Losing faith with Melvyn

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The Independent Culture
HE'S inconsistent; he's dismissive; he's sycophantic; he's self- indulgent; he's offensive - yet every Monday millions of us use him to kick-Start the Week (R4). Why don't we stay chuckling with Wogan (R2), telephoning that nice Diana Madill's Magazine (R5) or listening to This Week's Composer (R3)? For that matter, we could argue with idiots on Talk Radio or acquire dubious racing tips from Henry Kelly on Classic FM. But we don't. We listen to Melvyn Bragg because, although he's intolerable, he's irresistible.

Two things keep us hooked. One is the sense that he doesn't dissemble: his opinions, while unpredictable, are emphatically his own. The second is the calibre of his guests. Last week, for example, Michael Palin was invited to the 25th birthday edition, and Melvyn was feeling generous. Palin is an interesting, kindly man - a comic genius on film and an entertaining traveller but, alas, not a good novelist. Bragg has pilloried other writers for less, as Kathy Lette must remember, but Palin was allowed to plug his novel unbashed. Only very careful listening revealed that never did Bragg actually praise it - a fine line was trodden between polite interest and critical objectively. Easier to be Tom Stoppard, another guest, who had wisely not read it.

But Bragg is best, oddly enough, with articulate, adventurous scientists like George Smoot, the man who discovered wrinkles in time and managed to explain what they meant. He uses his position as presenter unashamedly to educate himself in arcane pursuits, wistfully hoping that the Christianity he once espoused might prove scientifically respectable. In this he is unlike A N Wilson, Mark Tully's guest on Something Understood (R4), who has "temporarily" lost faith in religion whilst having none at all in science, which he called "one of the great cons of the 20th century". Tully clearly found him stimulating, if faintly batty. His own position seems to be that of a questing agnostic, as reflected in his disarmingly frank, almost confessional style, and in his choice of readings - from Newman, Masefield, Tennyson. It was an impressive "religious" dbut from the old India hand, whose broadcasts have always been tinged with innocent wonder, in the best Priestland/Redhead tradition.

Wilson spoke of "extraordinary moments of illumination and vision", beyond scientific explanation. Such a moment occurs towards the end of Carey Har- rison's witty, perceptive play Moving Statues (R4). A cynical Irishman goes home for a particularly acrimonous wedding. After several improper flirtations, two brawls and a sudden death, he finds himself, late at night, witnessing a miracle in a grotto. He can neither believe nor deny it, but it flabbergasts him. Shaun MacLaughlan's zippy direction cleverly side-stepped great bogs of whimsy waiting to swallow such a story. I think I recognised the slightly sozzled wedding guest flatly crooning "Delilah" into a dodgy microphone.

Another, less familiar Ireland was the subject of An Awful Silence (R3). Nicholas Carolan told the moving story of the potato famine, which began 150 years ago and was to kill more than a million people. The title reflects the horror: the garrulous, creative Irish were struck dumb in the face of such tragedy. Virtually the only snatches of music that do survive from those years are laments, like the haunting, moaning keening we heard, recorded in the Arran Isles.

Though part of the great British Empire, Ireland recived precious little help from England, save for that offered by certain evangelical Anglican missionaries who promised succour in exchange for conversion. This did produce some fine satire: "I'm a brand from the burning, a regular saint, newly purged and set free from papistical trait. Yea, I'm one of that holy, that sanctified troop, whose souls have been chastened by flannel and soup." The bitter legacy of the famine, said Carolan, is the zealous support for extreme Irish nationalism among Irish-American descendants of those who emigrated to escape it.

R3 went supernatural in the Kurt Weill musical A Touch of Venus. An ancient statue of Venus comes to life as a beautiful woman, but elects to return whence she came when threatened by the bourgeois heaven of Ozone Heights, NY. The music was tuneful but unmemorable, being rich in quivering violins and shimmering cymbals, like pantomime good-fairy tricks, but Ogden Nash's words were fun - especially a couplet about a woman whose hair turned surprisingly red, like a Titian: "Of course I'd hate to swear in court what kind of Titian: beaut or mort."

The whole thing would have been quite comfortable on R2, but they were busy celebrating 100 Years of Waltzing Matilda. Australia's unofficial national anthem was composed by one Banjo Patterson (progenitor of Les?) and taken all over the world by the troops. "The legendary" Slim Dusty told us about it, in modern language - very unlike that of Paul Keating, his Prime Minister who, according to David Leck, is the supreme master of The Art of the Political Insult (World Service). That's a dubious honour, won by Keating for frequency rather than invention. He uses words like "harlot" and "sleazebag" with airy insouciance, and even adopts other people's invective, going so far as to resurrect Geoffrey Howe. Remember him? He is world- famous now, our very own sav- age dead sheep.