King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard

BBC Radio Full-Cast Dramatisation

The 130 years since the first publication of H. Rider Haggard’s African novel of ‘treasure, war and wild adventure’ have seen such cultural and sociological change that it might be thought that his novels of the Victorian empire would have little to attract our attention. Famously written following the publication of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island in 1885, when Haggard told his brother he could write something ‘at least as good’ (or ‘half as good’), King Solomon’s Mines was said to have taken the author six (or sixteen, depending on one’s source) weeks to finish. It was the start of Haggard’s lifelong and very lucrative career as a novelist. He wrote more than fifty books. She, the follow-up to King Solomon’s Mines, has been estimated to have sold a staggering 80 million copies.

Whilst reflecting a fair few of the prejudices and givens of nineteenth-century colonialism, Haggard does not entirely adopt the racism and misogyny of his era. Dedicated to ‘all the big boys and little boys who read it’ (girls read it too, but nineteenth-century parents often had firm views of what was suitable for boys and what was suitable for girls), King Solomon’s Mines represents the memoirs of the book’s protagonist, Allan Quatermain, as related to the author, so that Haggard’s own opinions are at arm’s length. The book can certainly be said to show admiration and respect for the peoples and cultures of Africa, and for its landscape, and there is deprecating irony in the taunt by Gagool concerning the white man’s insatiable desire for African diamonds:

The first shock of the slow and miserable end that awaited us was overpowering. We saw it all now; that fiend Gagool had planned this snare for us from the first. It would have been just the jest that her evil mind would have rejoiced in, the idea of the three white men slowly perishing of thirst and hunger in the company of the treasure they had coveted. Now I saw the point of that sneer of hers about eating and drinking the diamonds.

Kenneth Colley starred as Quatermaine in a 1990 BBC Radio 4 adaptation, which is well worth finding, if you can. It is surprising that the novel was not broadcast in the heyday of BBC radio (there is a forty-minute General Mills Radio Adventure Theater recording from 1977, which aired on the CBS Radio Network in the USA), but perhaps the many feature films satisfied the appetite for Haggard. It is the 2017 adaptation in the BBC recording under review here and it is gripping, entertaining and, in the appropriate places, moving BBC radio drama at its twenty-first century best.

It would be pointless to rehearse the plot. Just immerse yourself in one of England’s foremost Victorian adventure writers, whose imagination, fired by his five or so years in parts of what is now South Africa, transports you to an exotic and dangerous lost world.

The cast, led by Tim McInnery as Allan Quatermaine, David Sturzaker as Sir Henry Curtis and Simon Ludders as Captain John Good, features outstanding African actors Sope Dirisu as Umbopa, Femi Elufowoju Jr as Twala and Adjoa Andoh as Gagool. In his essay on Haggard, fellow author Graham Greene wrote, ‘Enchantment is just what this writer exercised; he fixed pictures in our minds that thirty years have been unable to wear away.’

This BBC Radio adaptation will do the same for a new generation.

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