RADIO / Invisible earnings, visible burnings: Robert Hanks reviews a documentary about the bid to bring Santa home and a judgement of peers

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The Independent Culture
THAT JOLLY white-haired man with the merry chuckle is back, spreading good cheer wherever he goes: but enough, for the moment, of Sir Edward Heath's appearance on The World this Weekend. First, something a good deal less appropriate to the season of good will: in a short feature called Fighting for Father Christmas (Radio 4, Boxing Day), Tim Bowler headed north in search of the real Santa Claus, and found a range war. Greenland and Finland are polarised over the issue of who gets the right to be known as the home of Father Christmas. This is no Mickey Mouse war: the potential revenues, one protagonist said, run into billions - 'For Finland, it's a part of the survival game.'

For both countries, actually: Greenland's tiny, fragile economy, shaken by mine closures, needs to milk tourism for everything it can get (at this point, the ironic familiarity of the situation prompted a hollow 'Ho ho ho' from the listener). Bowler himself seemed to lean towards Greenland's claim, partly, no doubt, through sympathy for the underdog; Greenland gets about 60,000 letters to Santa each year, compared with Finland's 400,000. 'You should ask the children of the world,' said the director of Santa Claus Finland International: 'They know where Santa lives.'

More importantly, there was a clash of philosophy. The Santa Claus of Greenland Foundation emphasises the caring, sharing side of Christmas - their Santa is an international agony aunt, answering letters free, unlike the grasping, dog-eat- dog privatised version on show in Finland. And there seemed to be a certain insensitivity about the Finnish vision: parents have been distraught at how much toys cost from the workshop in Santa's village; children have been even more distraught to find Rudolph on the menu (the Finns make much play of the fact that they have a virtual monopoly on reindeer; eating the surplus is perhaps a way of thumbing their noses at Greenland).

This was a dispiriting footnote to Christmas. Still, as I say, there was a good deal of end-of-year jollity to be had from The World This Weekend (Radio 4, Sunday), where Sir Edward Heath and Lord Callaghan were jointly interviewed by Nick Clarke. There was, to be honest, not much newsworthy here. Sir Edward said that he was pro-European and wanted to see the Maastricht treaty ratified ASAP; both deplored the government's handling of pit closures and devaluation, and worried that the media was trivialising politics - in short, the sort of thing you could get in any saloon bar in any pub in the country, lent a rather peculiar kind of authority by the fact that both former premiers had themselves been put through the wringer by the NUM and the exchange rates in the distant past.

The comforting part was the idealism apparent in both - a sense that politics was an activity worthy of the best and brightest, and that government can offer positive solutions to problems. That notion was borne out later on Sunday in The Great Smog of 1952 (Radio 4), a sharp feature that showed what a free market can do if you let it. The poisonous cloud that enveloped London for four days 40 years ago this month was, according to Fred Pearce, not so much an accident waiting to happen as one waiting to be noticed: it wasn't until undertakers ran short of coffins and florists found themselves unable to cope with demand that anybody realised the damage that the filthy air was doing. At the end of 1953, Harold Macmillan, then local government minister, sneered at a public tendency to think that government could solve every problem - he saw this as a symptom of the welfare state. An official report on the problem a year later explained exactly how the government could solve the problem, through subsidising smokeless fuels and removing taxes on heating by electricity and natural gas. Macmillan later proclaimed the Clean Air Act as one of his proudest achievements.

Meanwhile, Sue Lawley's self-consciously delicate, mechanically sensitive interview with Stephen Hawking on Desert Island Discs (Radio 4, Christmas Day) taught a useful lesson: you can't spot a robot by the voice; it's what she says that gives her away.