RADIO / Completely off his wavelength

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The Independent Culture
BITTEN more than once by Victor Lewis-Smith (R1), the BBC is acting extremely shy. An apologetic announcement precedes the comic's new shows: 'If Victor's humour is not to your taste, normal Radio 1 programming resumes in just half an hour'. In other words, by all means switch off, but come back soon. There is also a special Lewis-Smith answering machine to save the BBC duty- desk logging all the complaints. Such a build-up leaves you expecting a cross between Lenny Bruce and Bernard Manning.

What you get is a frenzied half- hour of wind-up phone calls, funny voices and satirical ditties (one each show is performed by Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin). The items lead into one another tangentially - this is stream-of-consciousness comedy. Lewis-Smith's chief talent is for invective, and much of his opening show was devoted to the ghastliness of Ipswich. A spoof commercial extolled the virtues of the 'cultural centre of Suffolk. Yes, there's always something excitingly new to do here. Why not try blinking? Or if action's your bag, there's the traffic lights on the high street changing from red to green.'

This is good knockabout stuff. At times, though, the manic derision curdles into contempt. This is particularly so in the phone calls that are the staple, some would say crutch, of the act. The targets are often worth attacking - an American cryogenics firm and a big-shot advertising agency in the first programme - but Lewis- Smith tends to use dynamite when a dart would do. This week he tilted at Jim'll Fix It, pretending to be a father willing to shave his daughter's head and pass her off as a leukaemia victim to get her on the show. The point that Jim'll Fix It is exploitative may be a fair one; but it was made so crudely that you sympathised with the dismayed researcher who took the call.

Lewis-Smith's best material has two main targets: media exploitation (Jeremy Beadle gets his come-uppance, 'spontaneously oleaginising' into an oil slick) and the British class system (a call from the Ministry of the Lumpen Proletariat to assess whether a hapless member of the public is working class). At other times the shock seems to be for its own sake, as in a crack about the world's smallest pub, the Thalidomide Arms. It's this strain of humour - not healing ills but aggravating them - that makes you understand the BBC's caution.

Mike Leigh's play Too Much of a Good Thing (R3), a slyly observed account of a girl's seduction by her driving instructor, has also been handled with care by the BBC: produced in 1979, it has been shelved until now. It was not difficult to see the reason - a lengthy sex scene towards the end - but hard to credit such prudery on the verge of the Eighties. As it turned out, the sex scene was one of the best bits; not for any erotic charge, but because it showed how radio can tell a story with sound-effects alone. Through nothing more than the actors' breathing, you felt the poignancy of the girl's gradual capitulation, the awful daring of a moment's surrender. A lovely cameo from Eric Allan as the girl's selfish and unerringly tactless father - a council rat-catcher, snaffling his way through embarrassed teas with the couple - confirmed the theory that people resemble the animals whose company they keep.

The sexual battlefield was also the subject of last night's Peter Tinniswood play, Two into Three (R3), though the warfare was of a particularly sterile kind. A girthy ex-policeman chats up a widowed would-be radio dramatist at a Prom. After the concert, they go for an Indian. While she fantasises about her writing teacher and reflects on his grossness, he drones on (fantasising too?) about the famous musicians he's nicked ('Thomas Beecham on suspicion of interfering with bicycle tyres outside the Royal Albert Hall'). The gimmick was that the play straddled a real Prom. It made a convincing portrait of the mental wiles of the terminally lonely, and there are always pleasures in an amble round Tinniswood's lush imagination. But by the end you couldn't help wishing they had gone straight home after the show.

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