RADIO / King pawns: Robert Hanks on modern cult figures - Elvis Presley and Victor Lewis-Smith

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'A S A communicator,' Todd Slaughter said, 'I guess Elvis Presley is second in line to Jesus - principally because his music has been played to an enormous number of people throughout the world.' This was one of the more rational claims made in The Elvis Cult (Radio 4, Sunday). Even so, analysed in any depth the remark loses credibility - communication isn't just about being heard, surely. It's about getting a message across; and the message of Elvis, wrapped as it is obscure imagery of hound-dogs, hotels and blue suede shoes, remains maddeningly hard to pin down.

The thesis of Ted Harrison's feature was that Elvis worship is starting to take on the appearance of a religion. At first sight, the argument has plenty going for it. Like Jesus, Elvis's birthplace (in Tupelo, Mississippi) and the site of his death (Gracelands) have become places of pilgrimage. Like Jesus, Elvis was known as the King. Like Jesus, Elvis was sighted after his death (indeed, rather more people claim to have seen the risen Elvis than ever saw Jesus in the Gospels). And like Jesus, Elvis is a source of comfort to many in times of trouble - one woman said that sometimes 'when I'm walking past a picture that's hanging on the wall and I say 'Oh Elvis, I wish you could sort my life out' . . . and sometimes it comes right'. It's also the case that there is a split between those of Elvis's followers who believe he is physically alive, and those who think he is with us in spirit only.

This was mostly good clean fun. Granted, Harrison prompted his interviewees a little ('Some of the fans say that they think Elvis was the greatest person to walk the earth since Jesus'), but most of them didn't need too much help to arrive at the right answers ('I do too. Dead right. I think that's exactly right').

The programme had its sordid side, though. A couple of the people interviewed went way beyond anything amusing, chief among them a Greek woman who had married an American to be nearer to Elvis. The marriage had not, you gathered, worked out: 'I am dead sexually,' she explained, all passion having been spent when Presley died. Her personal theology was easily summed up: 'If you love Jesus, you love Elvis; if you don't love Jesus you can't love Elvis.' She almost broke down trying to describe the emotions she experienced thinking of Elvis's death - 'The same feelings I have Good Friday for God.'

Hearing something as barren and as crazed as this, you felt a sense of voyeuristic shame. And you felt embarrassed, too, for the average Elvis worshippers - by and large decent, respectable folk whose only weakness was that they thought that 'Just a Closer Walk with Thee' was a better record than 'Jailhouse Rock'. It seemed unfair that they should be tarred with this mildly schizoid brush. The Elvis Cult was quite a clever programme; but possibly not a nice one.

It's unlikely that anybody will ever try to pin godhead on Victor Lewis-Smith (Radio 1, Saturday), now returned in a second series of half-hour comedy programmes. However, to cater for the significant minority that believes him to be the Anti-Christ, this first programme was prefaced with what amounts to a disclaimer - 'If Victor's humour is not to your taste, normal Radio 1 programming resumes in just half an hour. If you'd like to call us and tell us what you think of Victor's show, why don't you call our Lewis-Smith answerphone.'

The implication is plain, that Radio 1 is gearing up for complaints - although it's always possible that the answerphone material is simply going to turn up on some future edition as one of Lewis-Smith's sketches. This would be a desperate ploy, but then this was a fairly desperate programme. On his day, Lewis- Smith is that rare thing, a creative iconoclast and he has been astoundingly funny. Here, though, he seemed to rely on tried and tested formulae - stupid conversations inflicted on innocent parties down the telephone, overuse of the words 'Git', 'Bleeder' and 'Bastard'. There are few things sadder than the mould-breaker who's settled into a mould.

The show did end with one effective telephone prank, in which Lewis-Smith called a cryogenics company in California to find about having himself frozen after death (the main joke being that he'd had a competitive quote from Dewhurst's). The excruciatingly tolerant man at the other end of the phone explained that he would be better off having his head removed and his brain frozen. Disturbingly, you realised how satisfying this would be.

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