BBC Radio 4 recently dramatized William Morris's 1890s Utopian novel News from Nowhere as part of their Dangerous Visions season, which advertises itself as a series of "dramas that explore contemporary takes on future dystopias." It's odd to find the unabashedly sanguine News under this heading, but if the producers wanted to stage it for a change of pace or because they particularly wanted to work with this text, fine. I'm for abandoning an over-arching structure in a case such as this (i.e. a series of loosely-thematically-connected, discrete pieces) when it isn't doing good work. In fact, if the series' "contemporary takes" framing is what gave us the topical Boaty McBoatface joke in this play's introduction, destined to wither faster than the speed of meme, I feel they could even have broken with that structure a bit more dramatically.
I was not expecting great triumphs from the Dangerous Visions series to begin with. Maureen Kincaid Speller, the editor of this section/a local seller of hot takes and pies, pointed out elsewhere that "the BBC's latest Dangerous Visions season [is] very male, very white, and the big-ticket dramas are mostly adaptations of things that have been done before. I really wouldn't mind a lengthy chat with the programme planners about all the stuff they're missing out." Paul Kincaid, referring to the important 1967 short story collection edited by Harlan Ellison of the same name, observed, "wouldn't it be interesting if they dramatised some of the stories that were actually in Dangerous Visions? Still 50-odd years out of date, but more up to date than most of what they're offering. From the BBC you'd never guess that there were actually one or two science fiction writers out there [now], and some of them were actually female. But then, that might actually be dangerous, and despite the title that is clearly not the BBC's intent."
And that's just it: there is no danger whatever in this play. The original's discussions of class, capitalism, imperialism and sexism are blunted in this retelling, not just for reasons of time but in their very presentation. Why did the adapter, Sarah Woods, or the production staff more generally, make this choice? Was it a fear that mentioning class and capitalism too much would be off-putting for a general audience, or would date the story, causing it to smack too much of either the 1890s or the 1970s, when that kind of language was last in vogue? Was it a feeling that communism as a concept is now too totally owned by "communist" dictatorial states to be seriously mentioned as an option here? Or perhaps a suspicion that too much mention of class would make the BBC, currently struggling to appease a Tory government that aims to dismantle it along with the rest of the UK's post-War commonwealth infrastructure, look partisan and leftist? Because of course the admission that class (race, gender, etc.) has been and is still a driving force in the world is currently inherently politicized.
I can sympathize with some of these issues (though the BBC's now almost decade-long attempt to offer the government its belly doesn't seem to exactly be working out for them—perhaps they are playing a long game); but not really with the end result—which is, here, a play that makes its 1890 source text look far braver and more thoughtful than we're being now. This despite having over a century's additional intellectual labour to work with and build on, and having due distance from Victorian discourses that would conflate poverty with morality and assign variable degrees of worth to human life based on a given subject's class.
We get, at the play's worst, a woolly, platitudinous discussion of materialism and consumerism, stripped of Morris' attempt to discuss these social habits as symptoms of class struggle rather than the causes of our problems. This is fundamentally a less radical, more liberal positioning. If only we restrained ourselves from buying shit we didn't Truly Need! As though that is, for everyone in every class position (even in the developed world), a possible and saleable proposition. As though that is the problem, and a program of action. No one could possibly have understood better than William Motherfucking Morris—infinitely frustrated and deeply socialist maker of artistic home furnishings traditionally crafted by well-paid labourers, which only the rich could afford to purchase—the problems of trying to buy a good life, to live it in and of yourself inside an oppressive system. What else can you ethically do? And yet such efforts are foredoomed, are fundamentally not enough. It's somewhat uncanny to see an adaptation of News from Nowhere that feels at its core relatively uncritical of liberalism as a project, when News believes that even proper Menshevik socialism is itself just a stopgap.
I like that the play tries hard to pull in the 2008 crash and Austerity, which shows some spine. Effectively, it trades Morris' class framing for this contemporary topicality. Possibly this is because of the series' contemporary remit. Though News, which was so on-point for 1890 , suffers, I think, from this sundering from the Victorians. The initial composition date explains details like the original's lack of an "answer" to the position of things like mass communication in the new era—i.e. do people give that (and half a dozen other forms of post-Victorian pleasure or facilitation) up for the novel's altered way of life, and if so, how do they negotiate the attendant drawbacks and what advantages do they gain? The updated text doesn't offer its own answers, though having updated the setting this burden is now more incumbent on it.
