Radio: One of the nicest old hippies I've ever heard

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The Independent Culture
I remember a fantastically irritating advertising campaign for radio somewhere which said that as a medium radio had the edge over TV because "the pictures are better". This is not strictly speaking true but you know what they meant. For example, say the words "Radio 2" to yourself and you get a fairly vivid picture of what that station is like. All DJs and announcers are handed a cardigan when they are hired (which was shortly after the invention of the cardigan), and there are strict instructions against original thought and music that will drive our youngsters mad with boogie-woogie jungle rhythms. Margaret Thatcher always liked appearing on Jimmy Young because no one with a brain has ever listened to Jimmy Young for more than three seconds.

The BBC noticed that this was hardly an image calculated to entice new listeners, and has been plugging away for some time now at implanting the suggestion that Radio 2 is in fact vibrant, hip and, these days at least, a Margaret Thatcher-free zone. We may have to wait a while to be one hundred per cent sure that she won't, like Arnold Schwarzennegger's Terminator, be back, but it does seem pretty safe to twist the dial that little extra bit to the left.

For example, there has been a series going out in which Mark Kermode, a nice young film critic, interviews movie directors. In direct and humiliating contradiction of my fears that he would cobble together a list of barrel- scraping obscurities, he managed to get the likes of Robert Redford, Kenneth Branagh, Nora Ephron, Brian de Palma and Terry Gilliam. Like a moron, I missed all of these except the last one.

Now Gilliam is hardly my favourite director (I think he lost it after Time Bandits, and his mission seems to be to furnish the visual imaginations of people who have little of their own) but Kermode thinks he is the bee's knees and it would be a dull world if we all thought alike, apparently. (He thinks Brazil is one of the best 10 movies of all time. Go figure.) He also got a fascinating interview out of his subject - well, not exactly fascinating, but it was a perfectly pleasant way of spending half an hour, and you left it with an enhanced respect for Gilliam - and, indeed, Kermode, who kept himself very much in the background. You forgot, at times, that there was an interviewer.

We learned that Gilliam is basically an old hippie, in the nicest sense of the term, who makes the kind of movies that hippies make in their garages, only with a budget of $50m, and that his wife says he makes the same film over and over again. We also learned that he handles the pressures of the movie system with his personal integrity intact. (Although it was perhaps telling that the programme skated quite swiftly over The Fisher King). But the nicest surprise to dawn on you was that this most manically visual of directors was being interviewed, very successfully, on the radio. A TV interview would have been stuffed with images. As it is you could conjure up your own while you listened.

There's a new series of Harry's Game on Radio 4, 6.30 on Wednesdays which allows you to conjure up pictures of hell, because it is set there. Andy Hamilton plays the Devil and James Grout plays the Professor, who although dead does not believe so and imagines that he is just suffering from an unusually protracted hallucination. This premise, difficult to sustain when you are getting into your third series, has been quietly dropped so they just steam along with some jokes, which are always funnier when dealing with the Four Last Things (ie, death, judgement, heaven and hell). Heaven doesn't feature much but was described in the previous series as "just like Scotland, only without the midges. And the Scots, of course".

Andy Hamilton has one of those voices, a sort of nasal leer, which makes everything sound funny; he also writes the series and I hope the BBC appreciates him and pays him his weight in gold every week. (Maybe not gold. But something nice, at least.) Harry's Game is a neatly modulated version of all those old folk stories in which people try to outwit Old Nick; and even if it is not exactly Dante, we do get comic peeks at serious matters - retribution, sin, and the unusual ubiquity and phenomenology of Jill Dando.

"Do you often take on the form of Jill Dando?" asks the Professor at one point. I'll let you into a secret, Professor," says the Devil. "There is no such person as Jill Dando." I don't know how that looks on the page but it was delivered impeccably on the radio.

Meanwhile, in Borsetshire, the scriptwriters' war against reality continues. Have you noticed how no one in Ambridge has extramarital nookie these days? (And, for a farming community, it is a trifle low on the suicide rate.) For a few days they teased us into thinking that Sid Perks was having a bit on the side, but if we'd thought about it for a second we should have realised it could not be so. Sid is not only anaphrodisiacally thick, he's also gay, as his too-loudly-protested homophobia attests. Best line of the week came from Elizabeth, to Nigel: "We've tried reason, and that didn't work. We're just going to have to kill your mother."