Judith Adams on Adapting Mrs. Mabb for Radio 4

Mrs. Mabb (starring Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’s Bertie Carvel as Captain Fox – remember that this dramatisation came many years earlier than the TV adaptation of JS&MN!) is currently airing on BBC Radio 4 Xtra today at 11:15am.  It should be available to play on catch-up after airing.  The official programme web site can be found here.


FoEM’s Interview with Judith Adams on adapting Mrs. Mabb

Many, many thanks to Judith Adams for taking the time to answer these questions.  I was deliberately ambiguous with the last question because adapting any form of literary work for a performance is a tricky task (and something I’m personally very curious about).  Judith answers it superbly.

Judith’s web site can be found here.

Martyn:  What made you want to adapt Mrs. Mabb for the radio?

Judith: Ah – the easy one. I was rung up by the BBC producer Elizabeth Allard and asked if I’d consider writing a proposal for Mrs Mabb with her (all radio plays have to go though several complex stages before commission (or rejection)). Liz had done some Clarke readings, and noted this one as a good case for dramatisation.  I hadn’t read any Susanna Clarke at the time, so went away and read all the collection plus Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.  Immediately fell for her wonderfully unique style and wit and erudition. Also warmed to the links with Austen and Ursula le Guin, and the two forms of magic she was exploring  – the natural and man-made.

Martyn: Why Mrs. Mabb in particular?

Judith: Because it was what I was asked to do. And when I read it, I felt its dramatic shape at once: the threes, the characters, the richly textured setting – the tone of narration.

Martyn: Were there any other stories from The Ladies of Grace Adieu that you were thinking of adapting?

Judith: No. I focused on this, while using knowledge of the others and of the big novel, to inform my approaches to it. However, while we were working on it we realised it would be great fun to do more of her work – especially JS&MN. The question became academic, however, when a film company bought up all the rights. We were lucky to have got Mrs Mabb in under the wire, and had to be careful to remove all obvious references to the other stories (sadly). It puzzles me that film companies don’t see the profound differences between the media – and the potential to advertise through proliferation of story awareness. The people who heard MM on radio would surely be fascinated to see it on film too. Ownership, law and art are uneasy bed-fellows. But that’s life.

Martyn: What challenges presented themselves while writing the script?

Judith: It was a joy to do. The two strongest ideas I had from the start – to use the narration as Mabb controlling the drama secretly and being revealed slowly as the main protagonist, and tying this up with giving the other “silent” character, Mr Hawkins, an equally magical role in the unfolding and denouement – gave it a real trajectory for me. Susanna had pretty much done the rest of the work. Liz gave excellent, useful and detailed reflections throughout the process.The biggest challenge was cutting the finished script – so many lovely scenes had to go to fit the time slot.

Martyn: Did Susanna offer any suggestions during the writing process?

Judith: No. I worked directly with the producer and the text. I try very, very hard to catch the tone and personality of the writer I am dramatising – because once the rights are bought, the source writer has no influence unless it’s specifically negotiated. As a writer myself, I am very aware of trying to be truthful to their voice and intentions. As is everyone I work with at the BBC.

Martyn:  What did she think of the final presentation?

Judith:  To my utter joy, she wrote to say she and her agent both loved it, particularly the Hawkins idea at the end. It was so wonderful to feel we had entered her world enough for her to pay us such a terrific complement. George Eliot has stayed very quiet about my attempts to do the same with Middlemarch and Mill on the Floss.

Martyn:  Did you have specific actors/actresses in mind while writing?

Judith: It’s my job to leave that to the producer. But it was delightful that Jasmine Hyde was cast – she’d been Maggie in my Mill on the Floss. The whole cast were a delight – and Emma Fielding’s narration/ Mrs Mabb had me in a delirium of joy with its rich tones and layers of supreme intelligence.

Martyn: The narrative is quite different from that in written form – what made you feel that Mrs. Mabb would make the best “voice” for the narrator?

Judith: Not sure what you mean by the narrative: story? or voice of narrator?  If story – then the translation from page to 3D (be that stage or listener’s imagination) is of its essence a necessary invocation; like a cut-out picture book when the scene folds up. One has to take the linear and think and lift up the words spatially. Beyond that – I think this version stuck pretty close to the written tale. It was inherently dramatic, having a lot of superb dialogue.

If voice of narrator – it’s a personal choice. I’m always uneasy with voices from outside the world of the story – I like the narrator to have a reason for narrating, or else it  sounds to me like some random (and annoying) deity. The voice of the narrator sits easily in a book written by one hand, I feel, but in a drama I prefer a whiff of drama in all the voices; an investment in the tale and its outcome.

This particular lead role – the silent but powerful woman pulling all the strings and pitted against Mr Hawkins – both silent in the action -gave, for me, a powerful retrospective tension to the whole show.