RADIO / A man's world: Robert Hanks on misplaced machismo and the minds of murderers

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The Independent Culture
IT'S USUALLY a mistake to identify an actor with the roles he plays, but Terry Molloy makes it hard to avoid. Time after time he ends up as a macho hardhead, a man with deep convictions about what it means to be a man - a testosterone-fuelled Picasso in the Radio 3 drama Guernica, Mike 'A man who can't hold his beer ain't a real man' Tucker in The Archers, and now Maurice, a Derbyshire butcher with the accent on the 'butch', in Big Boys Don't Cry (Radio 4, Tuesday). You just know it would be a bad idea to spill his pint.

David Bowker's Thirty-Minute Theatre pitches Maurice, the typical Molloy unreconstructed male, up against Michael, an archetypal New Man. Encouraged by his wife to take up some kind of exercise, Maurice goes along to a group called 'Action Men', hoping for a spot of hill-walking. It turns out Michael, the group's founder, is interested in exploring purely internal landscapes: he speaks of self- discovery and consciousness-raising. But Maurice's bluff practical nature soon penetrates to the truth that he is using a jargon of spirituality to dominate and manipulate the other, weaker members of the group, and he takes the other lads off to the pub.

The theme of the mountebank using an unworldly front as a means to power goes back at least as far as Moliere; but this was no Tartuffe. The satire was too widely targeted to be effective - Michael's enthusiasms include reincarnation, which immediately lets off the hook all those wimpish New Men who don't go in for that sort of nonsense. And the characterisation wasn't nearly tight enough - Maurice's stubborn insistence that he thought the group would involve ping- pong suggested a level of stupidity incompatible with his shrewdness in spotting Michael's wiles.

What might have saved it would have been a greater degree of self- awareness in the characters. Michael lets his small daughter paint all over the walls, which is plausible enough, but justifies it by saying 'We believe Persephone's going to be a great artist,' which isn't: most egotists are better at hiding it than that.

Still, individuals with a totally inadequate sense of self-awareness and irony do turn up in real life: take Mark Fido, the 'murder expert' who presented Imagine John Lennon Was Dead (Radio 2, Tuesday). This purported to be an investigation of the mind of Mark Chapman, Lennon's murderer. In reality, it consisted of a rather skimpy biography of Chapman with the gaps filled in by some colour supplement psychoanalysis, a lot of old Beatles records and some recycled facts about Lennon that would be well-known to anybody with even the faintest interest in the subject (the 'Bigger than Jesus' row, the bed-ins with Yoko, etc).

The programme was apparently intended to show a convergence between Chapman and Lennon - that their fates were in some way intertwined - but most of the connections offered were pretty tenuous. For instance, Chapman was taught the guitar by his father, and Fido saw 'a curious parallel' in the fact that Lennon learned the guitar from a parent, too; but since the parent in his case was his mother, most people would regard this as a point of difference.

We also had to put up with a highly opinionated account of Lennon's life - once he became entangled with Yoko Ono, he became 'preposterously self-important' - he lost his 'cheeky scouse irreverence' and became a 'silly beardy weirdy'. It's not that it's wrong to criticise Lennon - just that Fido's own over-dramatising, ludicrously self-important tone made it sound inappropriate.

In the end, there was a gap between Chapman the faintly strange young Beatles fan and Chapman the full-fledged psychopath that Fido didn't begin to cover. A familiar crime didn't seem any more comprehensible after these draggy, distasteful 60 minutes. By contrast, this week's Reading Aloud (Radio 4, Sunday) managed to make you feel you understood two murderers you'd never heard of before in just over 25 minutes. Rosemary Leach and Jim Broadbent read two extracts from Tony Parker's book Life after Life, a collection of interviews with convicted murderers serving life sentences. These two were a woman who had stabbed a drunk Dutch sailor after he called her a whore; and a professional criminal and self-styled 'animal' who had hit a policeman with a brick while running from the scene of a crime. The extracts read here left you with a sense that you understood the logic of the murders - you could feel, along with the killers, why they had done it, and perhaps that you might have done the same yourself if you'd reached a similar pitch of desperation. That could be taken as a criticism; it's meant as high praise.