Radio: Chris Morris: the spoof is out there

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The Independent Culture
Radio is the medium of insanity: voices in the head, not visual hallucinations, are what make us think of madness. You start thinking this when you listen to Blue Jam (R1). This programme goes out at midnight so as not to frighten the horses. Everyone says it is great, and they are right, but "great" here is a cautiously mutable term, used to cover our feelings of bafflement. Chris Morris, the man behind the spoof radio news show On the Hour and the spoof TV current-affairs programme Brass Eye, has now gone beyond spoofing, and has conceived a radio programme which is unlike anything that has ever been. Sample line: "And slowly, without knowing why, I began to feel as sad as it is possible to feel while staring at a wall in a room full of women."

Is that funny? Well, yes and no. Not that this is the same kind of funny- yet-now-I-think-of- it-not-really-funny-at-all quality of most radio comedy (the kind that Radio 4 puts out at 6.30pm on Tuesdays, say). It is exactly poised between ha-ha and peculiar. It also makes you feel as if someone is messing with your head, and in a disturbingly considered way, not as a by-product of lazy surrealism: "Otherwise, life continued in the usual blur of frowns, doctors, lying down, and people saying 'Get the f--- out of my garden'. And then suddenly we were all in a church surrounded by fields."

I wondered if the reason the mind seems to skid across Blue Jam, the strange sense you have of not being able to tell whether you are even listening to it, might have something to do with the time it's broadcast; so I taped it and listened to it at 10.30 in the morning, and it still sounded mad. And then the madness is interrupted by what would sound like an ordinary radio sketch, if it were not being played over quiet ambient music (affectless music that gives no clues as to emotional tone), and if it were not about a GP who takes phone-sex calls while treating his patients. It is a testament to Morris's audacity and finesse that he pulls such things off, so to speak, so well.

The Cry of the Bittern (R4) is much more normal, although I am not sure whether to call it "Radio 4's new soap opera" or not. It has been called that, but it is also called a "drama series". I recall a previous attempt to start a radio soap that wasn't The Archers: Citizens, I think it was called, and it lasted for about a week. This, in the spirit of historical revisionist Birtism, is now referred to as a "drama series", but it damn well wasn't at the time. Anyway, "Bittern" episodes last for 15 minutes, are broadcast twice each day, and are produced by Vanessa Whitburn, who also produces The Archers. One of the cast members sounds extraordinarily like the A's Roy Tucker, except he seems to have lost the country twang. But it isn't a soap opera; they're not making that mistake twice. Once bittern, twice shy, I suppose. Anyway, they have a point: how can you have a soap opera called The Cry of the Bittern? (Then again, it's such a crazily inappropriate name for a soap opera you can't help but like it.)

It's nice enough. There's a story in there, though one too focused, perhaps, for a soap: the heroine works for an environmental agency, her ex-boyfriend for big-league developers. It's very heavy on the atmospherics, as you might expect. It's all going to be in Norfolk but the first week hasn't taken us there yet. Norfolk is an excellent place to set a radio series. All you need is a recording of drizzle and the odd bittern. The flatness is given. I wonder, though, if I will be able to stick with a series that offers such lines as: "The whole of my life has suddenly become as bleak and empty as the February rain, which starts to fall again, somewhere north of Islington Green." (February rain, I find, is rarely "empty". In my experience it's full of water).

Meanwhile, in the real world, i.e. Borsetshire, Shula's child Daniel has taken to pestering her and her new hubby, Alastair, while they have their dinner, when he (Daniel) should be in bed. You can begin to see the cogs turning in Alastair's feeble brain. Clearly, he is going to have to dispose of the child, but how? A shooting accident, perhaps. Or he could get run over by William Grundy's dirt bike, but such things are never easy to arrange. I suggest that Alastair, in the course of his duties, has this revolting child run over by a bunch of cows. Or a herd of cattle, whatever. It happens, you know. And Ambridge is due a bit of good news.