Bold programming by the powers-that-be at Radio 4 meant it was possible to listen to all seven episodes of Ayeesha Menon’s adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in a single day on Tuesday, exactly 70 years since independent India was born, and Pakistan created. Four and three-quarter hours of meticulously crafted drama (directed by Tracey Neale and Emma Harding) ingeniously slotted into episodes of different lengths throughout the day, some just 15 minutes, others a full hour (the adapter having to create and sustain pace in a variety of ways to suit the different lengths).
Such cavalier treatment of the schedule would have been unthinkable a few years ago; there’d have been an outcry from listeners following any attempt to do away with a weekly favourite, even if just for that day. But we’re all so used to digital flexibility now, gorging ourselves whenever we want on boxed sets and downloads. And the compression works really well for radio drama, and especially for such a rich and complex narrative, not just a family story but an attempt to draw in fiction a portrait of real events, and their continuing impact. If listened to in such a concentrated way, there’s no time to forget what’s just happened. The atmosphere is sustained between each episode, the narrative momentum enhanced. The mind keeps thinking about it, playing around with the ideas that have popped up unbidden while listening. The day is spent thinking not just about Rushdie’s characters and what happened to them but also to the broader play of the events of late 1947 and their impact, not just on the subcontinent. Drama becomes a portal, a way in to history.