Morris’ work is an earnest political treatise from beginning to end, and no credible adaptation of his novel can be anything but steeped in the exploration of his philosophical ideals. This new audio version puts those optimistic political themes at the centre of the story; providing an effective counterpoint to the dystopian preoccupations of the majority of the dramas in the Dangerous Visions strand.
This reworking of Morris’ tale retains its essential premise (protagonist William Guest finds himself mysteriously transported into a utopian future London), but resituates the drama’s kick-off point in the present day. A group of activists are preparing for a huge demonstration in the capital, the harbinger of a general strike that could topple the government. Making his way along the Thames, Guest finds himself projected forward to 2100; where the river is teeming with salmon, attractive new homes have spread along its banks, and London has become a garden city. These are just hints of the complete social revolution that has transformed the capital and the lives of its inhabitants.
Guest meets residents of the new free city, whose lives are so unlike those of his own time. People collaborate rather than compete, because they prefer to; engage in work and labour, as they recognise the need to produce and provide; and find meaning and value in the direct control of their own lives.
Guest is amazed and inspired by the changes he has seen (the image of the Houses of Parliament having been turned into a manure store is one of Morris’ most memorable). Later he travels out of the capital to witness the changes that have taken place in the countryside (a rural idyll that complements the urban). While he learns that, even in this new society, humans remain imperfect and flawed creatures, he finds genuine contentment and a sense of true happiness. Despite his desire to stay, he is pulled back into the present day; where he recognises the how much struggle will be required to bridge the chasm separating the world as it is from the world as it might be.
The drama is rooted in the contemporary ‘real world’ by the inclusion of extracts of actual speeches by politicians including prime ministers Gordon Brown and David Cameron, party leaders Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband and chancellor George Osborne.
In a further reworking of Morris’ original tale, Guest learns of the events that led to this twenty-first-century social revolution. As Britain plunged into an era of recession, food banks and austerity, protests grew. After thousands of protesters were gunned down during a demonstration in Trafalgar Square, the outcry fuelled further revolt and the stirrings of a parallel counter-society. “We still told dystopian stories and made films about the apocalypse. Dangerous visions, prefiguring the breakdown of the world market”, Guest is told, by the reminiscing Old Hammond. But as resistance multiplied and spread: “The death knell for capitalism had sounded”.
This revisiting of News from Nowhere is thoroughly contemporary (Morris would have been bemused by references to ‘clicktivists’ and Boaty McBoatface in the opening segment), but Guest’s imaginary journey is recounted in a style broadly in line with the original.
Dramas based on utopias are often difficult to give life to, because the sense of contentment and equilibrium can rob any story of tension and conflict. Morris solved this problem continuing to focus on the irreconcilable differences between the world he inhabited and the one he wished to see ushered in. Sarah Woods’ adaptation retains a focus on that central conceit.
Morris’ determination to set out his manifesto means that his characters can often be little more than ciphers for his ideas, but the cast do their best to flesh out their roles into three dimensions and escape the fate of the propaganda caricature. Ron Cook, in particular, acquits himself well as the egalitarian everyman, given a tantalising glimpse of a dream made real. There is a genuine emotional lift at the story’s end when Guest returns to his own time, armed with a new sense of optimism and a belief in the possibilities the future might hold.
William Morris’ politics won’t be to every listener’s taste (his novel, and Morris’ own activism, divided opinion in his day). But even those unmoved by Morris’ diagnosis of the world’s ills can enjoy a well-crafted and committed audio realisation of a landmark novel in the British utopian literary tradition.
NEWS FROM NOWHERE (BBC RADIO 4) / AUTHOR: WILLIAM MORRIS / DRAMATIST: SARAH WOODS / PRODUCER & DIRECTOR: POLLY THOMAS / STARRING: RON COOK, CAITLIN STEWART, KEIRON SELF, CLAIRE CAGE, RICHARD NICHOLS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW