RADIO / Nobs, yobs and slobs

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RADIO 4 attracts curious characters and veteran bores in about equal measure. Listening can be like being collared by the oldest member at the 19th hole in a P G Wodehouse story: make what excuse you may, you know that you're going to sit through some lengthy, yet strangely hypnotic yarn. In recent years a certain type of presenter has arisen to deliver these tales. They tend to be blokes (no women have yet fitted the category) from the regions, iconoclasts who stick out from the run of BBC voices and are too covetous of words to be employed by television.

Three such tale-spinners - Ray Gosling, Vaughan Purvis, and Phil Smith - have just begun new series. Gosling is a radio genius, Purvis a talented novice and Smith a veteran in danger of becoming a bore. Gosling is doing features on high-street retailers, interviewing scions of the great shop-owning families. Purvis is telling tall tales about a recent trip to north Africa. And Smith seems to be giving his own brand of winsome sermon.

Over the years Gosling's unique voice - an instrument that can swoop from alto to bass within the syllables of a word - and spiky personality have been harnessed to a treasure trove of subjects, from languages to local priests. His new series, Gosling in the High Street (R4) finds him on favourite territory, somewhere between industrial nostalgia and amateur sociology with special reference to the class system.

His first stop, Burton's, the tailor's, provided a wealth of quaint period detail, with its austere, bank-like interiors and ban on saleswomen for fear of the inside- leg measurement. The shop was founded on the egalitarian belief that attire alone should not distinguish a nob from a yob. Times have changed, and Arnold Burton (son of founder Sir Montague) had decided to dress informally for the interview, expecting a 'member of the BBC to arrive in any sort of garment other than a suit'. He wore a cashmere sports jacket, and flannel trousers. Gosling wore a suit.

Gosling set the scene with wonderful pithiness. His high querulous voice, by turns awestruck and dismayed, often italicises words. The effect is of a prose poem. 'You'd be glided in off the street - round this curved plate-glass into a palace. To be made respectable in. Above: the dancing; below: the billiards. At the long silent tables, yer measurements'd be taken. And you'd select a style from their pattern book. For Sunday best. For farmers' ball. For life - they'd fit you up.'

Vaughan Purvis - like Gosling, a university drop-out with a career more chequered than a Burton's sports jacket - also has great descriptive gifts. But whereas Gosling rarely employs his outside Britain, Purvis is a traveller. His new series of short talks, Dust Devils (R4), recounts adventures in north Africa: the first, last Sunday, a hashish transaction between natives and touring Australians which turned violent. So far there has been nothing to match the 'last days of Sodom' he described and participated in in Vaughanssaga, but his mastery of detail and eye for the surprising image remains. ('Night left blisters of dew on the camper van.') The talks are neatly structured and delivered with a touch of showmanship though nothing like Gosling's flamboyance.

On the right project, Phil Smith, with his Northern whimsy and idiosyncratic eye, can be a match for Gosling - his Smith's Elegy was a touching tour round long-forgotten tombstones. But Smith in Shining Armour (R4) - a return to the alliterative titles with which the BBC has plagued him: Smith on Survival, Smith on the Soil etc - is painfully thin. He started with his old school photograph, which prompted a homily on how we fail to match our ideals. Last Sunday he outlined the pains of puberty. Bemoaning 'the cold wind of oblivion' blowing in his contemporaries' faces, he exhorts them to 'be like sky-rockets bursting on an astonished world; not this empty panic, like a fly that drops off a window and whizzes round and round on his back in a buzzing fury, before falling still forever'. Smith on Self-Indulgence might be nearer the mark.