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For John Betjeman, Barbara Pym’s novel Excellent Women was ‘a perfect book’. Nobody listening to a splendid adaptation of it at the Barbara Pym Society Spring meeting in London would disagree. Probably some of the audience had read it so many times they practically knew every delicious line.

But what came across forcibly was that the novel, as adapted here by Georgia Powell and directed by Tristram Powell, worked so brilliantly in the format of a radio play. Large chunks and several characters were cut out but it was still perfect. This must be because the book is really written as a series of delightfully observed scenes; we are not waiting impatiently to see what happens next but savouring the fullness of every moment.

Each character in a Barbara Pym novel has a distinctive way of speaking; what they say could not possibly be spoken by anyone else. Another writing lesson here, I found myself thinking. I happily shut my eyes and listened to the actors playing the characters who are always living in the heads of Barbara Pym devotees, some of them taking on multiple parts – Frances Grey, Malcolm Sinclair, Martin Hutson, Jane Slavin, Carolyn Pickles – and Penelope Wilton as the narrator capturing the sly comedy of Barbara Pym’s voice.

Excellent Women was published in 1952, twenty years after John Betjeman’s first radio programme. If he’d been sitting with us in the St Alban’s Centre on Sunday he too would have revelled in this adaptation of the book he described as perfect. As he wrote, ‘Excellent Women is England, and, thank goodness, it is full of them.’

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