Radio: Stand by your cliche: Tammy's fans want it that way

The Week on Radio
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ONCE IN a while the odd thing happens, W H Auden wrote. But more often, it is the painfully obvious, the wearily predictable that occurs, and sometimes the best thing is to come right out and admit it. Tammy Wynette provides a good example of this. Her life conformed to an almost eerie degree to an archetypal Country & Western cv: born on a poverty- stricken cotton farm in Mississippi; father died when she was a baby; from childhood she was sent out picking in the cotton fields; married young and badly; left with three children to support; went to Nashville, struggled, got discovered, became a star; married a fellow singer, but drink and careers drove them apart; found happiness at last with husband number five, but struggled with sickness; died early, and was mourned by millions of fans.

Anybody who is going to make a programme about Tammy is likely to have the odd brush with predictability; then again, anybody who is prepared to call the programme "Stand By Your Man" (Radio 2, Saturday) is not likely to be much fazed by that. Sure enough, "Stand By Your Man" embraced cliche: colleagues paid tribute to Tammy's graciousness, her artistry, the thrill of simply sitting in a studio with her; her fifth husband hymned the joy of their marriage; accusations that "Stand By Your Man" is sexist were pooh-poohed; and every so often, there was a deft narrative touch: "It seemed as though personal happiness was never to be hers."

In one way, this was a terrible programme, uncritically swallowing every myth; in another, it was perfect - an ideal match of method and subject. It is possible that there is some darker, lumpier story to be told about Tammy Wynette, but I do not want to hear it. This was the one that every fan knew was true.

More instances of life living up to fiction came in "Landscape of Monsters" (Radio 4, Monday), a long fisherman's tale in which Chris Yates set out in search of giant fish. These included a carp called Potemkin, described at various junctures as "big as a cow" and as "the Dawn French of the carp world" (the context was a discussion of size as a sexually desirable feature in a female carp, so the remark actually verged on the gallant). Obviously, though, you should have seen the one that got away. The life of the salmon, in particular, has mythic resonances - I am thinking of the Oedipus myth: the male salmon, apparently, swims up the river where he was spawned to "spend his first night of love in the bed of his mother" and die. You presume the male salmon has never read Freud.

Life wholly failed to live up to fiction in "Scholars and Spies", first in a new series of Document (Radio 4, Thursday). Conyers Read was a biographer of Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I's spymaster, who joined the American intelligence service in the Second World War. Bill Sherman set out to trace the connections; but testimony from fellow spooks and academics suggested that Read was a poor historian and an inadequate spy. Sherman scented a mystery; but the real puzzle was why such a non-story ever got broadcast.