RADIO / Roy Hudd's cheeky Gwyn

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The Independent Culture
THE SCENE is London in the 1670s. Through her bedroom window, we can just see Nell, the freshly squeezed orange dealer, doing her Seville Service work: her gentleman caller appears to be wearing nothing but a cheeky gwyn. Odds frolickings, it's Radio 2's comedy week, and Roy Hudd is giving us a history lesson on Charles II, the first of his Crowned Hudds. Hudd is a Carry On pantomime for all seasons. He's mildly smutty, often witty, indefatigably silly, always chortling at his own lines. It's a hopelessly infectious chortle, the kind you feel slightly ashamed of catching, but you do. His Stuart London houses Chris Wren, the fly builder with a load of spires to shift, Sam Pepys pressing sailors in the street to re-stock the Navy and the tireless Nell, over whom Charlie declares his divine right. 'You're talking absolute monarchs,' she squeals.

Other networks put out three magnificent plays this week, all of them illustrations of Tom Stoppard's contention that radio plays are the best because the scenery's so good. One was set in Paris, one in Edinburgh and An Inspector Called Horse (R3) in the university town of St Epona, where a faculty of circus skills has just opened. They've legalised pot and destroyed the abbey ruins to build a concrete big top, and they've installed a Ringmaster Emeritus, fire-eaters and lion-tamers. The influence of St Epona shows in the names: the doctor is called Steed, the mayor is Mrs Palfrey, the inspector's sidekick is Sergeant Colt and the whole surreal campus is ruled by a master named, with sinister significance, Edward Hyde.

Billed as a mythological thriller, the action revolves around the identity of a dread huntsman, whose fiery mount rapes and slaughters horses. Inspector Cheval has Haitian ancestry and is skilled in voodoo. He traces the huntsman to the master's lodge which is stuffed with books about Swift. Hyde proves to be a 'cheval-garou', a were-horse, descended from a terrible coupling in Gulliver's Travels when the Houyhnhnm mares were ravished by the Yahoos. The Inspector's voodoo allows Hyde to come out as he really is, a centaur, and he canters joyfully round the ring in his new post: Chiron Professor of Practical Mythology and Equitation.

Peter Redgrove's brilliant scripting led with a dozen disparate, topical issues: in the air simultaneously were sparkling ideas about gimmickry in higher education, an ironic curtsey to J B Priestley, wild fancies about recent attacks on horses and even, by bizarre serendipity, references to the Lib Dems drugs vote and the crisis in Haiti. It was also full of sly little jokes. Is it true, someone asks the master in hushed tones, that your stallion serves mares to Mozart? At present, he replies, he prefers Gorecki. Of course, this is Radio 3.

Down and often out in Paris, Eileen Atkins was Sasha in Good Morning Midnight (R4) by Jean Rhys. With consummate magnetism, Atkins gripped your arm and talked quietly and insistently into your ear. She was impossible to switch off, though bleak beyond pity, so compelling was her performance. Her voice is calm, reasonable, slow and beautifully clear. An oboe mused behind her as she gradually and prosaically revealed the griefs of a life begun in hope, ending lonely, in something worse than despair. It will haunt those who heard it for months, maybe forever.

Finally, last night, we had an Edinburgh opera company getting ready to Dress Up and Sing (R4) in a fraught amateur production of Nabucco. A young producer 'with all those Sunday paper ideas and no sense' wanted a cast of six in gumboots, but he was replaced by the old hand who put a vast chorus into thongs and body-tan. The elderly soprano was ousted by an unlikely Southern belle called Sindy, whose rival for the least convincing accent this year - or, maybe, ever - was Whine, an implausible Strine. The designer got his arks muddled up and made Noah's when it should have been Indiana Jones's and the whole glorious fiasco ended a vintage week of drama.

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