RADIO / Sex and the politics of choice: Robert Hanks tunes in to Radio 4's gay and lesbian evening and Les Dawson's comic view of the North-South divide

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The Independent Culture
Well, it happened: two hours of gay and lesbian frolics on Radio 4 - and on the Sabbath at that - and still no floods or plagues, no moving fingers ruining anybody's supper or Death on a pale horse hovering over Langham Place. All in all, A Sunday Outing was a tranquil episode. The only real tension came when co-presenter Bea Campbell said to one of the participants in a discussion on television representations of homosexuality, 'Bill, you're not powerless in the media. How much room for manoeuvre is there at the minute?' With pantherlike agility he pounced on her words: 'Nigel, I think you mean.' A moody silence intervened.

Otherwise, the most representative moment was a sound-bite at the beginning of the programme. 'And what do hiking dikes take on a Sunday outing?' wondered Matthew Parris, saving you the trouble of asking yourself. 'No bread . . . ' explained one of the hikers, ' . . . didn't have any bread . . . just bits of tomato, lettuce, and tahini on Ryvita. Fragments of cheese.'

You had a sense, here and at a number of points through the evening, that punches lacked follow-through because the programme was ambivalent about its ambitions. Was it a rallying cry for a community with distinct interests ('Hiking dikes unite]') or was it trying to reassure a potentially hostile audience ('We eat Ryvita, just like you').

The confusion was understandable, as shown by a pointed debate between Ian McKellen and Adam Mars-Jones about whether the gay community exists at all. Unfortunately, the programme was further unfocused by theme-greediness: there were altogether too many bits and pieces - studio debates, featurettes, short stories, jolly cabaret and quizzes. Typically, McKellen was cut off mid-sentence as the programme raced off to a St Valentine's Day Ball in Blackpool - 'the gay Mecca of the North' according to Maria Esposito, the compere, although one local resident interviewed in a vox pops segment maintained that 'You don't get that sort of thing here, that's in the South.'

The stereotype was defied by a piece about lesbians near Heptonstall. But it made the point that the division between gay and straight is one of many rifts in our society. Come Back with the Wind (Radio 2, Wednesday), Les Dawson's reading from his own novel of civil war, tackles another. It's set in the visible future when, sickened by generations of class oppression and impoverishment, northern Britain rises against the warm, unmanly South, united 'from the depressed ghettos of Tyneside and Glasgow to the silent docks of Liverpool and Hull' under a standard of Yorkshire Pudding and Lancashire Black Pudding on a background of chips.

The jokes in Part 1 were not all strong ('In his formative years he was in a class by himself: he smelt'), and the parody of Margaret Mitchell is mallet- sharp: Ashley Whelks, Carla O'Mara and Albert 'Red' Butler. But it's worth hearing for the rich vowels and the sturdy consonants Dawson allows to a word like 'foreboding', and the worrying clarity of his political analysis: 'For years in the South you have allowed the economic conditions of the industrial north to go unchecked. Promises were made and broken. In a country as small as ours it is inconceivable that so little is known about the northern way of life to anyone living south of Watford Gap.'

By contrast, people north of Watford Gap have southern lifestyles fed to them in indigestible quantities, often in indigestible plays like You Choose (Radio 4). Jonathan Myerson's Saturday Night Theatre was apparently calculated to combine the millenarian appeal of Edge of Darkness (note the soundtrack), the soft-edged romance of Truly Madly Deeply (note the dead lover) and the yuppie satire of Look at It This Way (note the casting of Nathaniel Parker). Amanda Root played Zoe, a successful advertising executive stuck in an inane round of dinner-parties, and now having a baby with her politically disengaged boyfriend. Then her idealistic ex-lover Simon (Parker) turns up, hands her some reels of film and shortly afterwards dies under a Northern Line train. Lucky to get one, you chorus: except that it was somebody else. Simon, still alive, is continuing to investigate his industrialist father, Lord Harry (next best name to Old Nick), who is involved with illegal waste-dumping in Africa.

Zoe is at first disturbed by Simon's reappearance, and apparently disturbed mental state; but she gets drawn into his quest, and meets a choice - mad commitment, or placid apathy? She chooses freedom, quitting her job to help Simon's quest. They fail to impress Lord Harry, and at the end we don't know if Simon really was alive, or a figment, or a ghost. Whatever, the message seemed to be that political idealism gets you nowhere. Call that a message?