Radio: Imagine there's no costumes

There is an advert, running on a commercial station whose name escapes me, which is one of those desperate attempts by the medium to drum up advertising custom. "That's the power of radio," it concludes - although as I can't remember the examples it chooses to illustrate that, and I really have been racking my brains, it cannot be that powerful an ad. Most depressing is the implicit suggestion that radio is an inferior and overlooked medium that needs to squawk about itself to be heard. (You get adverts for individual television programmes, but you don't have adverts that say, in effect, "Hey! Companies with money to burn! Try flogging your stuff on the telly. Who knows? It might even work!")

But radio need not feel that bad about itself. The other day, we were treated to a couple of examples of the power of radio. The first was a news report about Botticelli's The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child, Because He Has Finally Dropped Off and Is No Longer Screaming the Place Down", a title usually shortened in catalogues and news bulletins. Never mind all the stuff about the painting being "saved for the nation" (if you are going to get prissy about that sort of thing, then the nation with the greatest claim to it, I would have thought, was Italy); what dawned on you, as you listened to the item on Radio 4 and heard people going ooh and aah and what a lovely painting it was, was that you were being asked to appreciate a painting on the radio. More: there was a reporter there for the unveiling ceremony, and I would like to think that he or she attempted to transmit the essence of the event by - rather like Basil Fawlty panning the telephone receiver across the hotel lobby in order to prove that there was no one else there - holding the microphone up to the canvas. (We reproduce the painting for the benefit of readers who found their internal imaging faculties sorely tried by this, or who, unlike this paper's competition, do not have a flawless mental catalogue raisonne of every picture that has ever been painted. It is rather lovely, isn't it?)

The second example was less surreal. A Radio 4 continuity announcer drew our attention to the fact that ITV and BBC1 are currently competing with each other even more viciously (and indeed stupidly) than they normally do, with Dickens's Oliver Twist and Gaskell's Wives and Daughters about to appear opposite each other at the same time. The announcer - who was trailing that evening's Front Row, if memory serves correctly - then went on, somewhat smugly I think, to draw our attention to Radio 4's own Dickens adaptation, Nicholas Nickleby. The smugness is justifiable, as the radio Nickleby rattles along at a great clip and is utterly engaging (Dickens being, I would think, more idiot-director-proof than most writers). But what struck me was that the announcer pointed out that the sets and costumes in Nicholas Nickleby were the finest used in any period adaptation - because we the listeners had supplied them ourselves.

That was somewhat flattering. But it is also very true. Kitting out the characters in a costume drama is something we all do immediately, at remarkably low cost, and with not so much an exquisite attention to detail as precisely the right amount of detail. Nor do we find ourselves complaining about an anachronism in the Cheeribles' gaiters, say, or the fact that in one scene we can see a TV aerial, or a jet's wake, poking out above the rooftops. I tried once or twice to imagine Smike wearing a Bart Simpson T-shirt, and while there is something pleasing about the idea, it is not one that has really caught on in my interior theatre.

Of course, the part of the brain responsible for supplying imaginary pictures to voices can be fooled. I was listening to a bit of Max "Shameless" Clifford on Derek "Deggsy" Hatton's show (they really are becoming a double act, and, worse, there is no getting away from them - the clip was played on Radio 4) and, before realising that it was indeed the egregious Mr Clifford, thought, with a joyful leap of the heart, that I was listening instead to Peter Cook's E L Wisty. Try substituting Wisty for Clifford next time he's on - it makes him much more bearable.

Heard on the Today programme: the reason men die earlier than women is that they do not do the housework. That, it suddenly occurred to me, is a trade-off I am perfectly happy to make.

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