RADIO / Light on God, heavy on the Mayo: Robert Hanks on The Big Holy One and The Masterson Inheritance

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The Independent Culture
There's something faintly hypocritical about the whole concept of The Big Holy One (Radio 1, Monday). Isn't getting Simon Mayo to host a religious programme just putting temptation in the reviewer's way? That's surely the last thing a religious programme should want to do.

As it turns out, very little of The Big Holy One is derisory and ridiculous that isn't meant to be; on the other hand, an awful lot of it is meant to be, which gets a bit wearing from time to time. You get the impression that Mayo and his producer, Hilary Mayo (presumably some relation), have approached Radio 1's first regular God-slot with some trepidation: wary of being laughed at, they've gone all-out for pre-emptive humour (lots of jokes about how boring church is and, oddly, the Conservative Party). Determined not to look square, they've devoted themselves to acquiring hepness (funky jingles and interviews with credible rock stars).

So it is that all the regular slots have painstakingly joky titles: there's a 'Heretic of the Week', 'The Joy of Sects' - a series of spoofy one-minute guides to the Moonies and Scientology - and 'The Bishop and the Actress', in which Caroline Quentin ('a National Theatre player') asks the Right Reverend Roy Williamson, Bishop of Southwark, questions like: if God is both all-powerful and loving, why does he allow suffering ('I know, it's a ghastly question to ask you, isn't it my darling?').

The main problem is that the programme tries so hard to be different from other religious broadcasting that it hasn't actually stopped to work out the theology. You gather that the two Mayos are broadly in favour of God, and morality, and Christianity in particular; but that leaves a lot of room for manoeuvre, and they seem unsure what to do with it. This week's edition (the third) included a sketch satirising people who don't believe in God, but who do believe in a supreme all-powerful omnipresent being who created the world. Well, fine, it's a position that deserves to be laughed at: but who holds it? Well, apart from David Icke, last night's 'Heretic of the Week'?

The peg for this was the grim business at Waco: Mayo pointed out that both Icke and David Koresh had called themselves the Son of God, and wondered what Icke felt about this. The Turquoise One took the line that he didn't believe in God so much as an 'infinite mind'; and in any case, he had never claimed to be the Son of God, just a Son of God. He was also worried that people might use the Second Coming as an excuse for shedding responsibility: 'If we're going to hang around and wait for some Messiah guy to come down on a cloud and solve all our problems, we're going to wait for the end of the world.' Er . . . wasn't that the point?

This was illuminating, if silly. It's hard to see what light is shed on anything by other elements, such as the 'Holy News' flashes - items from the press about Buddhist monks having intercourse with corpses - and the spoof charts presented by Alan Freeman, 'The Big Holy Fluff' ('Greetings, Godpickers'). Still, lack of direction never seems so important when you're moving fast enough, and whatever the faults of The Big Holy One, its combination of belief and credibility is done with miraculous speed and slickness.

These are not qualities you would associate with The Masterson Inheritance (Radio 4, Thursday), 'the improvised historical saga of a family at war with itself'. This six-week extended impro is narrated by Lee Simpson and stars, among others, Josie Lawrence and Paul Merton (who, incidentally, is married to Caroline Quentin).

In theory, it's based entirely on audience suggestions; in practice, the variables are limited. The starting date is set at 1760, and the audience is asked to supply a hobby or pastime that an 18th-century gentleman might have, a piece of village gossip about the Masterson family, and a title for the first episode - 'The Something of the Mastersons,' Simpson proposes, and gets a chorus of people filling in the blank with 'Curse'.

All the same, the air of suppressed panic makes it clear that nobody's working from a script. The worry is that after six weeks the missed cues for sound-effects won't seem quite so hilarious, and God only knows what they'll do for laughs then. Or Simon Mayo does. One or the other.