RADIO / Gloria Hunniford Talks to the animals

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The Independent Culture
THE NIGHT was still and starry. The old house creaked and settled. Beyond, the fields fell away down the valley, rumpled and patched like a discarded duvet under the waning, silvery moon. No sound broke the warm silence but the rustle of a rootling hedgehog and - hang on just a minute, is this some kind of mental derangement? Is there no escape? This late, this far away, was I really hearing the jaunty, spry 'all-for-you' of - it can't be - Radio 2?

It is. Deep in the heart of the country, a prize-winning herd of red Sussex cattle are treated to a non-stop concert of Hunniford, Wogan et al, wired high beyond hoof-reach in their shed, as they ruminate their lives away. The theory is that this is the perfect station to prepare them for the bustle of the show-ground, the jostle of the market. As a result, they produce meat of unparalleled quality, and never a trace of madness. Frances Line, Radio 2's Controller, might be surprised to learn of her significant contribution to British beef sales. I hope she is pleased.

Last night, the lucky cows cavorted to Salad Days, the second of Radio 2's new series of musicals. Janie Dee's lovely young voice floated over a collection of vintage radio chortlers, like Leslie Phillips and Willie Rushton. For the Wests, it was a family outing: Timothy was the father of the fictional Timothy, Prunella Scales his Aunt Prue, and their son Sam Timothy's Uncle Clam's side-kick Fosdyke. Sorry, is this a bit muddling? Salad Days is like that. The plot is unashamedly nepotistic and dotty, the dialogue breathless and excitable, the music utterly irresistible. Last night's production exuded an intensity of precious, evanescent innocence that seemed to come from further away than Bristol Old Vic, 40 years ago.

Julian Slade was only 24 when he wrote the music for the end-of-term show that was to run for six years in the West End. The new young Queen went to see it and loved it. The song she liked best was the title of a fascinating feature introducing the broadcast, We Said We Wouldn't Look Back (R2): 'What a marvellous maxim,' said Her Majesty, wistfully. Slade's Cambridge friends flocked to it and surrounded him afterwards, gasping 'Oh] Oh Jules] Oh my dear] Oh those tunes] Oh my goodness] Oh]' Harold Hobson hailed it with Wordsworth's line about it having been bliss in that dawn to be alive, and you couldn't help agreeing. A couple called Mr and Mrs Nelder saw it 150 times: by the end, if things were getting ragged, the cast took its timing from the Nelders in the front row. It was an evening of distilled nostalgia: to be young was very heaven.

Salad Days cropped up again this week, as an answer to a question in The Heritage Quiz (R4). Like Peter Hobday with the slightly cumbrous Wordly Wise (R4), Sue MacGregor has slipped out of the Today studios to do a little moonlighting as host. The Heritage Quiz was a gentle affair, mildly instructive and frightfully British. Happily, there were no professional celebrities parading monstrous egos, nor were there flashy experts showing off arcane knowledge. The panellists probably knew about as many of the answers as did the Radio 4 audience - which just might be the elusive key to success in such games. We have all trooped round our fair share of National Trust properties and can identify the odd London statue. A Gilbert and Sullivan question provoked as much support for Jeremy Sams, who praised the Savoy operas, as for Christopher Cook, who did not. He quoted a great-aunt of his, a fearsome lady modelled on Queen Mary, right down - or up - to the undivided, unyielding bosom. G & S, she opined loftily, were for people who could not afford the opera.

According to P G Wodehouse, in Turkey aunts like that are put into sacks and dropped in the Bosphorus. This useful idea was slipped into Edward Blishen's First Person Singular (R4), half an hour of reminiscence about aunts and uncles, real and fictional. I suspect the whole thing was an excuse for Blishen to read some touching letters from his Great-Uncle Harry, killed at Sebastopol, but I'm not complaining. Although no programme about aunts feels complete without Saki's formidable battery of them, it was fun to hear some of Harry Graham's Ruthless Rhymes punctuating the Blishen memoirs, especially my favourite: 'Aunty, did you feel no pain, falling from that willow tree? Could you do it, please, again? - 'cos my friend here didn't see.'

Altogether more painful was Brian McCabe's intense, anguished play in the excellent Studio 3 series. What is Life to Me Without Thee? (R3) was about a young cellist, heartbroken that his violinist girlfriend has left him. She comes back to persuade him to perform that piece of Gluck in a concert, but he refuses - you can easily see why. He has been trying to compose, but his head is full of noises. The play reached a kind of quietus with them sight-reading a lovely duet, which he had been unable to finish writing (composed for the play by Ron Shaw). They stop, and 'Why not end it there?' she says, gently. 'Most things don't end with a grand climactic finale. They just peter out.' So they do . . . so they do . . .