Interestingly, 1890 is also the year that the US Census was first tabulated by a sophisticated card-reading device. This inaugurated the era of massive punch-card office machines, the precursors of programmable computers. While reading the book I kept wondering about how this New Age handled its work-assignment logistics, building safety codes and medical care standards, and thinking that was a bit unfair of me, given that in 1890 Morris couldn't have been expected to render a familiar opinion on things like large-scale data processing and virology (the germ theory of disease transmission was only then finally beating out the miasma theory). This doesn't mean I don't have questions about how you find a great open-heart surgeon or do good medical research in the world of News, just that I don't particularly expect the text to be positioned such that it's able to respond to that kind of question.
If the text isn't trying hard to be current simply because that's the Dangerous Visions mission statement, it's possible that the inclusion of so many Austerity Britain sound-bites represents an attempt to energize the play, to make it politically potent for a modern audience and to articulate a position. But I'm not sure this exchange, Morris's classes for the BBC's clips, does achieve political force? The play feels very centred around contemporary liberal activism. Its contentions aren't anything you wouldn't find in a host of liberal-rather-than-progressive news venues, such as the Guardian. Now on the one hand, it's not as though Morris was saying something brand new in News. That was hardly the point. But what he was saying was something developed out of, and positioned firmly in conversation with, progressive doctrines. This adaptation never feels like it believes that there's anything better out there for us than Blairite Labour (or moderate Democrats, or your national equivalent).
To imagine utopia is an act of some vulnerability and bravery. It's easy to consider such a vision impractical, foolish, embarrassing, and hard to think about how perfection would work and how it might be achieved. It can also be easier to criticize others' plans than to make your own. In some ways the convincing happy ending is harder won and less critically respected than the grim and the gritty. This production lacks the imagination and courage necessary to honestly attempt this imaginative task. I feel like the adaptor (or production team, it's difficult to assign agency here) had little investment in this source text, which makes the question of why it appears here, running as it does against this series' general remit, all the more confusing.
There are so many little signs that this is the Guardian reader's comfortable News from Nowhere. The book's (admittedly insufficient) flashes of slightly Dickensian humour (man, does Morris love Dickens) are gone, replaced with a crack about a tool specifically built to get lime wedges into beer bottles. Okay? The whole play feels really self-indulgent. We get a brief, confused paen to the technological gift economy and hipster forms of insecure labour, as if this very adaptation was bothering to say anything about the role or lack thereof of social media et al in this new world, and as if those forms of labour weren't the subject of trenchant and here-unvoiced criticisms regarding their political capacities and effects at present. The crowning moment of wank is what seems to be a short ode to this very series, inserting the title itself into the text. Other people have more stomach for this kind of self-referential gesture and even enjoy it, I know, but as a personal preference, I cannot with it.
The adaptation does less of the original's difficult conceptual work, and is thus both more palatable for a general audience and less "believable," less coherent as a vision of an SFnal society. Gone is the description of (or, since time is an issue, even much of a gesture at) the outright civil war that brought about utopia, and most of the class issues that led to that conflict. We're no longer asked to accept a future world without prisons, and we're no longer asked to think through the consequences of that versus our current arrangements (perhaps a more valuable thought experiment now, in the heyday of the prison-industrial complex, than it was at the time of writing). We no longer have to think about the relationship between art and struggle, as Morris guides us to, or to ask what might follow this period of utopia.
One thing an adaptation might do is answer or engage with a question about the text. There are criticisms to make of News from Nowhere—which is, despite its age, a text that seems surprisingly unembarrassing to modern progressive sensibilities (though believe me, I'm conscious of the awkwardness of demanding that the thinking of someone from another era, with its very different contexts, not fall afoul of current intellectual and expressive trends). And I am dead sure people have made these criticisms from all angles. Political, academic and literary thinkers must all have their ambivalent reception traditions for this work. But this play doesn't feel responsive to any of them.
