Look back in horror

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The Independent Culture
SO THE trial of O J Simpson was the trial of the century? In America, on TV, during the last year, maybe. Not over here, on R4, on New Year's Day. The Monday Play brought it all back: the trial of the century was The Nuremberg Trial. Nothing like it had ever been attempted before - four victorious nations assuming the authority of international law and accusing a fifth not only of war crimes but crimes against peace and humanity. Over 315 days, the surviving Nazi leaders - Goering, Hess, von Ribbentrop, Speer, Doenitz, et al - were individually held to account by the best legal brains the Allies could deploy.

Turning the trial into a drama-documentary was also a herculean task, taking producer-directors Martin Jenkins and John Theocaris more than two years. With great skill, they distilled 11 months of complex proceedings into 160 minutes of lucid radio, and still found room for new material. As well as vividly dramatised transcripts of the cross-examinations, we heard commentary and reminiscence from participants such as the British prosecutor Lord Shawcross and the defence lawyer Otto Krantzbuehler. Survivors told of unimaginable cruelties. Narrators broke in with, alternately, statistics of people killed and artworks hoarded. Shocking exhibits were put before our ears: the shrunken head of a Pole, killed for having a German lover, had been used as a paperweight.

The Allies set out to convict the Nazis by documentary evidence of their crimes. That way, they reckoned, the truth about the Third Reich would be irrefutably proved and the German people would never succumb to myths as they had after the First World War. It's hard now to imagine not knowing about the Final Solution, but this reconstruction successfully stripped away hindsight and captured the sense of shock that shook the courtroom as the dreadful evidence came to light for the first time. We heard the defendants being forced to watch crackly but undeniable 8mm film of Buchenwald. In the aghast silence, one of them sobbed. It made demanding listening.

Before the trial, the Nazis were indignant, even righteous. In the dock, protesting ignorance of the camps and claiming that they were only obeying orders, they floundered. Except Goering, played here by Gerard Murphy, exuding palpable defiance. Under cross-examination, he argued back, cleverly. The British prosecutor Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe (Geoffrey Whitehead) kept his cool, but Goering was hard to break. When Maxwell-Fyfe put it to him that four million Jews had died in camps, Goering spat out the chilling, staccato reply: "I knew only of a policy of emigration. Not liquidation. Of the Jews." As if the bad taste in the mouth was all his.

It was a good moment to make and air this programme. Nuremberg has especial resonance this year, as the War Crimes Commission in The Hague begins proceedings against the alleged perpetrators of atrocities in the former Yugoslavia.

Anyone tuning to R3 and hearing the line "It's absolutely super if a chap and his wife can both enjoy it. Simultaneously!" might have thought they'd overshot the frequency. No, this wasn't the Good Sex Guide transported to radio, but an early edition of Cultural Baggage, in which a military type was advocating the therapeutic benefits of a round of gunfire. This new, 20-part series examines, rather in the style of TV programmes like Signs of the Times,the cultural significance of contemporary objects, institutions and ideas. Each subject gets its own 20-minute anthology, composed of gobbets of interviews, books, films, TV, and music. There's not much attempt at synthesis: the predictable meets the whimsical and erudition is interspliced with the banal. You might expect radio to outwit telly at bashing around a concept, rather than depicting the aesthetics of a physical object, but of the five programmes we heard this week - Museum, Guns, Therapy, Sofa and Bible - the clear winner was Sofa.

Sofas reveal more about the people whose curves they yield to than any other piece of furniture. This was said more as proposition than conclusion, but no matter. In EastEnders, the Fowlers sit on their sofa a lot, which makes them socially different from the Butchers. Sofas can be shorthand for sin: in Mansfield Park, Aunt Norris's moral turpitude is established by the way she lounges on a chaise; and Victorian readers of Adam Bede knew that a rotter does his work on an ottoman. In the high street, two Alan Bennett types told us how they had trawled 17 shops for a two-seater that would fit in their bay window and go with their armchairs. Then Vittorio Radice, director of Habitat, prescribed having two vast sofas and explained the paramount importance of chairs not matching. At least I think it was him - contributors aren't introduced, so you have to wait for the credits to roll to work out who said what. This makes for a seamless vox pop of views, but it's frustratingly uninformative. The cast is eclectic - what other programme would pull together William Burroughs, Mary Whitehouse, Iain Banks and Peter Purves? - and recurrent, so perhaps by episode 20 our ears will have attuned to their cadences. Then we'll know what they had to say about celibates, parrots, jeans and rubber.