RADIO / Bob's your Oedipus complex

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The Independent Culture
'I KNOW that I was an accident,' Bob Monkhouse admitted during In the Psychiatrist's Chair (R4), confirming the view of critics down the 50 years of his career. Monkhouse opened up eagerly, despite having insisted that he was not curious about himself. He reeled off anxieties like one- liners, delivering devastating verdicts: 'I don't think I have a personality that is that attractive: it's magnetic - I realise I have made it that - and it's always been greedy, hungry.' His 'joyless' family and his brother, whom he 'never liked all that much', fared little better.

There is something about Anthony Clare - or his chair - that makes clams sing like swallows. The psychiatry is a bit of a red herring. Clare draws on his clinical knowledge sparingly: a few mentions of Oedipus just to keep the punters happy. He uses the white coat to cloak inquiries that would otherwise be thought intrusive. He once asked Sir Peter Hall if he had a large sexual appetite (he had) and Anna Massey whether she had missed her period during depressions. It's impossible to imagine any other interviewer exploring so intimately.

But Clare's interviewing success is based on more than psychiatric licence. He brings to a calling dominated by media mediocrities a sharp and compassionate mind. He allows the discussion to take its own shape (with Monkhouse, half the programme was spent on his mother), responding to facets of the interviewee's personality as they are revealed. 'What is the element about you that you don't like?' he asked Monkhouse, apropos of nothing in particular, but cutting to the heart of all that had been revealed before.

Clare varies the tone, switching from discussions of feelings to graphic personal traits, such as Monkhouse's penchant for swigging malt whisky throughout his shows. Clare is never judgemental at such revelations, but frequently startled. He's one of those rare hosts who are actually interested in their guests.

American radio is usually referred to in this country only as a cautionary tale, illustrating the horrors of a deregulated world. American National Public Radio, however, provides a trickle of what we regard as 'quality' - chiefly Radio 4-style documentaries. In Your Place or Mine? (R4), a series of such pieces exploring the Mid-West has been alternating with BBC-produced features on British provincial towns. The coy series title belies the toughness of the reports, which have all dealt with culture clashes within small communities that shatter the picturesque surface of life.

In Sedona, a tiny valley in central Arizona, it was the tourist trade encroaching on a place sacred to American Indians. In Bangor, Welsh-language students feuded with the university union. In Handsworth, Birmingham, black converts to Islam were cold- shouldered by Asian Muslims.

The most striking of the reports so far was last week's They Shall Take up Serpents, an account of the cult of snake-handling in a remote West Virginian church. Through a restrained but graphic narration, and interviews with devotees and opponents, it built up a picture of a religious fundamentalism that rages as fiercely as in the Middle East. Serpent-handlers scouted the countryside with golf clubs adapted into snake hooks. In church, they danced with rattlesnakes in their hands, following the Bible's advice: 'They shall take up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.'

The problem is that it not only hurts them, but occasionally kills them. The religious law, which forbids medical aid if bitten, is in head-on conflict with secular law: one man is serving a 99-year sentence for attempted murder, having exposed his adulterous wife to a nest of vipers. The documentary was sympathetic and even-handed, but could not resist pointing to an irony of the fundamentalist position. Scholars now think that the text about the serpents was added by scribes seeking a punchier end to St Mark's Gospel.