An ansaphone to your prayers; RADIO

Must Confess / Devil's Advocate Radio 4;
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Must Confess /

Devil's Advocate

Radio 4

This apology line seems like a good scheme. What it is, is a phone number you can call and, anonymously, leave a message apologising for any crimes or other sorts of wrongdoing that you may have weighing on your conscience; other people then ring in and listen to your apology, and leave comments. This happens in New York, where people do more bad things than elsewhere (or, perhaps, just feel worse about them). It cropped up in Must Confess (Radio 4, Monday), in which the apology line's instigator, an artist known as Mr Apology, Chris to his friends, presented some highlights.

The idea is, at its root, a secular version of the confessional, with Mr Apology standing in for the priest, and the general public for God (vox populi, vox dei, in fact). The big difference is that there's no penance involved, so that the apology makes minimal demands on the criminal; yet it still, apparently, does some good. Mr Apology himself started the scheme after incorporating an apology into an artwork - he wasn't very specific about what kind of artwork - had helped him to break a longstanding shoplifting habit.

The potential is vast. Imagine, for instance, what difference an apology line could have made in first-century Palestine: Judas Iscariot, instead of hanging himself or having his guts explode with guilt all over a field, depending on which version you believe, would have left a few words on the answering-machine ("I betrayed my, er, Saviour, and I wanna apologise to myself, and to Him, I guess. I really didn't want to hurt anybody"). Then he would have settled down to a happy life with an easy conscience.

At any rate, it couldn't have made him feel any worse than hearing his case put by Jonathan Meades in Devil's Advocate (Radio 4, Saturday), the series in which celebrities are invited to defend literary villains. To give Meades his due, he was up against a particularly bolshie Melvyn Bragg. Bragg doesn't quite enter into the spirit of the thing; he did all right last week, against Will Self's defence of King Kong, especially given that the whole case was contrived (look at the film: Kong is presented sympathetically throughout. What's to defend?).

Here, he was unnecessarily brutal. Still, Meades hadn't got things thought through properly; the case was put better in a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, "Three Versions of Judas". The final argument presented there was, very roughly, that Judas made a far greater sacrifice than Christ, suffering eternal damnation as opposed to one afternoon of physical pain, so it's more reasonable to suppose that he was the real Redeemer. Theologically, this may be dubious, but the logic is sound.

Back to this apology line, though. There is one other essential difference between it and the confessional, and that is the size of audience, which gives it a far greater proportion of fantasists than (you assume) priests get: Mr Apology's estimate was one third straight up "sorrys", one third glaring whoppers, and one third hard to say. Must Confess offered examples of the first two kinds; but the meat of the programme was a case in the final category, a self-proclaimed matricide called Jumping Jim.

Jim's confession was weird enough by itself, but it was also a begetter of weirdness in others. Craig, for instance, an apology line regular, left a message asking for some kind of proof that Jim had topped his mother; and after Mr Apology had decided not to take Jim up on the offer of a face-to-face meeting, Craig pointed out rather bitterly that he had missed the chance of seeing actual photographs. The weirdness escalated rapidly, with Jim claiming hit number two, and Mr A getting more and more embroiled with him. It turned out, in the end, that Jim was just one of the fantasists - when Mr A rang his home number, his mother answered the phone - but a fantasist whose dreams were starting to get a little too vivid for comfort.

What was remarkable here was not so much the material, though, as the restraint Hamish Mykura showed in handling it. When you think of all the things that he could have done - the cheesy links ("But that wasn't the last Mr Apology heard from Jim"), the bad philosophy ("A lesson for us all about the importance of apologies"), the only-in-America gee-whizzery - the naked presentation of the tapes, with a tiny bit of narrative from Mr A, was miraculous. Nothing to forgive here.