RADIO / Ain't no waves without wind

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MAKING her debut in the medium with The Hole in the Top of the World (R3), Fay Weldon showed an immediate grasp of the first law of the radio play - set the thing at the South Pole. Or the North Pole. Or up a mountain. Or in the desert. Or somewhere out at sea. Anywhere that calls for a wind machine.

Wind, preferably with a hint of a howl, is the perfect sound effect. It supplies atmosphere by the air-bagful, and it doesn't get in the way of the dialogue. The opposite, in fact. Speech over wind creates a peculiarly striking effect.

Of course, even in the age of Michael Palin and Ranulph Fiennes, excuses for having your characters fetch up in the most inhospitable place on earth are thin on the ground. You can build events around a polar expedition (as George MacBeth did with Anna's Story, the Radio 3 Sunday play the previous week) or do what Weldon did and set the action in a research station - the type of enclosed world in which dramatic tension flourishes.

Not that realism has ever been one of Weldon's priorities. Her taste in settings is often fantastic - think of the cliff-top setting for The Life and Loves of a She-Devil - but they are used to give point to that apparently inexhaustible theme, the Sex War.

Doing battle on the ice cap were Walter Matthau (Matt, a scientist) and Valerie Landsbergh (Nina, his young assistant). At 72, Matthau was making his first appearance in a radio play. 'Since I throw money away I have to keep working,' he told the Radio Times. The BBC obviously pays better than it used to. Matthau's lack of sympathy for the medium ('Radio is the kind of fake acting I don't like') didn't stop him putting in a performance that was so good you forgot that, more than most actors, he tends to do the job with his face. But those hang-dog looks were all there in the drawl - world-weary, pleading, irascible.

Matt's problem was simple. He couldn't decide whether he wanted Nina or his ex-wife Simone. Nina and Simone's problem was even simpler. It was Matt. The piece showed Weldon at her most aphoristic. 'Better to marry than to burn,' says Matt, and 'The past isn't another country - it's here in your head.' The wisecracks were neatly tailored to the Matthau method: 'I can't hear myself with all that euphony going on,' he complains as Nina sticks on the Vivaldi. Weldon should write more for radio.

No wind in The Newsagent and the Counsellor (R4), Don Howarth's Monday Play, unless you count some of the passages in this gentle, over-long two-hander about stress behind the counter.

With such accomplished performers as Stephen Moore and Maggie Steed, the listener was far from unrewarded, and there was some affecting dialogue between two decent, humble people trying to make sense of a world in which stepsons are sullen and lazy, and stepdaughters go out with chaps of the 'wrong' colour. But Moore's newsagent was too sensible, Steed's counsellor too refined, and the bigger play that should have emerged from a very small one never quite made it.

Not many Englishmen have been enjoying their team's cricket tour to India, but Brian Johnston wasn't going to let a few innings defeats spoil his fun. At 80, the country's oldest schoolboy is making his first visit to the sub- continent, and in Test Match Special (R5) showing as much enthusiasm as ever, blithely muddling up Radio 5 and Radio 3, giggling over the name of the Bombay ground where the third Test took place (the Wankhede Stadium - ho-ho) but still managing to make his descents into puerility endearing.

One of Johnston's many distinctions is being more closely associated with cake than any public figure since Marie Antoinette. The fact that he was half- way across the world was no obstacle to the baking division of his fan club. The first cake duly arrived and Johnston was able to assure an anxious audience that it was being kept cool 'under a fan'. You see, you just can't do radio without a wind machine.