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Tuesday 31 May 2011

Unearthing another eagle


The audio play tells a tale of a noble and very brave centurion, Marcus Aquila (Tom Smith) who is almost crippled when he attacks an enemy chariot in battle. As he recovers he saves the life of a gladiator, Esca (Tony Kearney), and buys him as his slave. Having formed a bond with the man he then releases him from slavery, but asks him if he would like to accompany him on a perilous journey. Impressed by his former master’s kindness and a desire to see the homeland he was originally taken from, Esca agrees to accompany Marcus.

Marcus’s mission is to find the Eagle of the Ninth Legion. This standard is thought to be in the possession of a Caledonian tribe in the north of Britain, a tribe that destroyed the Ninth Legion in 117 AD, not long after the erection of Hadrian’s Wall. This legion’s demise brings possible disgrace on the Roman Empire and the thought of a British tribe using it as inspiration for others, is enough encouragement for Marcus’s superiors to let him go on the mission. However, Marcus has other reasons for going on the quest. He wishes to discover the truth about the last stand of the legions of First Cohort Commander – his father…


With 2011’s release of a somewhat amped up and bloodthirsty major motion picture rendition of the much loved children’s classic “The Eagle of the Ninth” by Rosemary Sutcliff (filmed under the alternative publication title, “The Eagle”) it is little surprising that earlier dramatizations would suddenly get the re-release treatment. This radio play was last aired in 1996. It was a good decade for Radio 4’s radio plays and one that saw such ambitious projects as the full dramatization of the complete works Sherlock Holmes – the first and only time this has ever been done in any medium. “The Eagle of the Ninth” is a well produced drama, but – with all due respect to the able cast – it contains no obvious stars. The book has remained popular since its publication in 1954, so it was hardly a controversial decision to dramatize it in the first place, but there is no record to indicate it was a popular adaption. It would probably have been gathering dust in the archives if it wasn’t for the release of “The Eagle” film. The fact that there wasn’t a dramatization of any of the book’s sequels would seem confirm this statement.

The play is well produced with good sound effects and a capable cast of BBC character actors. The musical soundtrack is comprised of contemporaneous Roman instruments and there is a feel of authenticity to the work. Unfortunately the action that drove the book and the new movie are conspicuously lacking. “The Eagle of the Ninth” is a story about relationships and contains a cast of interesting characters, but its appeal comes from the physical action described – both through flashback sequences and in the main story. This is not easy to convey in radio dramas and I have heard a wide variety of successes and failures in this department. Director Sêan Damer works well with the “talkie” scenes, but he might have done well to have taken a leaf out of Jane Morgan and Penny Leicester’s 1981 very good adaption of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Exposition is a difficult and dangerous technique to use, but it is pretty essential for radio plays, especially those that contain a lot of action. “The Lord of the Rings” slips up a little from time to time, but mainly carries it off. “The Eagle of the Ninth” could have done the same, as can be seen during Esca’s brief gladiatorial bout and with the discovery the Eagle. Instead they err on the side of caution and the result is a rather uneventful action adventure story.

That being said, the script is managed fairly well and the scenes that deal with storytelling are entertaining enough. For those seeking more depth to the film adaptation I would point them to Sutcliff’s book. However, more patient fans won’t be disappointed by the fact that the BBC team remained loyal to the original text and might enjoy experiencing the tale through another medium.  

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