The original News From Nowhere is a soft-SF utopia fantasy with hints of allegory (a little medieval-inspired, like so much of Morris's output across various media). Utopia and allegory have never been "my genres," for a start (though I'm nonetheless annoyed by the way this weirdly literal version seems to think it's dealing with a character actually named William Guest rather than a time-travelling Morris who doesn't want to give his real name and so lets people call him "guest"). I'm glad to have read the book, but I wouldn't say I like it as a novel per se (it feels more like a long essay than fiction). There are some beautiful lines, but while I read it, trapped overnight in an A&E lobby, experiencing the dismemberment of the welfare state first-hand, I also had David Copperfield in my bag, and I thought "ow," and I also thought "four hours now, bloody Tories, and this is the Ruskin wing too, irony"; but then I thought "I wish I was re-reading David Copperfield instead." News has its merits, but I'll probably never want to reread it in full.
As for this adaptation, I can say far less for it. The play's decision to smoosh two of the book's female characters together, fusing Annie into Ellen, is quite a good idea given the limited time and the need to create a neat arc (Annie was always sort of a dropped stitch anyway). I like the effects used during the discussion of the world market, enlivening what had been a rather slow Socratic passage in the book. But overall I didn't feel the production was as crisp or as good at showing its transitions and conveying the progress of its narrative as many other radio plays. Which was rather a let-down, given that "BBC quality" is something of a byword for competently made radio drama. But in general, it seems as though it'd be difficult to make this work, which is barely narrative enough to be a novel, into a radio play. One of my major issues with News is that it's not really telling a story in its world. I think doing so would make it easier to work through arguments about the nature of people's public and personal relationships, art and education in a post-scarcity environment. I don't expect this adaptation to rectify that lack of story, but it does set the play a fairly difficult task as drama right from the start.
So what about News from Nowhere has been preserved in this adaptation? Certainly none of its wonder (I will non-ironically use "sensawunda" only to indicate that I am being held at gunpoint and that you should not follow my instructions, for it is a trap). Some characters (never sufficiently well-drawn to begin with—I could have done with more particularity there, Will) have been retained, as has the over-arching structure. But not enough of the book's elements, I think, that I would want people to come away with the understanding that this is, essentially, News from Nowhere—to feel that they've been exposed to what's important about, or to the fundamentals of, this text. If the core of News from Nowhere is its argument, this adaptation is making a somewhat different argument, less well, deeply abbreviated and with different priorities. (I get the feeling this adaptation thinks the core of News is the story—but really there isn't much of one?) I would feel annoyed if I hadn't read the book and believed, based on having heard the play, that I basically understood the book's contention or outlines, only to eventually discover that I really didn't. And how often can we say that of an adaptation—that it fails at roughly conveying what the source text is about? Even a bad one? Yet it is interesting what different forms of adaptation can do or "get away with" doing, and how divergent they can be while retaining their relationship to the source material.
The BBC's News from Nowhere isn't really, to my thinking, News from Nowhere. I'm not a purist on that front (I'm certainly not out there moaning that Ran isn't a legitimate Lear or anything), but this play is more "inspired by" than "an adaptation of." It's not an effective presentation of the ideas involved, either in their original or even this bougie reboot form, and so it doesn't really work as a polemic or as conceptual science fiction. It's not particularly compelling drama, either: the play's serviceable at best. So not to be awful, but what was the point of this? Filling up the roster, I assume: producing content for content's sake. Making something people didn't really want or need, just to fill up the rather arbitrary distribution calendar and satisfy the demands of the world market. Thus in a way this isn't just a mediocre News From Nowhere, it is the most fundamental failure to grasp the text and the most egregious conceptual mishandling of it possible. Calling an hour of reading Ayn Rand on air "an adaptation of News from Nowhere" would not necessarily have been a more thorough ideological assault on this book. Now that's ironic.
- There are some misleading generalizations in this article, but it gives you an idea of the book’s relationship to the radical activism of its time. [return]
Erin Horáková is a southern American writer who lives in London. She's working towards her literature PhD, which focuses on how charm evolves over time.
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