RADIO / But Tony Benn goes on forever

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The Independent Culture
PRINCE CHARLES has a lot to answer for, and I don't mean adultery. Thanks to a colander- full of leaks about his television appearance, the world was invited to Call Nick Ross (R4) on the subject of his defence of the faith. On this evidence, he's going to have the very devil of a time of it defending the diverse beliefs of his subjects. But all is not lost. In a call of omnipotent garrulity, Tony Benn assured us of his own personal immortality. He will be there, he said confidently, when the Queen dies and the Privy Council is called in to re-create the kingdom. If anybody objects to the proclamation of the new King it cannot be issued, and he is going to object. All we can do now is pray that the Queen lives forever.

Manning the barricades with Ross was Lord St John. He is, he said, an old-fashioned Catholic Tory Unionist, and as a species practically extinct. Not extinct enough for the West Country, which threw up callers promising to root out corruption and complaining about St Norman. 'What's 'e doin' there?' asked one of them, 'e's not one of us.' Beleaguered, he protested that Catholics can surely be admitted to BBC studios. Even a harassed Nick Ross had to be put straight: 'It's the accession we're talking about Nick, not the ascension.' That's a relief.

If Benn gets his way and we elect our next sovereign, my vote will go to Sir Fitzroy Maclean. (Come to think of it, doesn't that Fitzroy suggest a drop of royal blood?) John Miller talked to him last Sunday for Home Truths (R4), a series about people who have lived and worked abroad.

After doing time at Eton - 'very uncomfortable, very bad food, full of very tough characters, the best preparation you can have for roughing it' - Sir Fitzroy was a diplomat in Moscow in the Thirties. He described a horrible moment when a swinging light revealed Stalin looking down from a tiny window on the courtroom where sentence of death was being passed on the victims of his infamous show trials. Parachuted into Yugoslavia during the war, Maclean made a friend of Tito, whom he admired for his independence of mind and extraordinary strength in unifying his country, a feat that seems, in retrospect, to have been almost miraculous.

This remarkable man survived innumerable perils only to be mugged in Knightsbridge in the Seventies, but even then his reaction was positive. He was mightily impressed by the skill of his assailants. The muggers got a pound note and a picture of his wife. He did better out of it: the suddenness with which he hit the pavement effected a permanent cure for his arthritis. Miller asked him all the right questions, including one about what England can offer the world today. His thoughtful answer was that we provide the concept of a loyal opposition which is the envy of states whose government can only change by violent coup.

Earlier that evening, Radio 4 was host to the Open University. Bemused students on the Maths Miscellany course were offered a hilarious portrait of Sir Christopher Wren, Kit to his friends. These included jolly Jack Aubrey in reminiscent mood with bibulous Bob Hooke, who'd been taking a course of physick with dear old Boyle. People banged doors and smashed crockery in the background to give Greek restaurant verisimilitude to the battles of the Civil War and the two old soaks quaffed on. Old Kit, we heard, took to maths like a sausage to the pan, or more of your fine sack to me tankard eh? Phwa, phwa, don't mind if I do. It came as a bit of a shock to learn that Wren rectified the cycloid. Stap me vittles with a right good will.

Over on Radio 3 an idiot preened himself. Perhaps it's not fair to call a Balliol don an idiot, but if you heard English Eccentrics you may agree. Jonathan Barnes (constantly billed as brother of the more famous Julian) considers himself extremely clever and what's the point in being modest? So he dresses in 18th-century garb for his lectures on Plato. Gosh, how clever. As he described the ponytail that balanced his sizeable nose, the frilly shirt and the colourful waistcoat and breeches, you wondered whether such wilful showing-off could count as eccentricity. Perhaps a dose of Eton would have improved him - or perhaps not. And anyway, shouldn't he have pronounced them weskit and britches?

When Radio 3 is not distracted by twits, it is busy being its endearing self. Four of its generally unsung presenters have been offering glorious music lately. There can be no better way to start the day than with Andrew McGregor On Air. At 7 on Wednesday, he began with a lovely Chopin Ballade that perfectly suited the calm dawn of high summer. His DJ chat hits just the right level - knowledge without preachiness. The same is true of the omnipresent soothing tones of Susan Sharpe and Catriona Young. Sharpe's Midweek Choice and cuddly Geoffrey Smith's Jazz Record Requests are the only request shows to sound grateful to their listeners for coming up with such good ideas. Eat your heart out, Nick Ross.

Starting this week in the Sunday Review: a bigger, better guide to the day's radio. See page 79.