Arts: The Week on Radio

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WITH THE nightmarish exception of Susan Carter in The Archers, radio's attempts at horror are generally beaten hollow by the spine-freezing capabilities of cinema. The terrifying exception is a sentence intoned daily on Radio Four. The most resolute of listeners have been known to lurch uncontrollably to the off switch upon hearing the fearful words: "And now it's time for You and Yours."

In the good old days before the new schedules, you only had to put up with a 25-minute litany of consumers' whines, whinges and wrongs. To be fair, even its sternest critics would grudgingly admit that there was generally at least one interesting item to keep you going before escaping to the serial or comedy show. But thanks to James Boyle's machinations, we now have a whole hour of consumerama. That's not a programme, it's a punishment.

Even its presenters sound unconvinced of its viability, adopting an unnaturally perky tone in a vain attempt to disguise the programme's shapelessness. Boyle points to increased audiences over lunchtime but I'm unconvinced. I suspect more people are tuning in simply because only now has BBC Radio begun marketing itself effectively.

Back in 1982, David Hare dramatised the horrors of the ignominious last days of America's involvement in Vietnam in his TV film Saigon: Year of The Cat which re-surfaced on Radio Four on Friday. Despite the fact that the original starred Judi Dench as Barbara, the outsider embodying the moral consciousness of the piece, it wasn't entirely successful. Some of this was down to Hare's decision to use Barbara to narrate and shape the tale from the perspective of hindsight. Voice-over is a device which sits awkwardly on television but it's perfect for radio which may have been one of the reasons why the producer, Catherine Bailey, decided to attempt the seemingly impossible; that is, put a film on radio.

One of the attractions, apart from giving the script a new airing, is that both film and radio handle multiple locations with ease. The danger is that the transfer to another medium can produce horribly literal results. James Freed's script stuck closely to Hare, with the odd nip and tuck and discreet explanatory line added to establish time and location. (Although why Hare's original bridge game bids were reversed into "Two hearts," "A spade," then "One diamond," I cannot imagine.)

The production worked fine on its own terms and really scored with almost permanent use of a soundtrack to counterbalance the loss of visuals. Music from American radio stations was carefully filtered in, including a nicely ironic burst of "California Dreaming" as Barbara (a typically thoughtful and seductive Lindsay Duncan) mused unsentimentally about the "almost iridescent green" of England.

Scenes were played out against an aural backdrop. Footsteps echoed through corridors, dialogue was spoken against huge anxiety-ridden crowd scenes.

The director, John Dove, even pulled off the climactic helicopter scene (a staple of the genre from Apocalypse Now to Miss Saigon) as the Americans scrambled to escape. Even at the last, you could hear them refusing to face their responsibilities to the people they were pretending to protect.