RADIO / Just the three of them

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The Independent Culture
MRS THOMPSON was the victim of a tragic hospital mix-up. With gentle respect for her plight, Brian Perkins asked when she first suspected that she'd been discharged with the wrong husband: 'Well, it crossed my mind when I got him home,' she said, 'because my Arthur'd been a retired park-keeper with a prostate, and now he was a 23-year-old ski- instructor called Bjorn.'

That's an average kind of joke from Radio 4's new comedy series, Look Back at the 90s. Not the worst, which was a tedious series of spoof national anthems for emergent nations, nor the best, which was the first entry in the 1995 Worst Young Musician of the Year contest: 12-year-old Hilary Salter's attempt at 'the slow movement from Mozart's requiem for the flute'. It didn't take long, but it was wonderfully ghastly and would have been shudderingly familiar to parents, sending the queasy practice of child-prodigy-worship up like a rocket. Voices are often compared to drinks. Perkins, who holds it all together, sounds like Darjeeling tea, soothing, slightly superior, definitely not intoxicating and unarguably credible.

Laura Cummings sounds like sparkling cider. On Tuesday, she began what promises to be a captivating series of tiny profiles made for the World Service called Artists in a Nutshell. I found it by serendipity (born of rage with listening to Parliament), but will actively hunt out the later programmes. The first was about Jan van Eyck, whose Arnolfini Marriage is a favourite at the National Gallery. It is, we learnt, a picture full of suggestions: the bride's kicked-off shoes hint at a lurking sensuousness belied by the faithful dog and the reptilian husband. In the convex mirror behind the couple can be glimpsed the artist himself, ironically commenting on his role in their splendid immortality.

Even better was the account of Van Eyck's altarpiece at Ghent. Focusing again on details, Laura Cummings brought the great masterpiece of The Redemption of Man vividly to life. Her description glowed with the warmth and colour achieved by the artist, whose innovative use of oil paint adds a sheen to folds of silk and a liquid gleam to angels' eyes. It allows its admirers, half a millennium later, still to discern the callous on a pilgrim's heel, the anxiety of someone in the crowd standing on tiptoe so as not to miss anything. I want to go to Ghent, immediately.

Pictures may tell stories, but they are not always available. Mark Borkowski was in trouble when he invented a tale about a tap-dancing dog and the press demanded a photo-call. The whole fraudulent affair was revealed last night on Selling Your Soul (R4), another new series, in which PR men tell all. Borkowski borrowed a dog and said it was unfortunately too ill, today, to demonstrate its skills for the cameras. Panic ensued when That's Life showed an interest, so the mythical beast was declared dead, run over by a lorry. Where? Er, quick thinking, Windmill Lane. The bizarre upshot was that the wretched cur became a symbol for the residents' association of Windmill Lane's successful campaign to remove such vehicles from their street. So good can come of evil.

Or evil of good. Four little jewels of Saki stories were read on successive nights by the urbane Peter Howell on Radio 3. In The Story-teller, a subversive bachelor entertains children on a train by telling them about a little girl so unbearably good that she is awarded three medals for goodness and allowed to stroll in a royal park alone. Her grisly end is assured when a wolf gobbles her up, having discovered her hiding place by the sound of her clanking medals. Replete and enraptured, his audience declare their delight, to the rage of their aunt. 'The most beautiful story I ever heard,' said one the small girls with immense decision.

It was hard to believe that someone hadn't invented Derek Wadlow. Midweek (R4) specialises in oddities, and this one was a gem. He makes his living handling other people's really ridiculous ideas. His projects have included providing 500 fake corpses for a horror film and blowing 10,000 eggs so that advertising leaflets could be inserted into them. He was very solemn about it all, insisting that he never did silly things. Somebody once asked him to tie a ribbon round the Post Office Tower, but he didn't. Of course not: what a ridiculous idea.

'A Look Back at the Nineties', R4, Fri 11pm, repeat Sat 6.25pm. 'Artists in a Nutshell', WS, Tues 8.50am. 'Selling Your Soul', R4, Sat 5pm.