Dramatization by Robin Brooks of James Boswell's biography of Samuel Johnson, to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Johnson's birth.
Episode 1: Young Boswell comes to London to seek out his hero. He wants to write a biography of the great man 'in scenes', with Johnson's conversation cast as dialogue. Nothing quite like this has ever been attempted before.
Episode 2: Boswell visits Johnson only intermittently, but relies on him more and more. Johnson meets Hester Thrale, who becomes his devoted friend and confidante, and the most important person in his life.
Starring Kenneth Cranham and full cast. Directed by Claire Grove.
©2013 AudioGO Ltd (P)2013 AudioGO Ltd
Kenneth Cranham does a remarkable job conveying the complex, brilliant, and sometimes tortured personality of Samuel Johnson. Johnson could appear bizarre to people who met him for the first time: he had facial scars and tics and jerky movements, and he rolled around in his chair, unable to sit still; and he had many verbal tics as well, clicking with his tongue, murmuring to himself, blowing out his breath like a great whale. (Some people at first thought he was mentally deficient - until he opened his mouth and started talking.) Cranham captures this semi-Tourettes aspect of Johnson with sound alone, without the benefit of his own (somewhat Johnsonian) body.
The production bills itself as an adaptation of Boswell's Life of Johnson. But it includes other material as well, some of it from Boswell's journals, some of it from accounts of Johnson by his friend Hester Thrale. Inevitably, in such a short production, a lot is missing; but Robin Brroks, who wrote the script, made an intelligent and coherent selection of events. Oliver Goldsmith is here, as are John Wilkes and Hester Thrale, and of course Boswell himself, a self-absorbed rake who initiates his friendship with Johnson with one eye on his own future publishing royalties.
There are a number of dramatic episodes in this quiet scholar's life, most tragically his break with the widowed Mrs Thrale after she decided to marry an Italian dancing master. The audio production ably shows the pain of this sadly self-inflicted breach, leaving Johnson almost alone in London when he felt himself nearing death and terrified of eternal damnation. Cranham's voice during some of these later scenes evokes a horror that gave me chills.
What you won't get from this audiobook - and don't really get a strong sense of from Boswell's own biography - is a clear understanding of why anyone should care about the life of Johnson. He was a great talker, one if the greatest: but more to the point, he was a brilliant writer, one of the best writers of discursive prose the English language has ever had.
But omissions aside, this is a good place to begin.
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