Radio: Moments of truth and lumpy throats

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The Independent Culture
IN RADIO, everything depends on the voice. There was a fine play broadcast this week, based on the letters of a foot-soldier in Wellington's army, but Private Wheeler's War (R4) could have been fought in Bosnia, Troy or Passchendaele. The experience of war (as John Keegan continues to demonstrate in his Reith Lectures) is universal. What distinguished Andrew Lincoln's heroic Private Wheeler was his convincing voice.

You can do anything with a voice. You can argue, wheedle, bewitch or hypnotise. You can inform - or you can go thundering straight over the top, guns blazing. This last was Ed Boyle's chosen means of attack in The Ex-Files (Talk), a gallop over the smouldering battlefield wherein lay scattered 126 mutilated bodies. This, however, was no tale of military derring-do, but a first anniversary "where-are-they-now?" feature about defeated Tory MPs. Boyle's voice resounded with doleful weightiness, like Charon inspecting ferry tickets on the Styx, or Michael Hanrahan counting them out in the Falklands. And his language was equally portentous. These MPs, he said, are the Army of the Defeated, the Fallen, human carcasses - and still bleeding. Their pain, he intoned, came in worsening waves; returning to their offices was like pulling a bandage off a scabby wound (yeuch), and many a throat contained "a strangled lump" (how awful, when even your lumps are strangled). Talk about overkill. Defeat must have been disappointing for them, but it's how most MPs go.

The great Maurice Denham, celebrating 60 years of broadcasting, played a defeated MP in Peter Tinniswood's monologue On the Whole, It's Been Kolly Good (R4). Denham's velvet smoking-jacket of a voice is seldom far from a chuckle, full of good humour and experience. The character of Plympton Makepeace is a rich amalgam of nostalgic idleness and serendipity. I particularly enjoyed hearing of his affair with an Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Agriculture - a vast woman in a trilby, smelling of privet, with short-cropped hair and a prize-fighter's jaw who presses him up against a rusty stanchion - "I fell in love with her instantly." When he assumed her voice, she sounded alarmingly like Roy Hattersley.

Enyd Williams directed, and Tinniswood wrote two further monologues for this week's Afternoon Play slot, in which Billie Whitelaw and Stephanie Cole created equally memorable characters - a retiring obituarist and an ancient alcoholic, respectively. All three made first- class radio.

A real alcoholic recalled her experiences for Hugging Demons (R4). This was a touching collection of first-hand accounts of the addicts helped by Broadway House, in Weston-Super-Mare. Old drunks, we were told, make good mirrors; when nine of them tell you how they see you - and they all agree - you have to believe them. Their therapy, strong on peer-evaluation, encourages them to seek comfort in hugs, not drugs. In fact it features several such word-games. After addiction, there is a vacuum to be filled, and the filler is often God. But that can be an acronym for anything from "Group of Drunks" to "Good Orderly Direction".

Equally careful not to delimit his belief was the tenor Robert Tear, who has started a late-night series on the World Service called Moments of Truth. Tear had a real road-to-Damascus experience 30 years ago in a park in San Diego, when he was temporarily paralysed and unable to speak. His god is the spirit of eternal love, and his series is a montage of aphorisms, deliberately unattributed, some of which he hopes will help his listeners on their way to the truth. These aphorisms come thick and fast, but they are opaque and mysterious, demanding longer contemplation. Besides, you can't help trying to spot the sources - here a snatch of Julian of Norwich, there, words from the Sermon on the Mount. Nevertheless, the general effect is comforting, and you go to sleep hoping that all manner of things shall be well.

Another voice was that of an urbane and self-denigratory mathematician in An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer (R2), which, on the contrary, was time well spent. Lehrer revealed that he is condemned as subversive in America, but achieved the acme of acceptability in England long ago, by being a guest on Desert Island Discs (there's a castaway I wish they'd invite back). His Sixties songs, like "The Old Dope-Peddler", have astonishing contemporary relevance - but then, as he said, predict the worst, and you'll be hailed as a prophet.

Seven Ages of the Voice (World Service) is trying to sort out how vocal inflections develop. Using contributions from New Zealand, Jamaica and the Gambia, speech therapist Laura Spicer defined distinct stages in our progress towards loquaciousness. She ended, this week, with that most garrulous of creatures, the teenager on the telephone.

Her series reminded me that Classic FM recently sent me a copy of their book, Favourite Shakespeare, issued to accompany a tape. The book's editor asserts that the collection will take us "through the Seven Ages of Man so eloquently described by Prospero in The Tempest". Hmmm. I'm just off to discover whether or not it also contains an account of the hopeless love of Romeo for Cressida.

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