RADIO / The facts about fictions

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The Independent Culture
SYLVESTER OYL AKHASH is an embittered man. Illegitimate son of Olive, an ambitious, anorexic actress, he was adopted by a famous sailor-man and forced to remain in nappies until the age of four, looking adorable and known to the world as Sweet-Pea. No wonder his lawyer is 95 per cent certain that he was damaged, that his analyst tells him he suffers from compound alienation, that he is a walking emotional time- bomb. He doesn't care Whatever Happened to Popeye? (R4), as long as it was nasty.

In a murky corner of the Sicilian Orthodox Church, Venice, NY, an enormous, elderly, black-bearded Italian sobbed out the tragic truth. Happily for posterity, the Sicilian Orthodox is a breakaway sect which equips its confessionals with tape-

recorders, so Bluto's story could be broadcast. His friend Akhash (professional name Popeye) had jumped ship on a tropical island during the war, his Hollywood career - and his digestion - ruined by being force-fed spinach during a boxing match. 'He was what he was, and that's all that he was,' Bluto ruminated ruefully. An effete novelist called Peter Boyd-Shuster commented with gnomic smugness 'all writers are Popeye'.

The stepson, the old friend, the know-all. These staple ingredients of radio biography have been mixed by Adrian Mourby into a magnificent series of straight-faced spoof documentaries. This one leaves you with the ridiculous feeling that every Popeye cartoon will now be tinged with melancholy. Last week, Rosemary Leach was the cynical, grown- up George, tomboy heroine of the Famous Five, whose childhood sweetheart, Alf Jessop, still resented the fact that they hadn't been known as the Famous Six. Still to come is the later life of Billy Bunter's form- master Mr Quelch. Bunter's television incarnation, Gerald Campion, will return to tell the story. (The last time I saw him, he was running an excellent restaurant: Fat Owl of the Remove made food.)

Mourby's brilliant idea could spoil us for the real thing, which other people have been doing rather well this week. The World Service put out a thoughtful study of the Hungarian conductor Fritz Reiner. The Great Leveller was the most printable of the nicknames given to this vindictive martinet, who fired a player during his first rehearsal, who treated even the likes of Isaac Stern with withering scorn, but who still won the respect, if not the love, of everyone he worked with. The orchestra would be playing pianissimo, so quietly that they were almost breathing in, but he would growl at them 'Vy you playink so loud?' Jonathan Swain's portrait, mixing memories and comment from many distinguished musicians, gave the rest of us an idea of how a really strong conductor works, when intellect and emotion are mutually creative and there is poetry in precision.

Reiner had very low blood pressure. One of his victims chuckled that he only really felt well when he had raised it with fury - but everyone else felt much worse. Perhaps the same was true of Hermione Gingold, subject of this week's Radio Lives (R4). Anyone who knocked on her dressing room door was told to come in. She didn't mind - indeed she preferred - being stark naked, so as to cause maximum embarrassment. Interviewed in old age, she was asked had she given up anything. Yes, she said, older men. Her youngest lover, Little Big Boy, was 53 years her junior, but a slightly older one was Baudouin Mills, who worshipped her. I wish Nathalie Wheen had not enquired of him, with horrid fascination, if she was good in bed. Was she amazing? Adventurous? Perhaps she thought it was what we all wanted to know, but she did sound prurient - and he was unlikely to say no.

Like Reiner, Gingold couldn't be faulted professionally. In the recorded extracts of her songs and sketches, most of the punchlines were drowned by the audience's noisy adulation: with her poured-concrete voice and her mastery of innuendo, she was clearly very funny, but devoid of human warmth. She once said that she'd have been a good mother if she hadn't been an actress, immediately adding that she disliked children. She left her own two small sons and only once visited her grandchildren. When they ran up shouting Hello Granny, she got straight back into the car. She claimed to be very kind to plants.

Alfred Marks, Ned Sherrin and Elisabeth Welch all did their best to praise her but it was really only the lover who loved her. Mills remembered a day when her dog had stolen her wig so that they couldn't go out. That day, he said, for the first time she began to seem old. She must have been pushing 90.

Even older are the composers resurrected in Where Are They Now? (R3). Every night a new old name has appeared, each rightly famous in its day and now allotted 20 minutes more attention. Among the anecdotes and snippets of music produced by these forgotten heroes could be heard the Sweet-Pea voice of posthumous resentment. After his death, the wonderful blind composer John Stanley was dismissed by his rival's daughter, Laetitia Hawkins, not for his music but for his personal life: 'He married a sickly, inert woman fond of public places and late hours . . . extravagant living brought him to reduced circumstances.' No recording angel could be as savage as radio posterity.