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In the first few minutes the leading actor mispronounces “Balkan”, “Anatolia”, “irrevocably” and “amatory”. Despite the ignorance of actors and BBC producers of how to speak, Life in the Tomb (Sunday, Radio 3 10pm) is a haunting and – pronunciation apart – sensitively acted evocation of the Great War, putting the Greek soldier’s point of view as vividly as All Quiet on the Western Front did for Germans.
The novel, written in the 1920s by Stratis Myrivilis (died 1969), is set on the Macedonian front where the author saw service and where Greeks faced Bulgarians and Germans on territory claimed by all sides, to the bewilderment of local peasants recruited by one army then the other.
April De Angelis’s adaptation ranges seamlessly from earthy to delicate, brutal to desperately funny. Life in the trenches was as appalling here as in Flanders, with the addition of sadistic sergeants and obtusely complacent officers. The story is told through letters from the long-dead Kostoulas to his sweetheart, ranging from wistful to sardonic and read with a Welsh lilt by Scott Arthur. The soldiers’ accents are British regional (Scouse, Scottish, fatuously posh) and work perfectly. The whole is underpinned by Errollyn Wallen’s music, mood-enhancing but never intrusive.
Within the overarching theme of waste and almost dehumanising cruelty individual episodes stand out: the satisfyingly awful death of the bullying sergeant; the sympathy of local countryfolk, and the fear of Kostoulas, recipient of their kindness, that he may kill their sons pressed into battle on the other side. The depiction of his own side’s shortcomings, such as the execution for “desertion” of a man who left his post to sleep in the dugout, caused a stir in postwar Greece, and sounds familiar to military historians in Britain.
Polly Thomas’s grippingly atmospheric production emphasises the shared experience that blighted a generation and harrowed a continent.