RADIO / Safety in numbers

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The Independent Culture
IN ANCIENT Egypt it was made of fine linen, in China of oiled silk, in medieval Ireland of a ewe's intestine - at least, Brian Boru's was. That old wolf in sheep's innards was discovered in a peat bog with all his effects intact: they included what experts agree could only have been his condom. The story of this small, useful piece of equipment was told on Radio 4 this week. Until quite recently, the very word was unmentionable. Salesmen, generally barbers, would enquire discreetly, Anything for the Weekend?

But, hey ho for the Nineties, anything goes, and now we know all about them. In the 17th century a condom appeared acting as a bookmark in the library of an archbishop. Later, the ageing Boswell, a model of indiscretion, recorded using one, still made of the guts of a sheep, but decorated with ribbons: mutton dressed up as lamb, you might say. Nowadays they are available on the NHS but most people prefer to buy them - condoms are free, yet everywhere they are in chain stores. Nick Baker trod a fastidious line between the smutty and the scientific. A sensible girl from Durex told us all about how they are marketed - 148 million are sold each year - and some creative people revealed how useful they can be. Apparently they make excellent blood-bags for gruesome plays, and nothing can beat them for silencing a noisy cold-water tank.

On to higher things. On Thursday, the soprano June Anderson sang the part of Ophelia in Ambrose Thomas's opera Hamlet (R3). Her voice is ethereal, fluttering and swooping over one of the loveliest arias I have ever heard, in a mad scene to rival anything by Donizetti. In the interval, Maggie Smith read Margaret Atwood's wickedly funny short story Gertrude Talks Back, in which the exasperated Queen addresses her errant son, saying that he's a fine one to talk about the rank sweat of her bed considering that he only brings his own laundry when he runs out of black socks, wishing that his father had been less of a prig so that he hadn't been an only child and furiously declaring, 'I am not wringing my hands. I'm drying my nails.' Brilliant.

Shakespeare was the subject of The Music Machine (R3) on Monday. Guy Woolfenden has now composed music for every single one of the plays. He seems to be able to command any dialect of musical language, but prefers to be given broad instructions by a director. Peter Hall once ordered a 'medieval fascist fanfare' which was just the kind of thing he likes. The Music Machine is a new daily series, introduced by Tommy Pearson, which aims to interest middle-sized teenagers in all kinds of music from rap to Rachmaninov. In our house, they liked it, and so did I. About to enter its third week, it has so far been stimulating, unpretentious and very wide-ranging. Wednesday's programme about troubadours was particularly good, tracing the influence of those old minstrels on love songs, from the time of the Crusades right down to the Pet Shop Boys.

If that's not what you expect from Radio 3, nor is Reading Music what you'd expect from Radio 2, but the gentle urbanity of Miles Kington is at home anywhere. This new weekly programme steps into an empty book-reviewing gap. Again, the field is wide and, since the books in question are all about music, the scope for illustration is enormous. Kington himself extolled Miles Davis, whose trumpet, he said, never lost its own piercingly lovely quality. Paul Jones got the blues and Marty Wilde gave an affectionate account of pre-Beatles rock music. The nice thing is that the contributors are well-chosen, have written their own scripts and speak in individual and, so far, impressively knowledgeable voices.

There has even been a change at Radio 1, but it's nothing to get hung about, as the Fab Four would say. You can now hear Steve Wright in the morning instead of in the afternoon. He's slightly better earlier in the day. This could be because the frenetic background jingles and trailers thunder on so relentlessly that neither he nor his fatuous posse have time to talk so much. What they say is the stuff of tabloid headlines: Cadbury's New Flake Woman Announced Today, Loch Ness Monster Discovered, Irish Cure for Mumps. It can't be long before we hear Condom In Plumbing Scandal.