RADIO / The colour of Melly's love

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The Independent Culture
IN THE immortal words of an old Poet Laureate, spring is come, the winter is over, the cuckoo-flower sprouts mauver and mauver. This would clearly be the wrong paper in which to mention the non-appearance of the cuckoo itself, but its vegetable harbinger is indeed sprouting mauvely all over the place.

These observations are prompted by some colourful radio programmes. In Just a Job - Have I Got Blues for You (R4), a couple of cheerful Scots decorators talked about the skills of their trade. Paint finishes have become more interesting lately, but these men are up to the challenge: 'It's naice to dew raddlin and stupplin,' one of them said. Hubris, however, must never be discounted. An old-school perfectionist had been helping him to paint an imposing hotel foyer, but when the job was finished to his own high standards, he unwittingly trailed white gloss paint all down the sweeping scarlet stair-carpet and was so appalled that he fainted clean away.

Only one colour would do for Bessie Smith. What she did best was Preaching the Blues (R2). Hers was the centenary of the week - probably - though as with so many things about her, nobody is quite sure exactly when she was born. George Melly is certain that he has been in love with her for 50 years, and his hour-long celebration of her must have attracted many more admirers.

Her voice was a trombone at high tide on a windswept chesil beach. Grating, roaring, full of a barely controlled, furious energy, she belted out her songs of rapacious demand, scorn and grief. 'Gimme a pig-foot,' she thundered, 'and a bottle of beer.' It was demanding enough to have made the audience storm out en masse and slaughter a pig. Scratchy archive interviews with her niece-by-marriage, Ruby, who had toured with her, added touches of vicious verisimilitude, especially when she remembered Bessie tearing out a handful of a rival's hair and yelling: 'Y'aint gonna be visible for tonight's show.'

But she remains unrivalled. Her man had to be good, or heaven help him. Although at times - with heavy innuendo - he was her 'kitchen man', his place was on that beach with her. He had teeth like a lighthouse on the sea 'and every time he smiles, he throws those lights on me'. Melly tried to tell the truth about her death, after an accident in which her car hit a van from the You-Need-A- Biscuit company, but the legends around it seemed stronger. Her gravestone was largely paid for by Janis Joplin, after Bessie's husband made off with the insurance money. Its message - 'the greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing' - prompted an apt response from her adoring fan. 'I'll drink to that,' he said.

In the West Indies, the drink was rum, as was the chat. On the final day, after three gruelling months in the sun, our commentators on Test Match Special (R4) let it go to their heads. Somebody had the temerity to obscure their view, wearing a large and colourful tea-cosy. 'I can see you in a tea-cosy,' said one. 'Would you fancy me in dreadlocks?' his colleague replied. On the World Service, an ecstatic Tony Crozier extolled the magnificent Brian Lara in From Our Own Correspondent. For a moment, the words Antigua Recreation Ground conjured up a vision of terriers

on leads among swings and slides, but only for a moment. Brian, the youngest of Mrs Lara's 11 children, was carried to cricket coaching by his big sister when he was just a tot, and her foresight was justified on Tuesday. To the accompaniment of the All Saints Iron Band, 'the whole Caribbean basked in his glory'. Spectators did cartwheels in the outfield and one of them lay flat out with his glass of rum balanced on his forehead.

Cricket featured, too, in Ambridge, where we are still mourning the death of the tedious Mark, now rapidly becoming the greatest dead hero of The Archers (R4). 'What we've lost,' said Sid in a sudden access of lyricism, 'is a stylish batsman in the Gower mould.' What Shula had lost was her husband, and Judy Bennett produced the finest acting of the week when she went into uncontrolled grief on Monday and had me snivelling into the sink.

John Dollar (R3) was ghastly. Marianne Wiggins's story tells of a shipwrecked group of schoolgirls going to the bad in Borneo. It seemed to want to prove that girls could be worse than any band of boys but it went too far. Where Lord of the Flies leaves you hoping that it would not happen like that but fearing that it might, this play, with its lurid and sadistic message, left you incredulous and angry. Apart from anything else, it seemed wrong that little London schoolgirls should be asked to perform in such a horrible piece, although they did it well.

They would do better to listen to The Music Machine (R3). Tommy Pearson's daily children's series gets better and better. Thursday's edition galloped through national anthems, taking in Denmark's celebration of King Christian, Stan Kenton's jazzy version of Deutschland Uber Alles and the 1812 overture. There was, however, no mention of Liberia. I once stood to attention as a ship was being launched (with Fino sherry) in Cadiz harbour, while what we presumed was the Liberian anthem was played. As it ended, I slipped behind a cornet player and saw that the tune propped up on his instrument was called 'Hi, Jack'.

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