RADIO / A Cardigan wildly unbuttoned but certainly woolly

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the earliest soundrecordings ever made has preserved the voice of Tennyson. Every so often you can catch it on the radio. Apparently standing half a league from the microphone in a tropical downpour, his lugubrious bass intones his most famous poem. Only familiarity allows the hearer to recognise the cadences of The Charge of the Light Brigade. Tennyson's subject was the futile, foolhardy, heroic cavalry assault on Russian guns outside Balaclava, which took place in October 1854. Of the 600 or so horsemen involved, 113 were killed and 134 wounded in what became, largely thanks to Tennyson, the best-known action of the Crimean war.

The poem was the startingpoint for Kingsley Amis's play, Captain Nolan's Charge (R4). This time Steve Hodson replaced the poet. In out of the storm he came, to recite against a string orchestra practising a little gentle Mendelssohn. His reading sounded cross, sinister and slightly Welsh, as if Richard III had turned up in Milk Wood. Worse was to come. One by one the protagonists

appeared, greeting each other with abbreviated CVs, to help the listener tell them apart. Such dialogue is more risible than plausible, so to make it all more comfy, everyone had a drink. And then another. As we listened, gasping, they downed doubtful sherry which ''can just about be swallowed if you grit your teeth'', followed by gin, brandy, rum, vodka, port, champagne, more vodka and a small glass of still white wine.

Thus fortified, they set about revealing the plot. Amis has a theory that Captain Nolan deliberately misinterpreted Lord Raglan's famously ambiguous command. Instead of capturing some small accessible guns, Nolan persuaded Lord Lucan to order a charge against, and through, impregnable batteries. His motive was to demoralise the Russians by demonstrating to them ''what a deadly opponent the British cavalryman can be''. Realising his mistake, he was killed as he tried to turn the brigade back. (Sixty years later Haig had learnt nothing from this and pitted horses against guns on the Western Front.)

This theory would make an interesting essay. It made silly radio. Given a script woven seamlessly from variegated cliches, the actors did their

best, but they were stitched up. Raglan was certainly a little woolly but Cardigan, though wildly unbuttoned, refused to flap, despite some clumsy ribbing. The sound-effects of the charge itself used all the mighty acoustic potential of crumpled tissue-paper, a single jingling bit, one whinny and some

raindrops in a water-butt. Awkward removal men seemed to be taking a heavy sofa downstairs and in the distance you could hear someone feeding hungry hens. Nobody suggested to the orchestra that it was time to go back to Palm Court; the band played on.

Hundreds of horses were killed that day - though in this version they suffered in silence - so it is a relief to turn to a survivor. On Tuesday Molly, Dylan Winter's faithful mare, was safely tethered outside King's Cross, having pulled a barge-load of soap and candles all the way from Liverpool for A Hack on the Cut (R4). There was a bad moment when Molly was glimpsed floating in the water, but this proved to be Molly the dying swan. (Why do so many people call their animals after one of my daughters?) Winter is a cheerful chap, naughty enough to ask the swan-rescue lady what roast swan tastes like, and he makes wonderful radio out of the people he meets. And Molly (the horse) is downright heroic. A Balaclava for a character like her would be a really useful bit of knitting.