My night with Caesar, or how I survived Talk Radio

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The Independent Culture
I MISSED the first hour of Talk Radio UK. When I switched on The Dish, at about 7am, somebody was saying: "I vomited all over the carpet - brand-new carpet, £9 a metre." By the martyred mike of Simon Bates, I thought, had they already started asking for Most Embarrassing Moments? Sure enough, they had. They were begging for anybody to ring them about anything at all - veal-crates, joy-riding, Europe, chocolate and (in a very serious voice) "the social stigma of staying single". Once they got the phones working, every old nutter could "Talk Like You've Never Heard It Before". But the trouble is, we have. Trapped in check- out queue or doctor's waiting-room, we've all been forced to listen to the mindless wittering of people like this, people that the very Samaritans would hang up on. James Joyce once said, inspiringly, that he never knew anyone who wasn't interesting. He never heard Talk Radio.

I suppose it wasn't all entirely dreadful. In the afternoon that nice, caring Anna Raeburn gave her earnest attention to some gritty emotional crises. Like a trout, she rises to bait offered her from the bank - in this case, a high-street branch, whence a clerk confided to her his dreams of becoming an accountant. With him dispatched, she reorganised the lives of the blind, the deformed, the addicted and the grumpy, including a youth whose schooldays had been blighted by his nasty "truancy problem": a fine hour's work. Then a harmless Tommy Boyd celebrated the 10th anniversary of a minor James Bond film by talking to two very minor Bond Girls (which he at least seemed to enjoy) before the evening nose-dived into the shock jock-strap of the famously outrageous Caesar the Geezer.

Heralded by a description of his genitals - Is he hung like a Shetland? No, he trumpeted, like an elephant - he soon made it clear that he should be hung like a side of pork. Ingenuously introducing himself as an ordinary guy who likes to have intelligent conversations, he solemnly reminded his fans that this was to be "a family show". Then he begged people to phone him about flying saucers. I am not making this up. What he got was a family show-down, a call from his god-daughter's father who'd been trying to get hold of him to remind him that it was her birthday on Saturday and it was about time he sent her a present. When neither father nor godfather seemed sure of the age or address of this unhappy child, your critic felt she had done more than her duty and switched off.

What Lord Reith would have made of it all one can only shudder to imagine. At the other end of the airwaves came this year's opening salvo of the Reith Lectures (R4). The architect Sir Richard Rogers has chosen to speak on Cities for a Small Planet. Born in Florence, Rogers retains an Italian slurring of consonants that makes him sometimes hard to understand, but what he has to say is stimulating. Statistics pour out of him: the world's urban population increases by 250,000 a day - a new London every month; only 10 per cent of the energy we burn comes from renewable sources. The city of the future must rise above demands of the god profit. It must be a place where offices, homes and shops share breathing-space, where ghettoes are abolished and where cultural and social interaction regains supreme importance.

Citing San Francisco and Rotterdam as places where things are going well, Rogers offers hope that city life can enjoy a renaissance, given enough encouragement. He has not yet tackled the problem of the buildings themselves. Is the architecture of his beautiful, native Florence as fossilised as he seems to suggest? Was it the supreme expression of urban synthesis, or can today's architects possibly build something even finer? It will be interesting to hear.

And now, three plays and several Dames. The centenary of the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest (R4) prompted a new production, of which the real star was Miriam Margolyes as Miss Prism, surely a Dame in the making. She was born to play this part. Never losing her deferential propriety, her roguishness surfaced only fleetingly, to hilarious effect. Sir Michael Hordern, as the butler Lane, put several octaves into one syllable with his "Sir?", elegantly establishing himself as the foundation- stone of Algernon's household. The disappointment was Dame Judi Dench's Lady Bracknell. Dench is a wonderful actress, the greatest Cleopatra I ever hope to see, but her attempts to make Lady B real were doomed to failure. That heady succession of epigrams needed a more witheringly remote and dismissive delivery. The ghost of Dame Edith Evans hovered, wielding the crucial handbag. Perhaps, like Florence, Evans can never be surpassed.

On the World Service, two more great actors were on virtuoso form. James Prideaux's Laughter in the Shadow of the Trees is about senility and heroism. Sir John Gielgud was an old, bad- tempered scholar, supported by his loyal wife as he slipped into dementia. Horrible to her in person, he asked his (unrecognised) daughter, "Did you know my wife? Oh, she was a saint. Beautiful beyond belief, and a delicacy of thought that was like the morning sun breaking through clouds." Dame Wendy Hiller's voice is lovely - varied, distinctive and subtle. She used it to portray both the gentle wife, encouraging and sustaining her alarmingly deranged husband, and the young girl he had once loved, in a per- formance of such sensitivity as to make you weep.

And, light years away from the real world, Dame Barbara Cartland crowned the Romance season with a piece of ridiculously enjoyable utter tosh. None of the The Enchanting Evil (R4) made any sense at all. The plot - featuring swooning, flogging and pistols at dawn - staggered under hopeless inconsistencies, but the sustained innocence of Jenny Funnell's Melinda sailed above such problems. Sean MacLoughlin's direction included a steeple-chase with no hoof-beats, his recent Charge of the Light Brigade was similarly horse-free, and Timothy Bentinck (aka David Archer) as Lord Chard slipped at the end into his Prince Charles voice, adding to the confusion. "Damn it," he said, "I feel like a cad - something I've not felt since I was caught cheating at Eton. Can you ever trust me again?" Never trusted you in the first place, your lordship.