RADIO / Grave facts of a dangerous undertaking

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The Independent Culture
YOU DON'T have to brave foreign wars to deserve danger money. John Waite went no further than Woking for the last of the current series of Face the Facts (R4), and was beaten up. He apologised for the poor sound quality of his broadcast, caused because 'Richard Sage bounced me and my tape recorder around the funeral parlour and deposited us in a heap outside'. Poor John Waite: he is not built on the same lines

as his cousin Terry, and the rogue he was confronting is 31 years old and just about as many stone.

Sage started his career at 13, doing a Saturday job at an undertaker's. At 19 he set up his own business which went bankrupt two years later. Nothing daunted, he started again and managed to remove pounds 17,000 from University College Hospital and even more from St Thomas's. By the end, his staff was stealing wreaths from crematoria while the bailiffs were seizing surplus coffins. It made a shocking story, not just because of the huge scale of his bluffs, but also because of the pain caused to individuals, like the family of a gypsy whose funeral was black farce: a flimsy coffin, too big for the grave, was jumped on by the hefty Sage in order to squeeze it in. Unlike John Waite, the coffin succumbed and split open. The heroic reporter of all this is having a break, but with luck he'll be back to fight another day.

A funeral was carefully planned by Jessie in 'Night, Mother (World Service). It was her own. The play, by Marsha Norman, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and it was easy to see why. It was about the last evening of Jessie's life, when she explains to her mother exactly why she is about to kill herself and how she has prepared for it. To say that this play was gripping would be ludicrously inadequate. Directed by the formidable Gordon House, it was the most powerful radio drama I have ever heard. Sharon Gless (of Cagney and Lacey) was Jessie, making her radio debut. Her voice is wonderful: controlled, rational, gentle, it expressed the quiet despair of this unhappy woman who is epileptic, whose husband has left her, whose son has gone to the bad, whose life seems never to have worked.

Katherine Helmond as the mother was equally strong, trying every trick she knew to convince her difficult, beloved daughter to stay alive. It was nearly her birthday, didn't she want to know about her presents; suicide is a sin; she was acting like a brat; they could get a new dog, stop getting newspapers, throw away the television. 'What would you do all day Mother?' asked Jessie, amused. 'I'd sing. I'd sing 'til morning if it'd keep you alive.'

But it wouldn't. 'Let me go easy, Momma,' Jessie pleaded. And, when the mother cried out 'How can I let you go? You are my child]', she was ready with her answer - that she was not what might have been hoped for. 'I am what became of your child.' Intensely moving, the play was, nevertheless, not depressing, though I'm not sure why. Perhaps it was just the sheer quality and intelligence of the writing, the performance and the direction. It is thanks to this level of excellence that the World Service has a steadily increasing audience in England to add to its 25 million listeners worldwide. Certainly, nobody who heard this play will easily forget it.

On The Guest List, Radio 1's live arts magazine, they have a spot during which a doomy voice asks a victim how he would spend his last 24 hours. On Thursday night it was the turn of Carl Wallinger of the pop group World Party, who chose to spend his last day on the beach at Morwenstow listening to Beethoven's Violin Concerto. The same piece of music cropped up again on Classic FM's Celebrity Choice. The celebrity was Maureen Lipman, talking to Paul Callan (I wish he didn't feel the need to say he was Paul Callan every time there's a pause) about her favourite music. All too aware of the insistent and invasive power of advertising, which can ruin your best tunes, she said that nothing could spoil the Beethoven for her, even if they used it 'to advertise those pads with wings'. She shouldn't make suggestions like that on a commercial station. But then, she was tired. She is a very busy woman, saying that she's dogged by a tendency to shake her head at the same time as saying yes, which is why she finds herself 'on this kind of, you know, sort of, as you say . . .' programme. Still, she made the best of it, like the trouper she

is, and the snatch of Re-Joyce, her one-woman tribute to Joyce Grenfell, made you want to hare off after her and catch

it on tour.

It is Tchaikovsky's centenary this week and Aled Jones has grown up enough to talk about it. Like Hayley Mills or Shirley Temple, he is an infant prodigy you can't somehow take seriously when it's past his bedtime, but there he was on Radio 3 on Friday night introducing Eugene Onegin as part of their Curtain Up series. Sounding like a juvenile Cliff Morgan, he did well, telling the strange sad story of how the composer's life became a grotesque parody of the plot of Pushkin's poem, and playing some of the swirling, passionate music in which it is all expressed.

And it was National Library Week. The celebrations included a special edition of that lovely literary quiz show Slightly Foxed (R4) which Gill Pyrah introduces with such flair. She called it the programme that asks the big intellectual questions, like what was wrong with e e cummings's shift key. This edition provided an excuse for David Lodge to quote a bit of Kingsley Amis in which two foreign sailors approach the hero. One asks: 'Where is pain and bitter strife?' As he prepares to beat his breast and declaim 'In here]', the other sailor explains: 'My friend say, where is piano and bit of life?' That's more like it.