RADIO / Cracking tales: Robert Hanks contemplates a life of crime and an unsuitable companion piece

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The Independent Culture
It took an old Marxist like Brecht to ask the question, who is the real criminal - the man who robs a bank, or the man who owns a bank? But even in solidly bourgeois capitalist Britain, there's always been a good deal of ambivalence about the answer. Literature is stuffed with social reformers by other means, daring highwaymen, amateur cracksmen and upholders of old-fashioned family values (cf the Krays - they had their bad side but they were good boys, always kind to their mother).

The Craft of Crime (Radio 4, Sunday) suffered from the same moral uncertainty. In this unusually entertaining feature, Dick Hobbs, rather vaguely described as a 'criminologist', talked to crooks from three generations - safe-cracker, armed robber and drug-dealer - about the tricks of their trade, drawing some large conclusions about the changing nature of villainy.

As he saw it, the last few decades have witnessed the decline of the skilled craftsman. Dick Poole, the safe-cracker, was part of a line, taught his trade by 'the Silver Fox of Camden Town'; but by his own success as 'the scourge of London', he reckoned he had forced the pace on technology. The safes became harder to crack, and Poole was supplanted by men with balaclavas and sawn-off shotguns - unsubtle, comparatively unskilled, but still doing recognisably the same job. Now, though, crime is just a numbers game. 'Craftsmen are redundant, artisans devalued,' according to Hobbs: 'It is the entrepreneur who thrives.' Where Dick Poole and Jack, the robber, both spoke of the excitement of a job, Moira, the dealer, just talked about the monotony of the job, sitting on the end of a phone and having to deal with 'a lot of dickheads'.

Hobbs promised at the start that if you could suspend moral judgement, here were three lives of 'some richness'. It lived up to that flyer, in Dick Poole's slagging off of the judge at his only trial ('a vicious and cunning and evil man'), and in Jack's exposition of the philosophy of guns (the proposition that your life is worth more than somebody else's money is self-evident: it's the robber's job to make people assent to the simple, inexorable logic of this position as swiftly as possible, by, for example, shooting down part of the ceiling).

On the other hand, cutting in the moral motors when the programme stopped, you realised that these lives were of 'some richness' only by the merest whisker: Jack admitted that he'd never had to 'show out', never had to make the decision between shooting and running - and you realised that it would have taken very little to turn his amiable self-justification into something nastier.

You wondered, too, if Hobbs had the wrong end of the stick. He saw Moira's telephone dealing as the outcome of technological progress: but she was a woman in a predominantly male, violent environment, and working at a distance was the safest option. You worried, in the end, that this was pernicious nostalgia masquerading as something deep.

Likewise Gaveston (Radio 4, Monday), notionally broadcast as a companion-piece to Marlowe's Edward II (Radio 3, Sunday). In Colin Haydn Evans's play (based on 'oral traditions'), Piers Gaveston was the Sacred King who had to be wedded (ie, sacrificed) to the Earth Mother to help the crops grow ('It is the Mother's time and none may stop her'), accompanied by lots of bilge about sap and the Old Faith, of which Christianity is a feeble descendant. Anybody who feels like pacifying the ancient gods of radio drama by sacrificing a playwright should look no further.

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