RADIO / Harmful side-effects of the milk of human kindness

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The Independent Culture
A WISE old friend once remarked that children are born with unchangeable characters: the only thing you can hope to achieve as a parent is to persuade them not to pick their noses in public. Anthea, in Alan Ayckbourn's Joking Apart (R4) doesn't aim that high. 'Debbie,' she suggests to her daughter. 'Don't pick your nose with your gloves on.'

This is a clever play to put on just before Christmas. It explores the whole question of giving. Anthea is a truly generous woman, constantly offering hospitality, help and endless victuals to friends and neighbours - who are all destroyed by her kindness. The vicar's wife, who has never seen eye to eye with a stove, is made to feel increasingly inadequate and deranged by Anthea's abundant, delicious fare; the vicar, a man who manages to 'bore you, mystify you and misinform you all in one breath' succumbs to her charms and declares his hopeless love; the business partner, enraged by the couple's effortless success, becomes a pathetic cripple. Only Debbie keeps her nose clean and triumphs, probably because, like her mother, she was born lucky.

Another lucky lot were

the men of Jonah patrol. These tough Welshmen were trained to become part of the British Resistance in the event of a German invasion. Their signal was to be The Balloon's Gone Up (R4), when they were to to an underground shelter and wreak sophisticated havoc on the occupying army. They are old now, and depleted in numbers, but theirs is a story. Secretly, practised 'advanced crawling about', silent garrotting and the selective use of explosives, knowing that, when their moment came, they would be expected to live for only about

10 days. It was encouraging to learn that, much later, before sending back their supplies, they siphoned off a gallon emergency rum, replacing it with cold tea. Sadly, history does not relate whether a latter-day soak got a nasty surprise when the flask was eventually opened.

The chance of ending another war illumined Radio 4 on Wednesday with the Major- Reynolds announcement, but was a guarded, flickering After Ian Paisley had his predictable apoplexy, Malachi O'Doherty ended PM with an extraordinarily powerful account of how it feels to be in West Belfast these days, where the bruised and weary people believe the news they hear the grapevine, not the BBC, and where the IRA are more often scrappy yobs than heroes. Life is hard and often unbearably sad; the rain falls as heavy on lines of soldiers as on the hurried shoppers who ignore them; the new dawn smells of rats.

A gleam of comfort in this anxious, frenetic month shines steadily from An Advent Calendar (R3). For 10 minutes each morning a couple of carols are sung by amateur choirs, introduced by the urbane and informative Hugh Keyte. They are well worth catching. Even when they look familiar, they are surprising. A charming, tinkly setting of 'Hark, the Herald Angels Sing', for example, originated at a hostel for reformed prostitutes, and the familiar French carol 'Il est ne le divin enfant' was to be heard echoing through the trenches just before that poignant 1914 Christmas truce. I particularly enjoyed Monday's edition in which a Colchester choir sang 'Rejoice, ye tenants of the earth'. This was the song with which the village greeted the newly arrived schoolmistress in Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree, and it was instantly, miraculously evocative of those distant, orderly, rustic days.

Juliet Stevenson is making a great job of reading 101 Dalmatians (R5). Walt Disney's cartoon Cruella De Vil has nothing on her as she breathes envenomed evil through the ether. 'I never find anything too warm,' she reverberates erotically, 'I sleep between ermine sheets.' The dog-owner's brisk reply is delivered with commendable asperity: 'How nice. Do they wash well?'

If your name is Kelvin Boot you start with a challenge. Our Kelvin has met it, and is rising. The presenter of The Natural History Programme (R4), he now has the clout to send a poor underling on the worst assignment of the year: December pond-dipping. Sulphurous gases escaped from frogs hibernating in the decaying sludge and all he fished up was a water-louse - it was like a wood-louse, he said, in a brave attempt at enthusiasm, but with dangly bits. I hope they let him indoors for January.