Radio: Reality and its discontents

The Week on Radio Reviewed by Robert Hanks
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The Independent Culture
"WHY WAS Doris Day such a good actress?" asks one of the characters in Charlotte Jones's play Airswimming (Radio 4, Thursday). "Because," her friend recites, "she was always confident, upbeat and utterly sure of her destiny."

This would not be a bad answer to the question "What made Herbert von Karajan such a good conductor?" - a question that The Other Karajan (Radio 3, Saturday) made you feel is genuinely a burning issue. To be fair, Karajan's conducting was rarely if ever upbeat, but he often achieved a relentless up-tempo pulse, sometimes in quite unlikely places. The title of this first programme, "Undertones of War", was supposed to reflect the extent to which war and the fear of war underlay much of his music. But the eventual effect was to thoroughly undermine that idea: even when playing the "Old Comrades" march, Karajan adopted a quite unmartial briskness.

But nor did he sound like a man on the run. Richard Osborne, having set up the idea that fear of war was a shaping factor in his work, later seemed to contradict this when he said that "two world wars both heightened and deepened his sense of music as `the way', the one medium in which he could live, move and have his being". Listening to, in particular, part of the finale of Bruckner's Eighth, you got a strong sense that Karajan simply shut out worldly things - that this was pure music, unsullied by the real world.

More escapes from reality in Turn On, Turn Off - Drugs That Changed the World (Radio 4, Tuesday), in which Susan Greenfield looked at how psychedelic drugs work and what we can learn about from this about how the brain functions. There was some satisfying hard science here, and precise subjective description of what various drugs do. Unfortunately, it was surrounded by some very soft radio cliches: the section on LSD was accompanied by Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" ("One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small"), and Ecstasy, naturally, got high-bpm dance music. Be warned - making programmes on drugs can mess with your head.

And back to Airswimming, a play all about retreating from reality: Sophie Thompson and Charlotte Jones played Persephone and Dora, confined to a home for the criminally insane in the 1920s - Persephone for having an illegitimate child, Dora for being too mannish. The action flashed between the Twenties and old age, when they have found solace in a shared imaginative life, centred largely on Persephone's Doris Day fixation.

Jones's script felt over-trimmed at 45 minutes - the bane of Boyle's new-look Radio 4 - and it was in places mannered and artificial. But it was often very funny. When they hold a mock baptism for Persephone's absent child, she wants to christen him Bastard; Dora gropes for a reason why she can't: "It would ruin his chances of Sandhurst for a start." But the way it found humour and compassion in madness, the freshness of the thing, made it feel much closer to real life than radio plays usually do.