RADIO / Move over Jimmy, this man's even worse

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The Independent Culture
MORGAN, the troubled hero of David Mercer's 30-year-old play A Suitable Case for Treatment (R3), revived last Sunday, was clearly a close relation of John Osborne's Jimmy Porter. With the same surly non-conformity, rage against the class system, and lethal invective, he charms even as he repels. Why then did Jimmy become an icon, and Morgan merely a literary footnote?

There are mundane reasons. Morgan was conceived for television, and the only tape of the play was wiped by the BBC; Porter stormed onto the stage (a better critical platform) six years earlier. Radio 3's production, however, suggested that a critical injustice has been done to Mercer. Morgan emerged as a far more subtle and affecting creation than Jimmy Porter. His anger is less predictable, and therefore funnier and more frightening. A bomb placed under his ex-wife's bed, timed to discomfort her oleaginous lover, froze the smile on your face, after Morgan had just performed a virtuoso rant at his 'bourgeois' mother-in-law. Morgan's eavesdropping on his wife in flagrante raises smiles, but his painstaking execution of her cuddly toy ('Swing, woolly dog, swing') draws only shudders. Morgan is a man against whom it is advisable to change the locks - a charming sociopath rather than an immature misfit.

Our unease was reinforced by the radio adaptation. Kenneth Haigh's arch narration of the stage directions distanced the action, giving it the feel of a case history. Stephen Moore was both threatening and endearing as Morgan. Harriet Walter, as his upper-class wife, caught both the simpering gentility he had come to despise and the surprising sensitivity he must have once loved.

It would be easy to criticise the play for agitprop Marxism. Morgan's trade-mark prank is to leave an image of a hammer and sickle wherever he visits - most memorably on the sheets at his mother-in-law's. His aim is to epater les bourgeois, whether it be a policeman snooping around the car Morgan lives in on Parliament Hill or the benighted in-laws. But the play is not so much promoting the creed as dissecting the mind drawn to it. It presents a figure stranded (like David Mercer himself) between working-class roots and artistic aspirations. People are 'always inviting me to step into life,' Morgan confesses. 'But for me it's like stepping off a precipice.' It's a more delicate portrait than the primary colours of Jimmy Porter. Mercer's subtlety may have contributed to his neglect.

The worst feature of Magic Moments (R4) is its title, redolent of crass Memory Lane slots. The show is actually a trawl through recent cultural history: the invention of the 45 rpm single record, last week; this week, the story of Cosmopolitan magazine. The resulting documentaries are funds of trivia (the old 78s, we learnt, were made out of crushed insects). But nostalgia - albeit zestily evoked by presenter Nigel Fountain with an inspired use of archives - tends to edge out cultural analysis. Stars recall signing 45s, fans recall collecting them, but nobody says what they meant for music.

This week's programme was sharper: the knives were out for Cosmo-girl. She was effusively serenaded by a lady with a long name ('She's alert, she's bright, she's compassionate. She's seizing life, not complacent. I love her'), but the speaker turned out to be the magazine's editor, Marcelle d'Argy Smith. A less partisan contributor bitchily dismissed the model reader as a secretary with pretensions. The magazine's personal advice ('Jealousy: avoid it like the plague]') and sex tips ('Being able to sit very still is sexy . . . sphinxes and Mona Lisas knew what they were doing]') seemed sound enough, and Cosmo's go-get-it ethic, harmless and maybe even helpful. It was only when a list of 'perfect lovers' included Roy Jenkins that you began to have doubts.

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