RADIO / And not a drop to drink

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The Independent Culture
THE AIR was full of water this week. A Venetian, Vivaldi, was Composer of the Week (R3), washed down with Martin Jarvis's smooth readings from an 18th- century account of Venice. And death by water was the subject of Dunwich (R3), the tale of the Suffolk port that slowly sank into the sea. In the 13th century, it had 50 churches, two monasteries, two hospitals and two MPs, and was among the top five ports and 20 towns in England. Now there is a road and some graves.

David Perry's feature told the story well. The melancholy details, related by historians and locals, stood unadorned, save for mournful music which rose to melodrama at the description of the breach in nature that caused Dunwich's decline - a storm in January 1286 that blocked the harbour with a million tons of shingle. Poetry inspired by the town, most of it mediocre, was read ('All, all, dissolve, nor leave a wreck behind'). The verse, and the voices of contributors, were unattributed, both frustrating and inappropriate to a tale about identities being washed away.

The chill lay in realising how recent was Dunwich's erosion and how continuous. Between 1903 and 1919 the All Saints Church, 43 metres long, slipped into the sea at the rate of two metres a year. In December 1990, six yards of cliff went in a storm. The bones of those buried in the churchyard washed up on the beach. The woman who described Dunwich as a good place to paint must be in the school of Lucian Freud.

The town also turned up in Water, Water, Everywhere (R2), a neatly assembled collage which was trailed in Radio Times as winner of the URTI Grand Prix 1992. Whatever the programme won for, it can't have been Miles Kington's commentary. Kington stated his theme early and often: 'Water is a life force, which means that it gives and takes away.' Out of this not-so-illuminating paradox he contrived a number of others: 'Drink and drowning: the only difference between them is one of degree . . . We love to get our whole bodies wet; we hate to get our feet wet . . . When we're sad, water comes out of our eyes; when we're happy we laugh - till we cry.' The judges may have regarded this as prose poetry; it seemed more like stating the obvious.

Boogie Up the River (R4), Mark Wallington's dramatised account of a trip to the source of the Thames, with a hideous Zambian beagle, Boogie, has barely to take to the water, but the pratfalls and capsizings ahead are easy to spot. So far the best jokes have been when the dog (represented by Ronald Herdman's stagey barks) is off-stage. Wallington's girlfriend is a promising character: a very amateur poet ('The black plastic bags of humanity drive Audi Quattros over the rubble of my solemnity') of uncertain profession - possibly a seller of multi-storey car parks. But sadly she's been left behind, and Timothy Spall, gently comic as Wallington, has mainly doggy business to play off.

The Afterlife (R3), John Updike's semi-autobiographical story, read by the author, was set in East Anglia during the great storm of 1987, which was described with Updike's usual freakish accuracy: 'Trees thrashed in odd slow motion and overhead wires swayed as if the earth itself had lost its moorings.' An American couple visit friends who have fled America's 'noise, vulgarity and violence'. In the night, Carter (Updike?) stumbles on the stairs: 'As he soared through black space, he had time to think what a terrible noise his crashing body would make.' The afterlife is not death, but that late middle age in which the world begins to be not with us. Next day Carter starts to feel as if he is 'going through the motions'; his 'voice sounded dubbed'.

Updike's work is just right for radio, teeming with imagery and brilliance, without losing its edge or becoming flowery. The only danger is of missing one of his nonchalant apercus - about Americans, 'prissy-voiced' BBC weather announcers, or women, who are described as having 'the passion of conspirators, the energy of the underground, supplied by hope of seizing power'. Updike's reading was both precise and fluent - better than many radio actors, whose performances are too much of a performance. His voice is drily genial, slightly breathy, younger than his 60 years; perhaps genius staves off age. He is said to have agreed, in principle, to write an original radio piece (a play or short story) for the BBC. The prospect makes the mouth water.