For your ears only

Radio: The Gallery of Perfection / R4 Clingfilm / R1 The Dream Project / R3
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The Independent Culture
Sometimes it seems as if the big problem with radio is that it isn't television. This is true with big news events, where reportage can never re-create the impact of history taking place before your very eyes (think of the people dancing on the Berlin Wall the day it came down). It's also true when something is under discussion that can't be properly understood without a visual reference - something like the visual arts, for example.

Waldemar Januszczak runs smack up against this difficulty in The Gallery of Perfection (Radio 4, Thursday), a series of 15-minute appreciations of the five paintings he considers the most important in the world. The fact that these paintings are massively famous - we started last week at the top, with Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel - alleviates the problem, but it doesn't get rid of it altogether. When Januszczak turned to the most celebrated image in the chapel, God creating Adam, you at least knew what he was talking about. Even here, though, there's an element of vagueness in our visualisation (would you bet hard cash on which hand God is holding out towards Adam?). And you had to take on trust much of what Januszczak had to say about other parts of the frescoes - I'm prepared to go along with the idea that the prophet Zachariah's is unusually prominent, and that this has some connection with Pope Julius II's family pride, but it would have been nice to see the evidence.

You can't blame Januszczak for the limitations of the medium (you might, on the other hand, find fault with him for showing off about having been up on the restorers' scaffolding to see the painting close up: salt in the wound). Within those boundaries what he had to say about the history and iconography was enjoyably pithy, too. It just wasn't radio.

Similar problem arise when radio tackles cinema. Clips from film soundtracks always sound unbearably tangential (because that's how the dialogue is written, in contrast to the thumpingly informative style that you meet in most radio drama) and horribly overblown (because that's how they record the sound). The Dream Project (Radio 3, Monday to Thursday) dodged the problem nicely, though, by concentrating on films that don't yet exist. Directors were asked to make an imaginary pitch for their dream movie, one to be made with no constraints on budget or casting.

If there was a hitch, it was a bias towards the maverick end of the film- making spectrum - after all, we have a pretty good idea of what Alex Cox's or Ken Russell's wildest imaginings might be (Cox's dream film was a Macbeth- influenced biopic of a left-wing Latin American dictator - about as surprising as hearing that John Ford's dream film was a western). The programmes succeeded, though, because they were about story-telling and argument, radio's strong suits.

The approach to cinema is more conventional in Radio 1's new film magazine Clingfilm (Radio 1, Tuesday), a title which was presumably picked more for its fetishistic undertones than for sense (though Mark Kermode had a stab at making it meaningful, introducing the programme as the show that wraps up the week's films). Otherwise, it was a disappointment - ordinary Cannes coverage, padded out with pop music from film soundtracks. The problem here wasn't that you missed the visual dimension; you just missed the aural one being interesting.

Robert Hanks

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