Radio; Singing the praises of Caruso

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The Independent Culture
HIS LUNGS bleeding with every breath, he gave her a handkerchief and asked her to wipe the blood from his mouth without the audience seeing. And then on he went, to sing glorious, exuberant Donizetti one last time. Mary Ellis was 21, on stage with Caruso for his final performance at the Met. Now, more than 70 years on, she shudders, remembering the secret of the "terrible, velvet richness" of his voice that night. Spellbound, we listened to the crackly old record of "Una furtiva lagrima", familiar from so many archive programmes, and imagined that brave, good-natured man delighting frivolous New York while he sang his very life away.

Mary Ellis was the star turn of a week of I Was There (R3), in which old performers recall their finest hours. She went eventually into musicals and became the first Rose Marie, but she chose to talk about her four heady years with the opera. She spoke of the great Russian bass Chaliapin, whose voice, like a huge church bell, literally shook her with its vibrations. But modestly she said little of herself, and no record was played of her own singing, though her speaking voice was young and bright as a girl's. I'd love to hear more of her.

The archives were plundered again on the R2 Arts Programme, when Barry Took introduced two hours of Funny Ladies. He began well, with the story of Marie Lloyd agreeing to clean up her act. She had sung "She sits amidst the cabbages and peas": now she demurely ditched the peas and offered them "leeks" instead. You keep listening to this kind of thing, hoping for another laugh, but this time it got steadily worse. Took, a genial cove, repeated the old canard that very few women are funny and promised to prove it wrong. But what did he do then? Only invited June Whitfield to tell him all about the sad men she worked with. Look, Took, we know about Frankie Howerd and we've heard The Blood Donor 'til our own runs cold. Then he trotted out a demented audience straight from a Nuremberg rally, mindlessly cheering the vicious savagery of Joan Rivers. This was followed by men pretending to be women.

You could despair of your sex, whichever it is, if you didn't stay to the end. The last 15 minutes were vintage Victoria Wood (and why on earth did Took apologise for including her?). Her song of a passionate housewife hell-bent on se-ducing her limp husband was superb. He is in a fearful state. "Stop nagging," he whimpers, "I'm flagging - you know as well as I do that the pipes need lagging," but she is aflame with erotic inventiveness. "Let's do it," she insists. "Not meekly, not bleakly. Beat me on the bottom with the Woman's Weekly!" It was almost worth the sludge that preceded it. Last year's Sony-winning Ironic Maidens (R2) was evidence of how many really funny women exist, but they get precious little air-time. And it's probably better not to call them ladies.

There was not a lady in sight last Sunday night. And the only gent, debonair Donald Macleod, was behaving strangely, viz, encouraging us at home to allow our partners to disrobe us while the violins played "avec tendresse". The Death of Alexander Scriabin (R3) sounds a solemn subject, but for Ken Russell it was all puns and smutty insinuendo: dreadful, hilarious and completely barmy. It included thunderous Cossacks, a Black Mass, literary cannibals and Oliver Reed "naked save for a top hat, elastic-sided boots and a goat". No wonder he decided not to film it: a cast like that demands a truly elastic-sided medium.