RADIO / The fizz that gives you whizz

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The Independent Culture
OK, SO 'OK' is the best-known phrase on earth, but what is the second-best? Here's a clue. In Chinese, it translates as 'bite the wax tadpole'. That isn't much of a choice, so here's another. In Mexico, they call it the black waters of Yankee imperialism. No? Well it is Coca-Cola. The story of its rise to world domination was the subject of the first in a series of American Icons, part of the current State of the States season on the World Service. As an icon, a mysterious image of supernatural power, it's the surreal thing.

Coke was first produced in 1886 as a cure for hangovers, headaches and, of all things, impotence. It is 99 per cent sugar- water but, thanks to astonishingly successful marketing, it came to represent the freedom of the Western world. During the Cold War, a Russian general became so addicted to it that he needed daily doses, but so dangerous were its decadent Western connotations that they produced a colourless, unidentifiable supply for him. In the Second World War, we were told by the charmingly named Chuck Fruit, the company boasted that GIs could buy a bottle for five cents wherever they happened to be. The useful result was that local bottling plants sprang up everywhere and Coke marched relentlessly on.

For Cowboys, yesterday's icon in the same series, Nick Rankin put on his chaps and galloped out across the wide grasslands of Wyoming, lazily twirling his microphone. It did sound fun. Against a singer wailing that the devil made the horse that he rode as he stared at the south end of northbound cattle, Rankin lassoed an old cow-hand to ask about the stubborn nature of the long-horn cow. 'Go home, beat ya waaf, thin tra t'kiss er, you'll find out,' he chortled. The cowboy is the last American he-roic me- uth, he said. 'Call a man a cowboy, that's a compliment. Call him a lawyer, he'll blow y'windows out.'

The Kennedy anniversary was marked on the same station by a news archive feature. Kennedy's Been Shot was an evocative collage of that day's reporting, 30 years ago tomorrow. Robert MacNeil of NBC described the minute after the shooting on Dealey Plaza, Dallas: 'It was as if a huge chorus of women was screaming in one high, echoing soprano wail.' Then they played it, with ambulance-siren accompaniment. It was eerier than anything produced by radiophonic workshops and exactly recreated the sense of appalled shock that sandblasted the event into every memory. (I was doing my French homework at the time, since you ask.) Kennedy as King Arthur is a long-tarnished legend but, hearing his cheerful press conference that morning and, later, the mortuary attendant describing Jackie putting a ring from her own finger on to his, as the coffin was about to be closed, you couldn't resist sighing for that impossible Camelot.

And so to Joanna Lumley and science fiction. It is certainly an unlikely coupling, but Radio 2 used the absolutely fabulous voice to read a dullish script about sci-fi films of the Fifties called Watch the Skies. She did try hard, honestly, and for most of the hour she sounded like an ambitious sixth-former trying to impress the debating society with her arcane research.

But when she quoted the words that would stop the robot Gort from destroying the planet in The Day the Earth Stood Still, her earnest 'Platoo barrado nikto' nearly caused an accident on the M25 as your critic lost control of herself. Such films are just not scary on radio, especially when the head girl tells you solemnly that the Quatermass demons look like extremely large and frightening woollen socks.

The demon in Horn of Gabriel (LBC) was Lucifer himself. In this entertaining, whimsical play, a great jazz trumpeter in New Orleans sold his soul to the devil and paid by having to play his horn in hell, but the instrument melted and he returned from the dead to ask his old friend to make him a horn of magical heat-proof metal. That way damnation would be made more tolerable by allowing him ice in his whisky. The new horn played 'Go Down Moses', earning both men a passport to Paradise. It's a nice thought.

Monday saw the first edition of Windbags (R1), a new all-female comedy series by the talented Jo Brand and Donna McPhail. As a magazine programme, it sends up Woman's Own at one extreme and Playgirl at the other, but as yet it seems uncertain about where it comes down. It was funniest when playing at writing a Mills & Boon novel, in accordance with the publisher's own guidelines and containing the required two breathy quarrels and a happy ending.

Mollie Keane is the only writer to have had the same novel published first by Mills & Boon and then by Virago. Now nudging 90 and gloriously outspoken, she was interviewed for Friday's Woman's Hour (R4). Her brilliant book Good Behaviour was beaten for the Booker by Salman Rushdie, but 'he's got his come-uppance since, hasn't he?' She's past caring about it now: she's had a filly named after her, which is a much bigger honour than any old Booker. She'd like to write more books but, 'I can't type, ducky. I get an idea and it loses itself in the mazes of my head'.

I know what she means about mazes. Recently, I've had trouble believing my radio. I think I heard that Mexico is a large detonation, that the police conducted a small telephone pole and that there is a government-funded Black Arts centre in Bristol. It can't be true, can it?

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