Arts: The Week in Radio

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IT USED to be that to get anywhere in the media, it paid to have influential parents. In our topsy-turvy times, however, the really helpful thing is to have influential children - as in the case of Edward Enfield, father of Harry, who in recent years has become a sort of tribune for old people on Radio 4. Not that we call them old people any more: Free Spirits (Radio 4, Sunday) is addressed to "people who are at last free to do what they have always wanted to do".

In most cases, this turns out to mean travelling in a fairly aimless fashion. In a rather overcrowded first edition, we met a former house- mistress who is going through a "Been There, Done That" list (going down in a submarine, riding a camel in the desert, and so forth); a man who drives around Europe in a Toyota Starlet, in which he once found a rat; a couple who have gone back-packing around the world; and a group of men who have taken to playing the harmonica, though not terribly well.

These vignettes are linked, rather tenuously, by Enfield, who is in the middle of planning a cycling expedition to Poland. This week, he had a Polish expert in the studio to give him a few phrase-book tips and some information about Polish kissing etiquette. "I can see I've got to be ready to learn," Enfield notes, "and keep my wits about me."

The refusal to assume that old age means settling down in your armchair to watch daytime television until the Reaper comes is laudable, I suppose, but the chirpy, encouraging tone of Free Spirits is still rather maddening. The subject matter may be all get-up-and-go, but the manner is "Nice cup of tea, dear?".

A bleaker portrait of old age was painted in the last edition of Inside Track (Radio 4, Monday). "Pauper's Funeral" followed Hackney Council's Protection of Property officer as she tried to trace any relatives of Leonard, an elderly man who had been found dead and alone in his flat.

It is hard to imagine a more devastating picture of loneliness than was pieced together by Alice Beard and her assistant, Debbie Simms. Leonard, they learned, was the local eccentric, avoided by most of his neighbours and loathed by some because of his habit of feeding pigeons. He had had a wife at one time, but she was thought to no longer live in the country, and his two sons had disowned him some years before.

What made the programme especially haunting, though, was its accumulation of small, unexpected details, such as the Health Authority refusing to disclose any of Leonard's medical details because, they said, they had to have the deceased person's permission; or Alice and Debbie leaving his flat and immediately lighting up. You have to smoke, they explained, to get the smell out of your throat. That and an unspoken need to burn off the image of death and poverty - an image that lingered long after the programme was over.