RADIO / Gielgud at 90: still every inch a king

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The Independent Culture
SIR PETER HALL is not a natural radio actor. He had clearly spent anxious hours locked in the bathroom before emerging to read his timorous challenge at the end of King Lear, but he still hadn't cleared it with his throat. Luckily, the Herald is not a central role, but in this Renaissance / R3 production the cast so bristles with once and future knights and dames that a theatrical title is a passport to a moment of recording history - and who cares if the Herald is audibly strangled by his nerves. Other great names went into compensatory overdrive. To hear Derek Jacobi and Denis Quilley's extravagantly gallic double act as France and Burgundy was to relive the maddest moments of 'Allo, 'Allo. Jacobi, apparently, was a last-minute replacement for Gerard Depardieu, which might explain his sudden burst of elan. I never felt sorrier for Cordelia.

But the play is about the king and the king is Gielgud. This was no poor, infirm, weak and despised old man. The wonder is not that he has endured so long. The wonder is that his 90 years have left no trace of weakness in the voice, whose range travels from regal hauteur to lyrical madness, from growling fury to whispered tenderness. On Gielgud at 90 (R4), that same Peter Hall compared it to a cello, but that is to limit it: within a line, it can become a trumpet. And he managed still to project a thrilling sense of newness and discovery, over the depths of his infinite experience. People will always argue about how Shakespeare should be spoken, but this performance is a lodestar. Endlessly imitated, Gielgud remains inimitable.

Michael Williams made an older Fool than his master, querulous with tremolo; Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins as the thankless daughters were sharply distinct, one ice and flint, the other sensuous, languid cruelty. Richard Briers gave Gloucester tremendous depth: gullible and good-natured at first, he rose to real heroism in the audibly squelchy blinding scene, even more horrible to hear than to see.

On Tuesday, this scene was mentioned in Call Nick Ross (R4), when the subject was video nasties. A succession of nasty video traders rang to express their outrage that anyone could consider Driller Killer or Child's Play any more corrupting than Shakespeare or Tom and Jerry. David Alton stayed commendably calm in the face of such nonsense, and Ross stepped in with some censorship of his own, but I was reminded of a child whose parents had sat him in front of The Sound of Music, only to be told by his playgroup leader that he had been corrupted. He had spent the next day marching round shouting 'Heil Hitler' at the other tots.

The death of a beloved daughter left another old man incredulous with grief in The Wodehouse Letters (R4). P G Wodehouse was interned in Paris in 1940, just before his stepdaughter Leonora died, after a minor operation, in her thirties. He was told the news by Malcolm Muggeridge, who entered Paris with the liberating army. He could only whisper, 'I thought she was immortal'. This charming programme presented a selection of his letters to her over 20-odd years. They were full of family chat - 'Mummy has biffed off to Lingfield races, having previously touched me for two pounds'; sympathetic noises - 'Awful rot, your having to go away to school'; and tales of his jokes falling flat - 'I thought it was not only droll but whimsical. Mummy thought it was obvious.' They were genial, generous and kindly letters, full of warmth. To hear them was a useful reminder not to miss the Book at Bedtime: Uncle Fred in the Ring (R4), one of his classic Blandings adventures read with spirit by Crawford Logan.

Shamelessly staying with great and funny men, Mark Twain's fable, The Diary of Adam and Eve (R4), was a joy, mixing whimsy and sentiment with a healthy seasoning of irony. Patrick Barlow read Adam's account of creation on Monday, Miranda Richardson answered back as Eve on Tuesday. Eve is enthusiastic from the start, but it makes Adam sulky: 'If there's anything on the planet that she's not interested in, it's not on my list.'

He resents her tendency to give a name to everything, including a thing like a fish she apparently found in a tree and called Cain. But as they age, they grow increasingly companionable until Eve's last entry, 40 years after the first day, when she wishes that they could 'pass from this place together, a longing that shall have a place in the heart of every wife that loves, until the end of time'. It was not to be. Adam's last words are written at Eve's grave: 'Wheresoever she was, there was Eden.'

At the Fall, the naked Eve 'tittered and blushed', something Adam had never seen before but was just about to experience himself. In I Could Have Died (R4), two doctors looked scientifically at the subject of blushing and gave examples of the faux pas that cause it, though nobody said anything really frightful, probably because it would be too embarrassing. They came to no very striking conclusion, but they were worth hearing if only for two fine moments of radio history. One was a vintage snatch of Jack de Manio trying to tell the time, a thing presenters find tricky: 'The time,' he announced, 'is 25 minutes to seven - eight - past. Got it wrong. Twenty five past eight - seven. Oh, why can't I get it right?'

The other was a nameless but very grand newsreader who said, austerely: 'It is 12 o'clock, Green Witch. Meantime, here is the news.' At least the witch got an accurate time-check.

'King Lear' is available on CD and tape (BBC).