Radio: A marriage of twisted minds

The week on radio

Weddings, even in the best- regulated families, have the disruptive potential of a millennium bug. In Victorian novels, a wedding frequently provides the lurid backdrop for a ghastly denouement. Take Lucy in Walter Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor. Tricked into marrying the wrong man, she spoils her party and her white frock by spilling the blood of her groom all over both. Or take poor, plain Jane Eyre, advancing in innocence towards her adored Mr Rochester, only to be thwarted at the altar by Mr Mason announcing the existence of his sister, the first Mrs Rochester.

Jean Rhys was inspired by this latter event to write The Wide Sargasso Sea, which describes Bertha Mason's exotic early life in a "prequel" to Charlotte Bronte's book. In the same way, Ronald Frame has created a credible past for Miss Havisham, the desiccated, abandoned bride who haunts Great Expectations in her tattered, yellowing wedding dress. The result could well be a baggy, voluminous novel. In fact, it is miraculously compressed into a superb 90-minute radio play.

Havisham (R3) is the name of a Kentish brewery family, occupying the shifting social ground between respectability and "trade". According to Dickens, "while you cannot possibly be genteel and bake, you can be genteel as never was and brew" (that apparently careless "as never was" betrays his own ineradicable snobbishness). In the play, Catherine, Mr Havisham's only daughter, returns from her French grandmother's funeral to discover that an uncouth half-brother, the result of her father's second marriage to their cook, has moved in. Immediately he begins to undermine her and to mock her pretensions: "All about the town they talk of your pride, the haughty Miss Havisham."

The clues are all there in Dickens but Frame has fashioned a splendid tale from those dusty hints. The plausible villain, in league with the wicked brother, woos Catherine until she is helplessly besotted. His last-minute defection is worsened by her discovery that he is already married to her own dearest friend, Emma Fielding, a truly great actress, which takes Catherine along the narrow path to her distracted doom without ever (quite) stumbling into risible melodrama. There is a marvellous summer scene in a windmill, when she swooningly gasps "Oh, it's so hot. I must ... unbutton my sleeves." Ridiculously, you find yourself thinking oh yes, I know just how you feel.

Natalie Wheen belongs to a rare breed. Born of Boadicea out of Hereward the Wake, she is bold and blunt, caring not what she says nor whither she wanders. Sometimes, it's on with the sparkly jacket and off to Glyndebourne; sometimes, as on Monday, it's fish out the wellies for a sewage works.

The Influence of Effluent (R4) was originally entitled Oh, Shit: it's a better name. We're prissy about what we produce. Someone once proved that each individual could fertilise a field of turnips annually - but that's not how it works here. Later in the series, Wheen will return to India, where such recycling is commonplace, but this first paddle went down the history trail, via cholera epidemics, the night-soil man and the sludge boat.

She's a robust guide, conducting an in-tunnel interview "in London's breakfast" and enthusing about the addictive fragrance, reminiscent of her local swimming-pool: "It's the same in Calcutta and in Boston," she said, "it reminds you of what the whole human family is up to." It reminded me of the farmer's daughter who complained that her father always talked about manure. Her mother replied that it had taken her years to get him to call it that.

Underneath The Archers (R4), all is not well. Once subtitled "an everyday story of country folk", in the days when the Min of Ag regularly dropped advice about the warble-fly into the sour-dough of the dialogue, now, this enormously popular saga of Nineties village life, as it has become, is enduring one of its recurrent seismic changes.

Most disturbing of the fallen Archers is Shula. For 40 years, she has been all that is pure and righteous. Cruelly widowed when slimy Mark was killed; savagely beaten by Simon Pemberton (you'll remember, even Anna Ford called him, um, a bit of effluent); struggling to raise the sickly Daniel; she has always sported the brightest halo.

Suddenly, she has become the local slapper, pouncing on anything with a pulse and, incredibly, falling for The Doctor, a man whose messy personal habits make the Flintstones seem sophisticated. Whatever next? Will the Grundys take up merchant banking and Brian Aldridge grow designer stubble? Will Shula realise her errors and rekindle her love for Alistair? In the battle of the worthies, my money is on the tidy vet.

HEARD ON AIR

I've had a call, the saddest I've ever had, from a man who lost a cousin in Omagh today.

EDWINA CURRIE

Late Night Currie, R5

Anything I say seems so weak, so inappropriate and so shallow that one is tempted just to be silent.

REV ANDREW SMITH

Sunday Worship, R4

Most people will be happy to embrace him (Clinton) in his tragedy as they have in his triumphs.

Breakfast Programme, R5

I've seen more chemistry between a rock and a walnut than between Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman.

ALAN FRANKS Lorraine Kelly, Talk Radio

Moira's idea of Paradise still involves her spending most of her days with only a bag of dried dog-food to sit on.

JOHN PEEL Home Truths, R4

Bach really annoys me - perfect computer music - he's entirely susceptible to artificial intelligence. Or none at all.

BRIAN ENO Handel in the Strand, Vivaldi on the Phone, R3

I know a lot of you enjoy hearing old TV theme-tunes on a Hammond organ.

NIGEL OGDEN The Organist Entertains, R2

Thatcher will probably go down in history as the greatest peacetime leader.

DEREK HATTON R5

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