Arts: The Week In Radio

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ANYONE WHO wanted a bit of peace and quiet on Sunday morning might have expected The Living World (Radio 4) to be a good starting-place. The programme was called Strange Fruits, and offered a walk through the woods at dawn in search of mushrooms and toadstools. Hardly a noisy process, yet it didn't take long for the presenters' enthusiasm to get the better of them. "Oh, look at that!" cried Shelley Evans when she discovered another specimen among the trees. "Isn't it slimy?" exclaimed Lionel Kelleway. Fortunately, their depth of knowledge matched their zeal, and after 25 minutes the listener had to agree that Lionel was a fun guy to be with.

Following the clamour in the woodlands, the Sunday religious affairs programme introduced a CD recently released by the Carthusian monks of Parkminster Priory. This promised to make for interesting listening, since the Carthusians are a silent order. Undeterred, Roger Bolton conducted an interview with the Prior, starting with the question: "What is it like to be silent all the time?" A long moment passed, then the good Father began to explain that all silence is relative. If you were quiet enough to hear the wind, for example, then that was enough.

The CD features the monks at their chants, and is intended as a fundraiser for the priory's upkeep. Nonetheless, you suspect there may be a few bootleggers selling cut-price blank cassettes outside the gate.

In Egypt, an audience's silence is interpreted as dislike. This explains why the movie performances of the singer Um Kalthum were often accompanied by rowdy goings-on in the cinema. The first in a new series called Distant Divas (Radio 4, Monday) looked at the life of this woman from the Nile delta who had the Arab world at her feet throughout the Twenties, Thirties and Forties. Her extraordinary voice is preserved on record.

At the height of her powers, Um Kalthum employed 46 musicians and maintained full business control of her career. Not bad for a peasant girl who was originally obliged to appear dressed as a boy so as not to offend the Koranic code. In addition to pre-war recordings made in Cairo, the programme featured traditional instruments played "live" in a modern studio, sounding just as Um Kalthum would have heard them.

How she would have got on with the audience at the Glasgow Empire will never be known. The Empire Years (Radio 4, Wednesday) told the story of the entertainment world's most feared house of terror. OK, so it was fine for Americans. In 1949, some 8,000 fans welcomed Danny Kaye at Glasgow railway station, and the lucky ones who managed to get tickets later watched with astonishment as he shared a relaxed Capstan cigarette with a member of the audience. This had never been done before. The crowds loved him. When Roy Rogers arrived with Trigger, he rode in full cowboy outfit up the stairs of the Central Hotel to his first-floor suite. They loved him too. Yet when English comedians came to Glasgow, they were treated with unbridled hostility. "I'm not going there," said Max Miller. "I'm a comic, not a missionary."

Morecambe and Wise played for a week and were constantly jeered. On their final night, they finished their act to the sound of deafening silence.

"Ay," said a stage-hand. "I think they're warming to you."