RADIO / Made to measure

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Since it was the best radio Shakespeare the BBC has done for years, it's hard to avoid discussing Peter Kavanagh's production of Measure for Measure (Radio 3, Sunday). But since there's a strong risk of inducing Measure for Measure overkill here (see below), it's probably best to keep it short. In any case, the production's virtues are easily stated - you can boil them down into one overriding virtue: lucidity.

It's easier to talk about the production's faults. These were, in one way at least, intimately linked with its positive aspects: casting that leaned towards typecasting - Simon Russell Beale sneering and cynical as Lucio, Saskia Reeves doing her injured innocence bit as Isabella. Given a text as dense as this, though, you need all the help you can get to project an idea of character.

The other carp was the way that Kavanagh tried, rather clumsily, to emphasise contemporary resonances. The play was prefaced by a montage of soundbites juxtaposing Tory moralising with Tory sexual indiscretions - a device that made Radio 4's Week Ending look trenchant - and then made some desultory efforts to remind you of the 20th century (occasional vroom-vrooming noises, one conversation on the phone). This seemed pointless - if you can't make the leap unaided from sexual hypocrisy in 17th-century fiction to sexual hypocrisy in 20th- century reality, is the sound of motor cars really going to give you the imaginative stimulus you need?

Quite how you do go about creating a period atmosphere on radio is hard to say. The easy answer is that you probably shouldn't try - the chances of slipping into cliche or overwhelming your subject are too high. By way of illustration, the opening programme of Daniel Snowman's series Fin de Siecle (Radio 4, Wednesday) managed to do both.

This series - subtitled Six Excursions into Our Past - jumps back a century at a time to the 1390s. The first excursion, to the 1890s, was a miracle of compression, going through diet, income distribution, crime, consumption habits etc, at a great lick. What it lacked was focus: so far, it's not clear what the point of the series is - there wasn't much about the apocalyptic fears that customarily strike at the end of the century. You don't want the programme to exaggerate what's distinctive about the ends of centuries purely to justify itself; but if there isn't something distinctive, is it justified at all?

To be fair, it has another five weeks to answer that question. But Snowman's period sound-effects are already trying the patience: trotting horses, military bands, music hall songs, and all the noisy paraphernalia of Victorian life. This kind of aural shorthand can give the listener helpful clues; more often, it's lazy or misleading. Why, for instance, underscore a discussion of Jewish immigration to Manchester with a record of a synagogue cantor? Fine, that says 'Jewish', but it says absolutely nothing about anybody's experience of Jewish immigration. On radio, a sound can be worth a thousand words; but you've got to make sure they're the right ones.

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