RADIO : An Archer goes to Ealing

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The Independent Culture
AS THE Boccherini minuet tinkled out, Mrs Wilberforce suffered a sweet, sad spasm of nostalgia. Her father, she said, had engaged a string quartet for her 21st birthday party, and, as they played that very tune, news came that the old Queen had died, and the party broke up. "All that time ago," she sighed, "in Pangbourne."

For some of us, the Boccherini will always mean The Ladykillers (R4), the best of the Ealing comedies. Adapted by Bruce Bedford for the Cinema 100 season, it lost nothing in translation to radio.

The story is all bizarre logic and gentle humour: Mrs Wilberforce, old and widowed, has settled in the doubtful purlieus of King's Cross with her parrot, General Gordon. Unwittingly, she helps a gang of thieves to rob a van: when she realises what they've done, she insists that they own up. In their increasingly desperate attempts to bump her off they all perish, and she is left explaining to a sceptical policeman that she possesses pounds 60,000 of someone else's money, handily concealed in a cello case. Indulgently, he tells her to toddle off and spend it; in a moment of sublime recklessness, she decides to abandon her nasty old umbrella.

The desperadoes were led by an urbane Edward Petherbridge as the Professor, while Mrs W herself was the utterly delightful Margot Boyd (whose day- job, as Marjorie Antrobus, is keeping members of The Archers in order). Her unfailing trust in the good nature of the villains leads to an enchanting scene when they find themselves attending a tea party for her friends Lettice and Constance. "You pedal the pianola beautifully, Professor," she coos, as the parrot, played with cackling gusto by Johnny Morris, squawks malevolently: "Swab the decks! Man the guns!"

The other excellent radio offering this week came from R3. Celtic Soul examined the phenomenon of a new Celtic Twilight. All things Celtic are suddenly very fashionable, but in Sean Street's five-part investigation into the realities of the old religion, it became clear that its current adherents are fooling themselves. He visited five "holy places", trying to discover what they had to offer. All were beautiful, remote spots, but they are currently being absurdly romanticised. Iona, said Street, is a long way to travel wherever you're coming from, (except, presumably, Mull) but this last resting-place of 60 kings is, like St David's and Glendalough, primarily associated with old saints whose lives were really mainstream Christian, and very tough. New Celts don't want to know that. On Holy Island you can buy braces decorated with the Lindisfarne gospels; in a cafe at Glendalough you can taste apple pie St Kevin-style; but who reads their braces or learns much from a pudding?

At Kildare, the stark orthodoxy of the plainchant Salve Regina accompanied fanciful tales about St Bridget: those who see her as a kind of medieval Germaine Greer, an ideal of feminism, are denying the facts. There is much evidence that the society of her day was rigidly hierarchical, painfully ascetic and pretty misogynistic: St Columb would not allow even a female sheep on Iona. An unidentified voice near the end of this fascinating series put it almost brutally. We look to the Celts, he said, for something to make our lives simpler and more beautiful; we long to distance ourselves from some of the awful things done in our names by elected governments, so we say, "I'm not part of the Anglo-Saxon hegemony: I'm a Celt". But it won't do: it's inaccurate and sentimental - at best a kind of soft racism.

Feminists seeking ancient role models would do better in Scandinavia. Corinne Julius reported for Woman's Hour (R4) on women of the Norse sagas, and they were a feisty bunch. There was Hildsgund, who persuaded her Uncle Flossie (honestly) to wreak vengeance on the murderer of her husband by covering himself with said husband's cloak, full of his dried blood. Some weren't averse to wielding swords themselves. When Aud was teased for wearing breeches, she struck the sleeping Thord, wounding him on both nipples, before leaping onto her horse and galloping off into the night. Don't tell Germaine.

A strong, predominantly female cast mysteriously failed to make much of Jenny Eclair's new sitcom, On Baby Street. The idea is that three women simultaneously conceive in the same London street: one is unwilling, one defiant, one ecstatic. The mood lurches queasily towards frivolity but throws up stereotypes along the way. New life is really too important for banality and, when two of the men are furious at the thought of fatherhood, tragedy grimaces in the wings. Still, it might get better in the central trimester; things often do.

Meanwhile two wise men were in evidence. Alistair Cooke, in a magisterial Letter From America (R4), spoke sadly of the absurd stand-off that brought the US government grinding to a halt for three weeks, while, in eerily identical mid-Atlantic tones, a former American ambassador to London, Raymond Seitz, complained that it was our own system of government that created deadlock. In Letters From Over Here (R4) he suggested that we should have more national holidays to cheer ourselves up. He could be right, especially when the next American import we expect is so vile. The urbane and responsible Derek Cooper solemnly warned us in The Food Programme (R4) that Procter & Gamble propose adding Olestra to their crisps. This additive replicates fat, but is indigestible. Its effect is so disgusting I can scarcely bear to type it. But perhaps you should know. In the quest for slender bodies, diet-conscious Americans seem likely to risk anal leakage.

Sorry about that. To end on a brighter note, the weather men have been moonlighting all week with tiny, twice-daily Starcasts (R4), telling us to lift our eyes to the heavens and observe the brilliance of the sky: trouble is, where we live, every single time it's been raining.