RADIO / Short, but truly sweet

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The Independent Culture
ON THURSDAY morning, my car became a hovercraft. Huge arcs of yellow flood-water found holes in the roof, the wipers gasped and panicked and I could have been at Thorpe Park, rather than aquaplaning along the lane to my daughter's school. I was really late. Michele Stephens on Morning Edition (R5) had just proffered a thought for the day: 'God put me on earth to accomplish a certain number of things. Right now, I'm so far behind, I'll never die.' With cruel emphasis, schools programmes began immediately, with Let's Make a Story. A male Joyce Grenfell called Simon Davies, breathless with excitement, made a wildly adventurous suggestion: 'Shall we imagine it's pouring with rain?'

By the time we reached school, Simon had settled down to clanking about contentedly in a suit of armour, in his own private heaven. Radio is the very best medium for telling stories. Duncan Minshull, who produces the daily Short Story (R4), spools out endless pearls. This week, he strung together five of the best and called the result Brits Abroad. They were all well worth hearing. The first tackled what happens after that initial moment of horror on Blind Date, when the screen goes back and the couple realises what everyone else already knows: he picked the wrong girl.

In True Romance by Caroline Forbes, the girl is Our Stella from Lancaster. She knows he should have gone for Our Margaret from Epping, all padded shoulders and Perrier water, but Gareth chose Stella, and she chose Amsterdam for their date. Siriol Jenkins read this perfect little tale with wicked accuracy. Gareth is horrible, a blase, lecherous know-all who'd have been happier driving JCBs round sand dunes, but Stella falls in love anyway, with the city. In the end, gloriously, Gareth falls into a canal.

In V S Pritchett's The ViceConsul, a weary official is set the task of tracing a set of false teeth, stolen in a South American port by a prostitute who intends to recycle them to a Dominican missionary. The teeth belong to a psalm-reciting Ulster Protestant, MacDowell, whose anger at losing them turns to incandescent rage at the thought that they might even now be in use, up in the mountains, preaching the word.

Sean Barrett, who read this one, is a master of vocal disguise. He switched from elderly public-school to rasping Belfast without drawing breath. His talents have been much in use on Simon Brett's Dear Diary (R4). This excellent series has just finished its ninth run. Barrett and Miriam Margolyes take turns to read extracts from diaries, famous and little-known, for the day of transmission. Friday's edition included John Evelyn's account of the death, on 4 February 1685, of Charles II, a king whose tendency to delight in little spaniels 'made the whole court nasty and stinking', but who would have made 'an excellent prince, had he been less addicted to women - who made him uneasy'.

On 4 February 1975, Peter Hall was made uneasy at the prospect of Margaret Thatcher's election to the Conservative leadership, which he thought would mean 'we are in for 10 or 15 years of solid Labour rule'. On 4 February 1798, Dorothy Wordsworth was sublimely happy, walking with Coleridge towards Stowey and noticing daisies upon the turf, honeysuckles budding and the furze gay with blossom. With a beakerful of the cold North in her voice, Margolyes was a born-again Dorothy, innocent and exuberant.

A contemporary diarist fraught with anxiety is the poet Hugo Williams. He gave little five-minute glimpses of his life every evening last week in Sleepless Nights (R3). His is a world fuelled by coffee, where deadlines are lifelines, forcing him, somehow or other, to get words on paper. He finds himself locked in mortal discussion with an unhinged Welshman, accidentally tearing his fiercest critic's prized silken dressing- gown, trying to escape from every kind of literary assailant, all in the name of Creative Writing. His stories of frustration, prevarication and humiliation make writing poetry sound like a dangerous sport. But I wasn't convinced he could handle our school run.