RADIO / Nothing elementary about them

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The Independent Culture
ELEPHANTS have always exerted a strange fascination. In medieval times, they were a symbol of chastity. It was believed that the arrangement of their sexual organs meant that copulation took place only when they were modestly looking the other way. So to suggest Condoms for Elephants (R4) is particularly unseemly, quite apart from the problems of putting on and removing these gigantic contraptions. Yet such is the exalted status of the beast that committees are actually considering the condom option in Kenya.

This programme tried to take an overview, but succeeded only in countless pot-shots and the odd oversight. It was not easy for the presenter, Robin Page, particularly when a large, healthy bull put its ears out and pointed its ivory at him. He sounded, well, small: his voice went rather high and he talked rapidly about being more used to the company of rabbits and foxes. The trouble is that elephants are perceived as cuddly and sweet, probably the fault of Babar and Dumbo. Cuddly sweetness means cash. If the black mamba were endangered, nobody would support its preservation, but the elephant attracts enormous funds and, particularly in Kenya, it is multiplying rapidly. The problem came sharply into focus as the suggestion was made that some of Kenya's surplus stock should be pastured on the New Forest and we shouldn't worry if a few local peasants were trampled underfoot.

The elemaniacs had names out of Dickens: one Mr Eliot makes a living from eleviewing; Mr Cocker prefers to have his rifle handy; Mr Bell sounded a warning note about treating elephants as more important than people; Mr Townsend pointed out the ravaging tendencies of huge beasts that need 300lbs of food a day and ignore settlements in their path. Elemental feelings ran high. Some saw the animals as useful re-creators of the landscape, the Capability Greys of Africa; others wanted a return to the lucrative trade in ivory bangles and elephant-foot ashtrays in order to provide a bigger income for the hungry continent. As the performers trumpeted off, we were left more baffled than enlightened as to the answer, but it was a rare half-hour of radio elevision.

In Somerset, other animals exist peacefully on the 300 acres of pasture owned by Michael Eavis of Worthy Farm. If you were an Eavis, you might well enjoy having 250 dairy cattle On Your Farm (R4) and settle for a quiet life. But for three weeks every summer, the cattle are summarily winterised and their fields are home to the Glastonbury Festival, the biggest celebration of contemporary performing arts in the world and the brainchild of these worthy farmers. Robert Foster, the presenter of this series, is usually to be heard munching contentedly on an improbably early, cholesterol-rich Sunday breakfast, ruminating on crop-yields, set-aside and the sinking price of pork. This week was different. All he got was a cup of tea, but the listener heard a story to lift the heart.

The Eavises love their cows, but they also love rock music. They like bands, young people - 'Why must you call them hippies?' demands Mrs Eavis - and parties. For 25 years they have hosted the festival, which boosts local trade, earns pounds 250,000 for charity and provides them with useful access roads from which they cheerfully spread slurry every winter. When the festival is over they spend a fortune on clearing up, until every fag-end has disappeared and they have the sprucest farm in the West. Nobody asked what effect all this had on the cows, shut up in the dark with all that noise going on, only to be released into a polished paradise.

Other channels, other music. Radio 2 gave us Thora Hird in winsome mood, reminiscing about doing a nifty tango in The Flirty Fifties. Flirty is a good word for our Thora with her relentless cheeriness and memories of harmless frolics. The picture she presented of village hops, skiffle bands and jukeboxes was taken with a box-Brownie and suspiciously curly at the edges, but it had all the insidious appeal of nostalgia and you'd have to be a wicked critic indeed to disapprove of such a wholesome presenter. There was a pleasing touch of authenticity when a woman sounding very proper remembered the day she made her stiff petticoat extra stiff by dipping it in a strong sugar solution. When she went to fetch it off the clothes-line, it was covered in wasps.

Marilyn Myddleton-Pollock could be a Fifties posh name but in fact it belongs to an American singer whose tremendous, raucous chainsaw of a voice sounds like Calamity Jane crashing into Mae West. In Vaudeville, Red-Hot and Blue (R2) she sang what she called vodvil in the best tradition of Sophie Tucker. Early impresarios prudishly banned offensive words like devil, son-of-a-gun and damn, but a song like 'My Man's Such a Handy Man' looks domestic and useful on paper. Marilyn's version was 1 per cent household hints, 99 per cent innuendo.

It's the end of term for Start the Week (R4) and Melvyn Bragg swapped his finely honed scalpel for a bucket and spade in a very gentle last edition. Six writers - a block of writers was the chosen collective noun - chuntered on agreeably about the difference between literary and popular novels, coming to no particular conclusion, before the utterly charming P J Kavanagh told a story about having a cup of coffee early one morning in County Antrim. The landlady refused to let him pay for it, giving two simple reasons: one, her pub wasn't open; two, she didn't sell coffee anyway. What a place for a holiday.