RADIO / Makes you think, really: Robert Hanks on philosophy, ley-lines and that nice Nancy Empson

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The Independent Culture
Philosophy doesn't, as a rule, provide much in the way of consolation; if anything, it tends to be rather unsettling. First Philosophers (R3, Monday to Friday), a series of brisk chats about the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, was, while managing to do all those Reithian things - informing, educating, entertaining - quite disturbing in a number of ways.

Or if not disturbing, annoying. On Monday, Dr Mary Margaret McCabe introduced Heraclitus, known as 'the Obscure' - a nickname that expressed, she thought, 'a certain amount of irritation'. She drew a vivid picture of him going around Ephesus getting up people's noses: 'If somebody comes along and says 'The road up and down is one and the same,' you want to say 'Hngh. What? No it's not.' ' Actually, I'm with Heraclitus on this one - it all depends on which way you're facing - but maybe it was to do with his tone of voice.

He was followed by the even more frustrating Parmenides, who held that things either exist or they don't, which is not unreasonable, but moved on from there to assert that matter is uniform and indivisible. In his own words: 'Nor is it divided, since it all alike is, neither more here nor less there which would prevent it from cohering, but it is full of what it is. Hence it is all continuous.' You wonder why you never thought of it yourself.

Otherwise, we heard about Pythagoras, the Shirley MacLaine of the ancient world, who used to go on about his former lives; Democritus, famous for suggesting that everything was made of atoms; and Empedocles - 'the most passionate of the early vegetarian thinkers', according to Dr Malcolm Schofield. Empedocles believed that the world is held together by love and that we shouldn't eat the flesh of animals because they could contain the souls of, like, dead friends. Reaction against the Parmenidean position, you say; bloody hippie, I say.

For all the academic gloss, this sort of thing isn't so very far away from the kind of philosophising you expect to go along with enthusiasm for ley- lines, soft drugs and crystal healing. Alternatively, you could get it from Winston Back Home (R4, Thursday), roughly the fifth, and certainly the final, series of Peter Tinniswood's comedy about nice Nancy Empson, her awful family and her poacher lover, Winston.

A couple of weeks ago, Winston explained that his old mum used to say that thunder and lightning were caused by God having a bath and getting his wotsits caught in the hotwater tap, while Nancy expressed the belief that God is the leader of a Ramblers' Association outing to the Peak District - he's the only one who's remembered to bring an opener for the bottle of Tizer. Aside from the Tizer, there's not much here that would look indecorous or out of place at a pre-Socratics' tea party.

The series finished last week, and to be honest, seeing the back of Winston won't come as a devastating blow. Tinniswood has his charms and his insights - not many writers have his appreciation of the lure of misery - but he also has a limited repertoire of comic devices: bathos, tautology ('In the nude with no togs on'), juxtaposition of high-minded references (Schopenhauer and Goethe) with earthy colloquialism, and lots of Dionysiac, ecstatic descriptions of fairly sordid sex ('sucking the juices from his body' is a phrase that sticks). He also works on the assumption that repetition itself is funny; how many times can you hear that Winston has twin tattoos over his nipples - 'Mild' and 'Bitter' - before the joke palls?

Still, the cast has always given value for money, especially Shirley Dixon as Nancy, and Maurice Denham as her bumbling, ruthlessly egotistical father. And we can always look forward to the repeats.