RADIO / Murder most dull, mostly: Robert Hanks on 'true crime': Radio 4's Murder Most Foul and Crimes of Our Times

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The Independent Culture
It's one of the odd things about crime that, by and large, it's far more exciting in the abstract - distilled as statistics which can fuel debates and moral crises - or in the imagination - boiled down into pulp fiction or, which is often the same thing, headlines - than in real life. In the real world, crime isn't necessarily thrilling; just dull and unpleasant.

This is a problem that Murder Most Foul (Radio 4, Friday) has to cope with. The programme's brief - retelling historical instances of the ultimate crime - sounds juicy; but while it sticks to fact, it has to struggle against an inherent lack of drama in most of its stories. It doesn't always carry on the struggle effectively, either.

This was the case with last week's episode, the first in a new run: 'Of Flypapers and Death' told the story of Frederick Seddon, picked out by Orwell as one of the classic murderers from the Golden Age of the English murder. Seddon killed his lodger, Eliza Barrow, by poisoning her with arsenic, apparently to get his hands on her money. The evidence against him was pretty circumstantial, but his extreme arrogance and intellectual poise in the witness-box convinced the jury that he was a likely sort of murderer. And he swore by the Great Architect that he was innocent in front of a judge who was a freemason, and still didn't get off.

Clearly, there are dramatic elements here, but they were subdued by the programme's format. Nick Ross introduces the story, trying to draw some moral from the grisly chain of events - here, the main point was that nobody likes a smart-arse, though Ross was more circumspect. Once he's got the philosophy over, he narrates the bones of the story, allowing himself tones a shade darker than on Crimewatch - presumably because these crimes are a little more remote, so he's less worried about scaring you.

Some rather hammily acted dramatised sequences - plodding policemen, dithering witnesses gloating barristers, shifty criminals, imperious judges - flesh the narrative out. In this case, though, it sounded as though much of the dialogue had been written just to give the actors something to do. Discussing financial arrangements between Seddon and his victim, a relation commented that he'd bought her two annuities, 'adding up to three pounds, two shillings a week for as long as she lived.' 'Which didn't turn out to be very long, did it?' a second character pointed out. Just in case you didn't get the point, a third chipped in to answer the question: 'No. It didn't'

You can blame the writer for this: but you can also blame the fact that, once you've got the forensic side out of the way, historical murders offer you little substantial to say. All the human interest lies in the realms of speculation - the private motivations and small personal details that aren't part of the record. There isn't even a great deal of room for moral speculation in a crime like this, committed purely for gain - in ethical terms, it's an open and shut case. All in all, Murder Most Foul must have looked a much better idea on paper than it turns out in practice.

The same is true of Crimes of Our Times (Radio 4, Tuesday), a four-part investigation of fraud by Margaret Percy. The problem here isn't so much that there's no room for moral speculation - as Percy pointed out, fraud is one of those crimes that blurs into everyday behaviour - or that there's a shortage of excitement: indeed, the programme contains some excellent tape of early morning raids, police chases, and interviews with just-arrested crooks.

The fly in the ointment is Margaret Percy herself. She talks in a fabulously irritating journalese mixed with a lexicon of meaningless interjections: 'She's on probation now. Hmmmm'; 'Ohhhh boy. Plastic, your flexible enemy'; 'Four cars and a van chasing one man who's got the characteristics of ectoplasm. I ask you.' She suffers outbursts of heavily faked indignation ('What's wrong with these bank people?'), mixes her metaphors ('The country's gone to the dogs. The gamekeeper turned poacher's backed the wrong horse'), and makes wild generalisations - all this in a soupy voice modulated by a vile half-giggle.

She is also horribly egotistical. Opening the first programme, she promised that we would meet fraud's 'perpetrators, victims and crimebusters'. So far, though, the only victim we've met is one M Percy - somebody tried to obtain a credit card in her name. She should count herself lucky. By the end, most of the audience were contemplating far nastier crimes.