RADIO / A real labour of love: Robert Hanks reviews Radio 4's hard left gone soft, and the cutting edge of medical satire

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The Independent Culture
Having long recognised that nobody takes the slightest notice of party political broadcasts, the Labour Party has concentrated for some years now on using the mass media in more subtle ways, not trying to spell out its manifesto or score political points, but making itself more human and approachable. You only have to think back to the early 1970s, and the way Tony Benn insinuated himself into the hearts of a generation of children by lending his name to a long-running series of navely drawn cartoons about a bowler- hatted man who every week entered a fantasy world through the changing-room at the back of a fancy-dress shop.

More recently, politicians from the left of the party have been turning up with surprising regularity on Radio 4 - a few weeks ago there was The Greening of Red Ken, a rather dull series in which Ken Livingstone visited zoos and flower shows and talked about his love of nature and fondness for gardening. This morning, you can tune into Blunkett on Borders, in which the Sheffield MP visits Hadrian's Wall. And over the past month Mr Benn has been re-establishing himself as one of the more lovable figures in British politics through The Benn Tapes (Radio 4, Wednesday).

Mr Benn has been putting his thoughts on tape every day for more than 25 years; and the main emotion you feel listening to the series is gratitude to the producer, Keith Jones, for having edited this vast archive down into manageable 15-minute slots. It's tempting to say that what we are hearing is the tip of the iceberg, but that would be wrong. For one thing, it doesn't begin to suggest the scale of Jones' task; and for another, you can't imagine The Benn Tapes sinking anything much. In last week's programme, for instance, Benn's central revelation was that he didn't see eye to eye with Jim Callaghan on many matters of policy, but he thought he was a very nice chap. Perhaps the best analogy would be to say that from a quarter of a century of Mr Benn's dirty laundry, we're getting a few choice suds.

What the Benn tapes do offer is some of the personal flavours of government - a sense that it's carried out by human beings who chat to each other normally, not forever scoring points through heavily scripted soundbites. In this sense, what we're getting isn't so much propaganda for the Labour Party, or even for Tony Benn personally (although the image that emerges of a rambling kindly man can't do him any harm): it's propaganda for the whole business of politics.

Struck Off and Die (Radio 4, Friday) puts across a point of view rather less effectively. Phil Hammond and Tony Gardner, both junior doctors, use jokes and sketches to debunk medicine, their view being that too many doctors are condescending middle-class white males. The point is fair enough, but you wished they'd make it more concisely and subtly.

A fairly typical joke from the first programme had one of the pair telling you that everybody has to pass a particularly gruelling interview to get into medical school. Cue brief interview sketch - Candidate: 'Hello daddy.' Interviewer: 'Welcome aboard, son.' Under this bludgeoning, you start to yearn for the scalpel.

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