In Victorian times, when universal literacy was a philantrophist's dream, readings from popular novels packed crowds into theatres and halls, cheering, hissing and weeping as the likes of Dickens' Little Nell faced a cruel world - the same world from which those inside the hall were seeking escape for a couple of hours. With compulsory schooling and the rise of music hall and cinema, such readings became less and less frequent, but their spirit continued in the BBC's long-running Jackanory show, in authors' visits to primary schools and in the writer-in-residence post attached to institutions.
Capturing something of the Victorian approach to the public reading of literature, EdWard Fox dons the whiskers and garb of Anthony Trollope to recite extracts from his Chronicles of Barsetshire. Fox does not play out Trollope's characters, nor do much more than vary the pitch of his voice to represent men and women and he contextualises the works with merely the briefest outline of Trollope's life and the novels from which the text is taken. Some would contest that this approach limits the appeal of the show to Trollope aficiandos, but I suggest not. There is enough in the grammar, the rhythm, the tone of the language as presented through the prism of Fox's decades of acting experience to entral anyone with an interest in the written or spoken word. Take this Wodehousean extract from The Small House at Allington
""Halloo!" shouted the earl. "There's a man. Come on." And then his continued shoutings hardly formed themselves into intelligible words; but Eames plainly understood that he was invoking assistance under great pressure and stress of circumstances. The bull was making short runs at his owner, as though determined in each run to have a toss at his lordship; and at each run the earl would retreat quickly for a few paces, but he retreated always facing his enemy, and as the animal got near to him, would make digs at his face with the long spud which he carried in his hand. But in thus making good his retreat he had been unable to keep in a direct line to the gate, and there seemed to be great danger lest the bull should succeed in pressing him up against the hedge. "Come on!" shouted the earl, who was fighting his battle manfully, but was by no means anxious to carry off all the laurels of the victory himself. "Come on, I say!" Then he stopped in his path, shouted into the bull's face, brandished his spud, and threw about his arms, thinking that he might best dismay the beast by the display of these warlike gestures."
There's plenty of tragic shade to complement the comic light in director Richard Digby Day's selections from the vast output available to him, with the audience moved by Fox's reciting of a passage detailing the (yes) Dickensian misfortunes of the Crawley Family and the bittersweet release that comes to a bishop on hearing of the death of his tyrannical wife.
Though the show is understandably promoted with reference to EdWard Fox's star quality - and he is very much a star at the age of 73 - ultimately, it's an evening that will please anyone interested in hearing the majesty of the English language spoken by a master technician in an environment shorn of almost all other distractions. Rather like reading Wodehouse, the plots and context barely matter - feeling the words paint pictures of characters in the mind's eye, is the pleasure to be taken from this work. Like an Islay whiskey, it won't be for everyone, but for those with a palate, it's a richly rewarding experience.
Trollope in Barsetshire continues at The Riverside Studios until April 2.