RADIO / One for the rodent: Robert Hanks on the dangers of scientific experiment in Of Rats and Men and of artistic freedom in The Rat Pack

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The Independent Culture
In strictly scientific terms, of course, our closest relatives are the apes. But proverbially speaking, we're much nearer to the rats - we smell a rat, we get caught like rats in traps, we join the rat-race, we desert sinking ships like rats. We then get ratty about it. And - the temptation is strong to say 'therefore' - rats have traditionally been the experimental subject of choice for psychologists who want to poke around the human mind without poking around human minds as such.

One of the strengths of Richard Bean's excellent Monday Play, Of Rats and Men (Radio 4), was that it didn't overplay the metaphorical richness of rats, but left you to work out some of the angles for yourself. Garrick Hagon played the central character, a behavioural psychologist in Fifties America who throws over traditional methodology (rats in mazes) and starts to experiment with people instead. He has been deeply affected by the experience of liberating a concentration camp during the war, and wants to prove that people aren't all bad.

The experiment he designs is a sophisticated bluff: volunteers are told that they are taking part in a test to measure the effects of punishment on learning, as part of which they have to administer electric shocks to another person. The shocks get bigger as the test proceeds, and the person getting the shocks starts to scream. In fact, the shocks are fake, the screaming man is the professor's ambitious young assistant (Anton Lesser), and the object of the exercise is to find out just how much cruelty people will inflict before they rebel. The answer turns out to be an awful lot.

There were faults with the play. Most seriously, after a cleverly paced first act, the action didn't so much build to a climax as scurry to it. The assistant turns out to be developing vengeful homicidal leanings and the professor designs an experiment to trick him into revealing himself. As a denouement to a thriller, this would have worked fine; but the play had showed signs of larger ambitions. It left you wishing Bean had taken a little more time over things. There were some satisfying ironies, though, which weren't pushed too hard: trying to prove that people aren't like rats, the professor ends up treating them just the same way and his assistant ends up with an utterly ratlike sense of morality.

After this, in retrospect there was something faintly sinister about the first part of The Rat Pack (Radio 2, Tuesday), a six-part series about Frank Sinatra and his gang, whose chief corporate claim to fame is that they were responsible for Ocean's Eleven and Robin and the Seven Hoods. Apparently, they liked to be called The Clan or The Summit, but in purely cinematic terms Rat Pack sounds like fair comment.

The existence and the glamorisation of the Rat Pack - basically a bunch of guys who liked drinking and chasing chicks - are interesting topics for investigation, but this didn't go much deeper than asking one of Sinatra's daughters about him. Predictably, she placed the emphasis on his generosity, fairness and enthusiasm for racial equality. The only time anything faintly exciting showed up through the whitewash was when somebody made a vague reference to his Sicilian sense of loyalty, but the interviewer didn't think it worth his while to scrub any harder at that particular patch. There was a similar vagueness elsewhere - Peter Lawford was referred to as an 'enigmatic' actor, which left you wondering if enigmatic was meant as a euphemism for 'obscure' or 'permanently half-cut'. In fact, later on a friend did talk explicitly about Lawford's drinking, saying that it must have been the booze that broke up his marriage, since he didn't chase girls. As a view of human relationships, this would work fine for rats.