RADIO / Caught in the bunker: Robert Hanks hears old antipathies rising to the surface

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF THE most powerful proofs of the historic origins of the late spat with the Germans came in Friday's edition of Today (Radio 4). John Humphrys interviewed the London correspondent of Die Welt, who had been present at a German embassy briefing over the Schlesinger letter. 'Good morning,' he began. 'Was it a bit like being in a bunker?' He wondered about the atmosphere: 'Were they saying it's all going to calm down now, 'Peace in our time'?' The references to Hitler and Chamberlain seem inescapable: harder to say what brought them on - deliberate provocation, or the unconscious by-product of a powerful mental effort not to mention the war?

In any case, there is something juvenile about the portrayal of Germany as the source of all evil: far better stick to France, as Linda Whetstone did in her attack on the Common Agricultural Policy for Opinion (Radio 4, Thursday). According to her, the only reason we had a CAP in the first place - with resultant thrombosis in world trade, and decimation of agriculture in the developing world - was because the French demanded it. The comment was only an aside, not an integral part of Whetstone's case: listening to 20,000 Frenchmen Under the Sea (Radio 4, Sunday), you realised that she should have made it her sole argument.

Simon Rae's feature described the series of abortive 19th-century attempts to build a Channel tunnel - all frustrated by British reluctance to ease communications with the Continent in general, and British fear of a French military attack in particular. This was, said Rae, 'one of history's lost opportunities' - he finished with the suggestion that, had the tunnel been built, there might have been no First World War (an intriguing but apparently baseless hypothesis).

Sadly, 20,000 Frenchmen was a lost opportunity in its turn. There was so much that could have been said about the persistence of national attitudes. When Rae quoted without comment an idealistic French engineer of the Victorian era as writing 'The isolation of nations wherein their strength consisted in past time will now be their weakness. England, too long separated from the general European movement, should become a continental nation', you had the sense, not that he was allowing you to savour the irony in silence, but that he just hadn't spotted it.

And the whole thing - which could have been smart and snappy at 15 minutes, felt dreadfully padded, especially with some lengthy dramatised episodes: in the most painful of these, an idealistic French engineer confronted vicious giant conger eels as he dived to the seabed to carry out geological survey ('Mon dieu] Monstaires]'). You couldn't help feeling that they didn't have to give him quite such a silly accent.

Still, just once in a while the BBC does the decent thing by the French - such as the four-part adaptation of Pere Goriot (Radio 4) which ended on Saturday. Throughout, Kate Rowland's production has been distinguished by a strong whiff of irony, rising at times to downright sarcasm, that seems to be wholly in keeping with Balzac's satirical intentions. Reviewing the first episode I picked out a couple of cast members for honourable mention: I now add to the list David Ross, for his bluff Vautrin, whose barefaced villainy seemed far preferable to the dainty hypocrisies of high society; and Barbara Marten and Alex Kingston, Goriot's daughters, for unnoticeable doubling of parts.