RADIO / Inadequate responses: Robert Hanks on Moles, Dingles and Shuttleworths

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The Independent Culture
IT MUST say something about the state of the nation - probably something unsavoury - that we get such a kick out of failure and dullness. Lately, the comedy of the inadequate has packed out Radio 4's schedules. This wouldn't be so bad if it was pure Schadenfreude; you could at least diagnose national self-confidence from that. The worry is that we respond so well to failure because it's something we all understand.

Perhaps that helps to explain why Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years, last week's morning serial (Radio 4, Monday to Friday), is so much less effective than the original diaries. Maybe Sue Townsend has undergone too much wealth and fame to get inside the skin of a genuine non-achiever.

It's also to do with age: when Mole started, he had typical adolescent problems - spots, girls, delusions of grandeur - and you knew he'd get over it. Now, in his twenties, with no qualifications, drifting between non-jobs and non-relationships, he's a starker figure. There's a new frustration and paranoia, a hovering sense that he's liable to jack in the unfinished novel, buy a few guns and start corresponding with Jodie Foster. What's funny about that?

You might argue that this bleakness represents a new realism. Actually, it's less believable than before. Pandora, once a recognisable stereotype, has developed implausibly into a brilliant Slavonic scholar; Barry Kent, the school bully, has become a cult author. Friday's ending was relatively upbeat - Adrian on the verge of being taken seriously by a woman and a publisher - but desperately unconvincing.

Inadequacy abounds, too, in A Book at Bedtime (Radio 4, Monday to Friday), in which Desmond Olivier Dingle, artistic director of the National Theatre of Brent, has been presenting his new and controversial bestseller, Shakespeare: The Truth. The format is the same as the excellent history of the world All the World's a Globe - Dingle (Patrick Barlow) peddles nonsense and half-truths in an overblown, cod-literary style, while a frustrated announcer tries to introduce common sense. There's nothing novel about the Desmond Dingle joke - it's just 1066 and All That by way of Hancock - but it can work brilliantly.

Here, though, Desmond doesn't have the trusty Wallace as his stooge, and there isn't enough material to sustain the joke in the life of Shakespeare (Bard of all the Avons and Mull of Kintyre). Much of it is padding, or out of place (a running gag about Shakespeare's father inventing new kinds of glove sounds as though it's run in from somewhere else). The best jokes are the least emphatic, like the casual reference to the dramatic trilogy, As You Like It, Do You Want It and There You Have It.

The best jokes are pretty unemphatic in The Shuttleworths (Radio 4, Monday to Thursday), but then so is everything else. John Shuttleworth is an aspiring songwriter from Sheffield. Despite his showbiz ambitions, he has none of the illusions of a Mole or a Dingle: when his agent, Ken, tries to persuade him to throw a television out of a hotel window for publicity, John can't bring himself to do it. He has too much respect for the workmanship in a Pye 16-inch, and settles for a Teasmade.

That sense of restraint characterises Graham Fellows' script and multi-role acting. There are no outright jokes, and it doesn't even make you laugh that much, but it's undeniably brilliant. It's also oddly heartening. Underlying John's uneventful life, there's a touching sense of optimism: one of his songs, 'How to Be Happy in a Sad, Sad World', ends with the assurance that it really isn't such a sad, sad world; and it sounds sincere.