RADIO / Acts of decline and fall

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The Independent Culture
ON THE bright side, it was a good week for radio drama. Only the message was all doom and gloom. It may be a coincidence, or it may be that dramatists never tire of saying so, but this week there was definitely something rotten in the state of Albion. 'We aren't dead, are we?' wondered Norman, mincing valet to the ancient actor-manager known as Sir in The Dresser (R4), as the sky rained German bombs and theatregoers scuttled for the air- raid shelters. 'Talk about untoward.' Clearly the overripe thespian who had just given his last Lear wasn't the only one under the weather. The nation, we were told, was also in a bit of a state.

Ronald Harwood's chamber piece lays bare the living carcass of an actor, his company and his country. 'We have to face the facts,' said Sir's wife as she inspected the rumpled sack of flesh due on as Lear in an hour. 'I've never done that in my life, your ladyship,' replied Norman. 'I don't see why I should start now. I just like things to be lovely. No pain, that's my motto.' Harwood's script teaches that Norman's hopefulness is not a cure, but part of the disease. Though the play was first performed in 1980, at the start of the recession before this one, that lesson rang truer than ever.

Freddie Jones played Sir then, and played him again here. It can't be easy to do a deplorable old ham without becoming one, but you could just about believe that the women in his entourage held a candle for him. As Norman, Michael Palin was making his radio drama debut. He has played characters not dissimilar to this limp wrist for Python, and a certain shrill one-dimensionality seemed to have carried over. The performance was not quite full-bodied enough to blind you to the fact that, for all the donnen und blitzen lent by allusions to Hitler and Lear, the play's a slighter thing than you think.

Down at the rock bottom of the football league, A Far Cry From Brazil (R4) said more while seeming not to. There was no mention of Albion, except for a passing reference to the plusher office fittings over at West Brom, but the very fact of its not being on Radio 5 told you that Robert East's lively play was more than a lighthearted pen portrait of toiling Macclesborough FC. No, here were even meatier matters than whether it was Alf Ramsey who killed the fine art of wing play.

You only needed to listen to the referee (Doug Fisher), who pitched up to officiate without the hair dryer that kept his few remaining strands from flying away in the wind. 'This is never a 90- minute hair-style,' he whined. Even the man in charge cares only about presentation. Ring any bells? Late in the game East gave it to us straight when the ref said, 'I'm responsible for the moral decline of the nation, am I?', but the play's darker purpose had loomed long before that.

The script introduced farce to football. Some would say that they're pretty well acquainted already - whatever, they seemed matched here: director Matthew Walters drove the plot along at a hectic pace, as if in imitation of the game itself. Well played.

Best of all was Offa's Daughter (R3), a gripping psychodrama set in an England closer to Lear's time than our own. When it comes to scene-setting, 'Mercia, 843AD' tends to be a bit of a turn-off for your average listener on the hunt for a slice of light entertainment, but Adam Thorpe's latest radio play was a feast of sensuousness and mystery. At the heart of the plot was an old book, an old monk and a young monk, but any likeness to Eco's The Name of the Rose was strictly coincidental: this was its own work. Old Brother Edward (Richard Johnson), as close to death's door as Sir, is recounting to a novice the story of his brush with Eadburgh, Offa's daughter and Beothric's widow (Tara Fitzgerald when young, Sian Phillips when old). In fact she widowed herself, sprinkling crushed glass into her odious husband's wine, after which it was downhill all the way to an exiled beggar's life outside the gates of Pavia. There the young Edward (Linus Roache), penitentially humping a holy text from city to city, learns her story and is slowly insinuated into it.

Thorpe's labyrinthine plot, which folded a flashback within a flashback, turned beautifully in on itself like an elaborate glass sculpture. Thanks to fine central performances, the potentially arid themes of free will and retribution came packaged with the beguiling smell of apple orchards, cinnamon and Arabian oils, references to which were liberally sprinkled through the script. The simple act of listening has rarely so involved the other senses.