Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Radio Reviews: Master of the Mint and Festival

Radio Review

Drama: Master of the Mint

By David Ashton. The creator of the Victorian detective series, McLevy, returns with a new hero in the unlikely guise of the 17th century scientific genius, Isaac Newton. After 30 years as a Cambridge academic, Newton takes up a new post at the Royal Mint in the Tower of London. Soon he's diving into notorious drinking dens and interrogating prisoners in jail in pursuit of a counterfeiting gang. But can he catch the ringleaders before their criminal plans trigger a huge financial crash that threatens to topple the Government.

After nearly 30 years of academic life at Cambridge, Newton became Warden of the Royal Mint. He was soon in charge of the colossal task of re-casting all of England's currency - almost seven million pounds - and took a hands-on approach to the interrogation of suspected counterfeiters held in Newgate prison.

This was an extremely enjoyable romp through part of Newtons’s fight against the counterfeiters. There’s a large degree of poetic licence – his speech is peppered with allusions to his work in physics, and it fails to mention his tussle with William Challoner.

That was the story told in the book of the week “Newton And The Counterfeiter”, Thomas Levenson's biography of Isaac Newton and his rivalry with one of 17th-century London's most accomplished and daring criminals, William Chaloner.

Chaloner claimed to be able to know about counterfeiting and be able to prevent it iof taken on the Royal Mint. Newton saw through this ruse to get to the heart of the Mint and Chaloner ended up in prison, facing the gallows, writing letters begging Newton for mercy.

While Ashton’s Newton is quite the heroic criminal investigator, Levenson gets closer to the real Newton, always cantankerous, ready to pick fights, and not exactly pleasant company, and age had not mellowed him. This was the Newton who all but erased Thomas Hooke from the history of the Royal Society for an unintended slight.

As historian John Craig wrote in an article for the Royal Society’s Notes and Records: “Newton was disinclined to mercy, except for the receipt of information of value, on the ground that these dogs always returned to their vomit.”

Ashton tells his tale well, even if his Newton is rather too much of an engaging almost heroic figure!

But neither Levenson or Ashton seem to make much of Newton's greatest invention as Master of the Mint.

And that was the fight against clipping. As Robert Lamb explains:

By the late 1600s, England's financial system was in full-blown crisis mode. The country's currency consisted entirely of silver coins, and that silver was often worth more than the value stamped on it. So what did people do? Why, they melted down the coins or "clipped" silver from the edges to sell to France.

By Newton's time, clipping had done a number on the nation's currency. The average bag of English coins was just a hodgepodge of damaged and unrecognizable silver chunks. 

Newton's great but simple invention - which we still have today - are the ridges on the edges of coils, what are called "milled edges", and they prevented clipping coins because any damage to a coil would be instantly seen.

Drama: Festival 
by Sarah Wooley

A comedy drama about festivals and the start of a legendary literary romance.

In 1962, novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard took on the job of running the Cheltenham Literary Festival. It was to be a baptism of fire.

This was a light but very amusing story, well told, with lots of humour as Jane lurches from one crisis to another and her plans look as if they are falling apart, not unlike her marriage – she has taken on the festival (for a small honorarium) largely to avoid facing marital breakdown. As with the Newton story, this is also based on historical fact.

Some plays grab you from the first, while others are a struggle. It’s hard to define that magic ingredient, but in this case it is good acting, and good storytelling. Will she succeed? Will there be fireworks at the end? There will, in more ways than one, and Wooley does a good job of introducing us both to the literary world, and to the problems inherent in organising any event. And is Kingsley Amis going to turn up?

In the end, Howard had an affair with Amis (which begins at this Festival in the play), ended divorcing her husband, and then marrying Amis, but it was in the end a failed marriage too. Listening to the play, you wonder if there is so much flirtatiousness at literary festivals!

Is the Jersey festival of words as chaotic behind the scenes? And are there secret romances and assignations? Having listened to this play, I am inclined to wonder!

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