Radio / Departing from the book

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The Independent Culture
CRITICS are an unpredictable lot. Sometimes, all you can be sure of is that they're wrong. It is quite possible that readers of this page only stay with us for the pleasure of disagreeing: trust her to like that rubbish, you say, or to fail to appreciate true greatness - don't you? Such dissent can make arresting radio. Twice this week, nice amiable presenters have found themselves facing studio critics who have detested the books they had been asked to review, and said so, with a gusto that made hardened listeners gasp.

Simon Fanshawe was the first. He'd checked his BBC contract the night before appearing on A Good Read (R4) and was relieved that nowhere did it say he actually had to finish the programme's set books. He found Edward Blishen's choice (David Thomson's Wordbrook) unreadable, agreeing with Liz Kershaw, who described it as the ramblings of a rampant paedophile. Poor old Blishen was left spluttering: "I beg everyone to pay no attention to Simon and Liz - who are good people, sadly gone astray." Then, on Kaleidoscope (R4), the even nicer Gill Pyrah was astonished by Sarah Maguire's ferocious attack on Josephine Hart's Oblivion, a book which Pyrah admired. Boring, banal and utterly humourless, Maguire found it, damning with not the faintest hint of praise. Could it really be that bad?

Gill Pyrah disagreed gamely, if faintly, leaving me uncertain. But then Josephine Hart appeared in person on Devil's Advocate (R4), offering her spirited support to Oscar Wilde's handsome villain, Dorian Gray. It was the best I've heard since the very first of the series (which was a brilliant defence of King Lear's daughter Regan, largely on the grounds of her admirable efficiency as a housewife). Hart was highly articulate, persuasive and funny, even wringing what sounded like a giggle from an otherwise deadpan Melvyn Bragg. It's no good, we'll just have to read that book of hers and judge for ourselves.

Reading her own Book at Bedtime (R4) was Joan Littlewood. Joan's Book punctuated Joan's Week on the radio: her rich, deep, voice has been growling and chuckling daily on various stations. She was the first of R3's Movers and Shakers, chatting to Faynia Williams about her life. She's great: there's absolutely no nonsense about her and she is positively Thatcheresque in the forthright voicing of her contrary opinions, though certainly not in her politics. She scorns the "elocution" of Edith Evans but is a sucker for the Gielgud factor; she finds Chekhov very amusing but she despises Brecht, largely because he courted personal publicity. She would never do that: her theatre was rigidly democratic, and nobody was too grand to scrub out the boiler - she gave a leading actor a cement-mixer for his birthday. She is a seriously committed socialist - communist even - but above the weight of her seriousness jostle the balloons of her clowning. As she belted out her grandmother's racy old song about Lillie Langtry, you understood exactly why Laurel and Hardy, long ago, wanted to sweep her off to Hollywood.

Instead she stayed and gave us Oh! What A Lovely War (R3), which returned this week to its original medium. We heard the audience settle into a Scarborough theatre to enjoy the Great War as music-hall entertainment; we heard the antics and postur-ing of the generals set against the gallows humour of those ironic, courageous songs, the action punctuated by inexorable casualty lists. Like Littlewood herself, it is all paradox yet all of a piece. You laugh at its absurdity while weeping for its tragedy; above all, as the years pass, it becomes increasingly incredible. How could such slaughter ever have seemed justifiable to anybody? Near the end came the announcement of 13,000 dead in an afternoon for the sake of 100 yards gained, and a sweet soprano promised to keep the home fires burning. Sue Wilson's subtle production maintained a workshop air of improvisation, while resisting emotional excess, a fitting tribute to a tremendous trouper.

The power of nostalgic songs was the subject of Abide With Us (R2). Hymns, said Tennyson, are very difficult to write, having to be both commonplace and poetical. Ian Bradley's study of Victorian favourites was unsentimental and informative. It really makes you appreciate "Lead, Kindly Light" when you learn that Newman composed it when he was feeling very ill, becalmed in great heat between Corsica and Sicily, on a boat laden with oranges.