Radio: A brief history of Chumly and Bumly

Eddie Mair blunders into an aristocratic mantrap while Paxman tangles with P J O'Rourke
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Good news. Start the Week (R4) is getting better. They've clearly encouraged their guests to familiarise themselves with each others' efforts and they've decided to reintroduce the female side-kick - this week, Lisa Jardine on top form. The result is quite like conversation. Even Jeremy Paxman seems to have relaxed into his role, though he was unwise to attack P J O'Rourke without having chapter and verse to hand.

O'Rourke dealt easily with him. Accused of being nothing more than Adam Smith with jokes, he sighed that he wished he was that good, adding "I'd like to be the first writer to say this on national radio: I haven't a single new thing to say." But the ensuing discussions of Balkan peace- keeping and of Islamophobia were really enlightening. By the end, when Paxman cried "Oh lord, we've run out of time," it seemed just like the old days.

Poor Eddie Mair is not having such fun on Broadcasting House (R4). He might well have thought, in his humble, proletarian way, that it was fine to speak respectfully about Lord Cranbourne, great scion of the Cecil family, but he was wrong. It's not just the Featherstonehaughs and the Leveson-Gowers who spring mantraps for the blundering peasantry. Even apparently simple handles can trip up a commoner. A historian pointed out, in that sidelong manner with which those in the know correct the rest of us, that the family name should be pronounced Sissill. And then a grand relation let it be known that the Lordship part is swallowed thus: Cremon. It reminded me of Horatio Bottomley who, when informed that Lord Cholmondely was pronounced Chumly, instantly rechristened himself Bumly. Up the revolution.

But communication is often hard. Take a moment from Tuesday's Today (R4). A man called Jeff Smith was talking to Sue MacGregor, through a ventilation pipe. In order to beat one of those absurd records, this man is determined to stay underground for 141 days. He'd already done 101, sustained by regular supplies of cigarettes and chocolate - makes you wonder if the ventilation pipe doubles as a tiny chimney. The least surprising thing about all this is that his daughter finds conversation with the mad troglodyte much easier when he's 10 feet under.

An altogether more serious ventilation-tube featured in the week's most impressive example of communication. It was the breathing-tube that kept Gordon Cruikshank alive while he fought to find The Road Back (R4). Cruikshank, a rally-driver and motoring writer, broke his neck in a car accident in Germany. After five months, unable to move anything save a few muscles in his arm, he gained access to a computer and decided to record all that he remembered since the crash. It was extremely sobering.

But it was also dynamic, angry and strenuously honest. Listeners now know what it feels like to be on a life-support machine; how terrifying and exhausting it is to be left to breathe alone at night; how desperately a bored tetraplegic longs for someone to do something - anything - within his field of vision. It was also very disturbing to learn that - even in Stoke Mandeville - when the tube was removed, nobody thought to clear Cruikshank's nose and help his breathing; that such a man could be offered grey meat and corn flakes when he couldn't chew; most of all that, when you turn a patient's head on a pillow, you must straighten his ear. That crumpled ear caused him repeated, unnecessary pain: "ear" was the first word he wrote.

The diary was adapted and the play cleverly directed by Pete Atkin. Cruikshank was played, with scorching intelligence, by Peter Capaldi. His voice was clear and strong as he argued with himself about how many of the functions of his brain might have been destroyed, but the voices of his devoted family and nurses were distant, hollow, muffled. The effect was a little like Jean-Dominique Bauby's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly but with one, soaring difference. The tragic Bauby died: Cruikshank, we heard at the end - though still paralysed - has resumed his journalism and even drives himself to work.

Doctors provide the stimulus for Graeme Garden's new series What's the Bleeding Time? (R2). A cheap way of making programmes is to ask a comedian to choose amusing recordings and string them together, but a lot depends on the comic. Bob Monkhouse's R2 series, earlier this year, managed to combine tedium, repetition and savagery, while Jimmy Tarbuck and Rhona Cameron consistently failed to tickle any of my Funny Bones (R4). But John Bird was quietly hilarious in That Mocking Bird (R2) and now Garden has forced me to laugh embarrassingly loud in a public place.

His credentials are excellent. A qualified doctor himself, he grew up in the north-east of Scotland, where the GP kept a pet duck and a dog. He'd use a horse and cart for his rounds and, on the way back, threw his hat into a field for the dog to retrieve and carry home. In the evenings, he'd sleep by the fire with the duck on his lap, until the bird quacked at midnight to remind him to go to bed. With this kind of chat, Garden filled in the gaps between some great sketches. Here are a few punch-lines:

Ronnie Barker as Dr De'Ath: "Funny, tennis elbow isn't usually fatal."

Mel Smith: "You can relax: it's not what you think, it's chickenpox. Just make a list of all the chickens you've slept with."

Leonard Rossiter as Reggie Perrin: "It's not me, it's a friend. He, he just hasn't been able to as it were very much at all...."

Rowan Atkinson as the Elizabethan Blackadder: "I've never had anything you doctors didn't try and cure with leeches."

Alas, these days, as Garden remarked, patients know too much. The doctor can no longer expect gratitude for prescribing a tincture of bladderwort and a rub of goose-grease.