RADIO / A fraud with the frisson of fact

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SHORTLY before he died, Robert Maxwell boasted in a phone call to the editor of Panorama who was hot on his trail: 'I give good value.' On the evidence of Maxwell: The Last Days (R4), in which the call was recreated, there may be some truth in this. Mike Walker's drama-documentary, which was smuggled into the schedules with all the secrecy of a Liechtenstein trust (this newspaper was the only one to bill it last Sunday), made compelling listening - a low-grade Citizen Kane with the frisson of being fact.

It also showed the limitations of its hybrid genre: the switching between dramatised Life of Bob and Money Programme-style exposition of the Maxwell finances gave neither beast full rein. The documentary bits (narrated by Valerie Singleton with Blue Peter earnestness) were clear but over- familiar; the drama, sharp but underdeveloped. The commentary teed up scenes whose context listeners might have been left to guess for themselves.

On the plus side there was Alfred Marks, booming and bullying as the tycoon. The voice, with its resonating bass (a lot deeper than the pocket as it turned out) and rough edge, was expertly caricatured. At times the original tones were caught with uncanny accuracy: in the way, for instance, Maxwell pronounced his favourite word 'sue' as if it were the first syllable of 'fewer', or possibly 'sewer'. The mind's eye may have been conned by prior knowledge, but Marks was able to convey by voice alone Maxwell's bulk.

As is customary with this bastard form, strenuous claims have been made for the scrupulousness of the research: every word is said to have had a first-hand witness. This is a dubious assertion, since people can rarely recall in detail conversations held months earlier. More importantly such transcripts (apparently compiled from a small number of witnesses, such as drivers and secretaries) cannot hope to convey the complexity of the man. They can recreate his manner: the obscenity ('Get me that dickhead]' seemed to be his catchphrase) that at times sweetened into charm. But some licence with the facts was needed to get to the heart of Maxwell's hefty matter, sifting the self-deceit from all the other fraud. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but often fiction is truer.

Bookshelf (R4), the half an hour radio devotes each week to books, has never quite squared the equation between seriousness and accessibility since losing its founder, Frank Delaney. Under Nigel Forde, it has always been a bit soft-edged, as if its ideal listener were a sparky fourth-former. Last week Forde was in Dublin, reporting from locations that seemed to have been chosen as much for their noise level as literary merit. 'The leafy suburb of Dublin' where Joyce was born might have been a motorway lay- by, such was the din of rushing traffic; the discussion on Irish writing, from the Davy Burns pub, appeared, from the clattering of plates, to have been recorded in the kitchen.

Perhaps all this interfered with Forde's interrogatory skills - more Wogan than Walden at the best of times. 'Does that distance enable you to say more about our own experience and the human condition?' he asked John Banville of his historical settings. 'No, I'm afraid I have no interest in our experience and the human condition,' Banville replied. When it came to Seamus Heaney, the questioning was just as limp: 'You grew up on a farm in Derry, what sort of childhood did you have?' The great wordsmith was unable to resist the silly answer this silly question deserved: 'Well, I suppose, to be tautological, it was a farm childhood.' Perhaps wisely, Forde let his listeners ask the questions in this week's phone-in. Quizzed on the craft of writing, Paul Bailey and Penelope Lively gave thoughtful, informative, but often contradictory answers. At times it seemed as if they were redrafting the Ethel Merman song: 'Anything you can do, I can do differently . . .' She kept a journal, he didn't; he started with a title, for her the title came last; she writes short stories, he doesn't. They brought to mind the matchless advice offered to a class of writers by Sinclair Lewis. 'Hands up, all those who want to be writers] Then why the hell aren't you at home writing?'

The best recent literary programme was a short feature on John Buchan's Thirty-Nine Steps, In Richard Hannay's Footsteps (R4). It was first heard on Radio Scotland, and repeated last week along with dramatisations of The Thirty-Nine Steps and Witchwood, and a new documentary on Buchan's paradoxical religious stance, The Presbyterian Cavalier, which taken together made an enjoyable Buchanalia - and without an anniversary in sight.

The Presbyterian Cavalier offered the fuller portrait of Buchan, the Hannay programme the better likeness. Cavalier's picture of piety, defined in pulpit tones by Tom Fleming, was too hagiographic by half: the casual racism of the books (their obsession with scheming Jews and foreigners) went unmentioned. A more convincing, less serenely stoic Buchan emerged from In Hannay's Footsteps. And by tracing the disputed topography of the adventurer's Scottish trek, it provided a base from which to launch more fanciful speculations (the spotter plane pursuing Hannay in the heather was seen as 'a terrible image of guilt . . . the eye of God'). Here was proof if needed that you can dig deep into literature without mentioning the human condition.