debatable. What this episode does is suggest a quiet repose in which a book’s grand events and its constituent happenings can be made of-a-piece that seems awesome and ever-expanding.
You can watch The Read: On The Black Hill via BBC iPlayer.
Nigel Jarrett contributes to Wales Arts Review on music, books and other subjects. He is a winner of the Rhys Davies prize and the Templar Shorts award for short fiction. A former daily-newspaper journalist, he reviews for Jazz Journal and writes a column for it called Count Me In. His sixth book, a fictional memoir titled Notes From the Superhorse Stable, appeared this month from Saron Publishers; later this year, his fourth story collection, Five Go To Switzerland, will be published by Cockatrice Books, based in north Wales. In August he is Author of the Month for the National Library of Wales’s digital libraries project.