BBC Radio 4 is offering us a very clever reworking of News from Nowhere by Sarah Woods in its current ‘Dangerous Visions’ series. It starts today rather than in the 1890s, and the activist Will Guest time-travels 100 years forward into a transformed future. Once there he is taken to Old Hammond in the British Museum to learn about the transformation, and what feels initially like an attempt to resolve utopia’s perennial problem of boring sociological exposition – throwing a few industrial sound-effects into the conversation – suddenly reveals its deeper political purpose, as the great crash of 2008 becomes the turning point in capitalism’s fortunes, and a whole series of despicable austerity apologists like Gordon Brown, Ed Balls, George Osborne and David Cameron make themselves heard too. A huge demonstration in Trafalgar Square after a second economic collapse leads to a military massacre which, as in Morris, kickstarts revolution.
What is missing then, however, is precisely the bloody and extended civil war as News from Nowhere so vividly gives it to us. Instead, we get some rather vague talk of impersonal social and cultural forces – information-technology, collaborative working, ‘kindness’ – which seem to have enabled general change. In this respect, the Radio 4 version ultimately resembles Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward rather than Morris’s grimmer and surely more realistic vision of diehard ruling-class resistance to popular uprising. And it’s worth noting, too, as a sign of our political times, that the terms ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’, used so often in Morris, have been altogether erased from Sarah Woods' utopia.
Curious things have been done with the women in the text too. Morris’s Annie and Ellen have been condensed into a single figure who jumps naked with Guest into the Thames early on in the production. So this Ellen turns out to be 42 (Annie’s age) rather than 20 as in Morris, and Guest here announces himself to be 46 rather than 56 as in the original. So the huge age difference which meant that the Guest-Ellen relationship could never go anywhere in the first place is ironed out into something rather more conventional, as is the Radio 4 Ellen herself compared to the more enigmatic and troubling figure she is in Morris. But at least the dramatisation ends with Guest’s painful return to his own political moment and struggle, rather than with the anodyne marrying into the future which Edward Bellamy gives us.
I guess that no fan of Morris’s great work is ever going to be fully satisfied with any later reworking of it. But I must say, despite my cavils above, that this Sarah Wood version is vigorous and ingenious and, in terms of our own political struggles, inspiring too. Do listen to it while you still can at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07c2svl.