My nights with Ralph Richardson; RADIO

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The Independent Culture
Dorothy Tutin was 15 when she heard Ralph Richardson play Peer Gynt. She was enjoying that most secret and private pleasure, listening to the radio at night under the bedclothes. She has never forgotten it: "I can see it now," she says, "He conveyed everything with his voice. Such a voice ..." On Ralph Richardson: Dreamer of Dreams, a particularly good edition of the consistently excellent Radio 2 Arts Programme, we heard that voice in many moods - wheedling, joking, proclaiming, bewailing, chatting and, sometimes, dreaming. Those actors who foolishly attempted to mimic it fell flat as tap water: it was intoxicating, inimitable.

Their anecdotes about him, however, were great. Spying him park his Bentley outside a film studio, Charlton Heston saw him pat the car as he left, saying reassuringly, "Goodbye, old girl. Back soon." In general, however, he preferred his motorbike to the car. Nicky Henson shared this passion with him and described him blasting dangerously around London, gloveless and in an open-faced helmet, often with his fierce parrot Jose stuffed inside his long brown overcoat.

Peter Hall spoke of the consummate skill and the opulent shyness of the man, Michael Williams of his generosity, Penelope Wilton of his gallantry and of his attentive stillness on stage, but it was Henson who defined his appeal. In the audience one night, he chuckled as Sir Ralph returned to the beginning of every sentence interrupted by a cough until he had complete, taut silence. Yet such idiosyncrasy never caused offence; one evening, presenting a Lifetime Achievement award to Laurence Olivier, Richardson's ovation had been noticeably warmer than Olivier's. Later that night Henson heard Olivier mutter to him, wistfully, "Oh Ralphie, how they love you".

Like Dorothy Tutin, I remember listening to the radio well past bedtime and being comprehensively spooked by a chilling performance of the Victorian melodrama Gaslight. The new gothic season on R4 plays enjoyably on similar tingly nerves. In Tracey Neale's accomplished production of The Lost Stradivarius the Moon was near the full when, reading from an ancient vellum manuscript, a young man played a galliarda on a priceless, stolen violin and succumbed to irreversible brain fever. Ere long, he perceived that he was constrained to persevere in his solitary and pernicious pursuits in a bone-strewn cellar near Naples, whereafter his estrangement and infirmity culminated in his tragic and premature demise. Sweetly decadent original music by Ilona Sekacz contributed powerfully to the pervasive miasma of corruption and despair in this masterly - and hilariously verbose - mystery.

And there was more. So influential was Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (R4) that Jane Austen curtseyed in its direction when she wrote Northanger Abbey, far more in homage than in cynical satire. You could see why, as Deborah Berlin, playing the long-suffering Emily St Aubert in Catherine Czerkawska's adaptation, began her ghastly adventures. She travelled through wild inhospitable mountains with her widowed, dying father before collapsing into the clutches of her wicked aunt and being carried off to the evil Montoni's fearsome fortress. Despite the - as yet unspecified - horrors of the black-veiled portrait in the double chamber over the south ramparts, I'd lay a guinea to a groat that she will return to the valumbrous La Vallee in the arms of the valiant Valancourt before this afternoon's second and final episode is over. How lucky we are to have all this spiffing spookiness, and it's still nowhere near Hallowe'en.

Were she to re-tune to R3 and stay awake until that darkest hour just before dawn, the impressionable young listener would find herself back at primary school. Schools broadcasts have been banished to this inner darkness. Most schools record their broadcasts, and now recorded tapes are available. So I didn't have to yawn until 3.35am on Wednesday to listen to John Goodwin's Let's Make a Story.

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe with whom I have long felt affinity, but she's changed beyond recognition. For a start, she says "Oh dear, oh diddley dear" often enough to drive her children to matricide; then they have to help her hang out the washing, even though it's about to rain; finally, instead of whipping them soundly before sending them to bed, she has a crisis of conscience and begs them to break her whip, in an embarrassing display of self-abasement. I don't think she's the same old woman at all.

But then, schools' writers have to take so much more political correctness on board these days - and writing for children has always been harder than it looks. Treasure Islands (R4) celebrated the work of AA Milne, a master of dialogue whose characters, it was suggested, each correspond to a part of ourselves. Michael Rosen (a self-confessed Piglet, with Tigger tendencies) was celebrating the 70th birthday of Winnie the Pooh, hero of 20 simple stories that have always been enormously popular, partly because of the perfect marriage of Milne and his illustrator EH Shepherd.

And then some real children appeared on Daire Brehan's Afternoon Shift (R4). Two girls from the same boarding school, winners of an audio-diary competition, talked us through last Christmas, which was the first they had spent apart from their fathers. Divorce exacts a painful toll from such children, and this was a profoundly moving account of the price they paid. One described her grandmother's anxious and upsetting attempt to win sympathy for the absent father; the other sobbed to discover that her father had been sent to an orphanage at her age. Together, these honest narratives said more than statistics or documentaries ever do. You could only hope that making the tape had helped them a little, if only by deepening their friendship.

Finally, the 1956 Hungarian revolution, as seen through teenage eyes. Paul Neuburg was 17 then, and left Budapest for the West. Returning 40 years on, he sought out his classmates and heard tales of their lives, tough under communism and often tougher now. Where is 1956? (R4) he asked, metaphysically: seared into their souls was the answer.

The Joke (R4) treated a similar subject dramatically, telling of the visit paid to his homeland by Adam and his daughter Jules, in the course of which a quite astonishing number of wrongs are righted. The play offered an improbable family of accents: Jules spoke nasal Estuarine, Adam native Etonian and an ancient Hungarian aunt uttered contemporary slang in the artfully cracked and distressed style of a fake Goya. I'm not complaining, being child enough still to be pleased when, however unlikely, anything on the radio has a happy ending.

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