RADIO / The magic of Irish spirits

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The Independent Culture
'LISTEN]' said a soft, urgent Irish voice. Nothing. 'Listen again.' Into the waiting silence came a haunting, gentle, melancholy tune, the kind that lingers in the memory for days, maybe weeks. It was the first broadcast of an andante for violin and piano by J M Synge, playwright, essayist, wonderful letter-writer and, now we learn, composer. The elusive spirit of his genius was conjured up on Friday in Synge Song (R3), when Ann Mann travelled to the Aran islands, looking for the source of his unique inspiration.

In the cottage where he stayed, we met the great-granddaughter of the McDonaghs, who had taught him Gaelic and let him share their lives. The unconventional women of these islands were the model for his splendid heroine, Pegeen Mike. They also taught him their poignant lullabies and, in the soft cadences and dreaming imagery of their language, presented him with the lilt and tempo of his distinctive dramatic idiom. The sucking surf of the Atlantic whispered behind, merging with the wistful waltz that he wrote when he was a young violinist looking for a voice. It was a bewitching piece of sorcery.

A double spotlight shone on several other characters this week. Dr Johnson was the subject of Rosemary Harthill's excellent series, Faith, Fact and Fiction (R4), in which she and Richard Ingrams discussed what it was about the Sage of Lichfield that made him heroic. They concluded that it was a combination of the two greatest qualities available to humanity: generosity and integrity, which distinguished him in an age no less mean-spirited and dishonest than our own. Snoo Wilson presented a different fellow altogether. In his vigorous, provocative play Poonsh (R3), Johnson's squalid private life was vividly and noisily projected. In among the yowling dogs and smashed chamberpots, Simon Callow blundered anxiously and splendidly about, huge and growly of voice, with a Midlands accent so nearly impenetrable that he sounded like Jack Woolley on speed.

Which takes us to Ambridge, a good spot to visit just now, not because of the wretched, imprisoned Susan, but for the sake of Mary Wimbush. This fine actress is having the time of her life as Julia Pargeter, a disgraceful, gin-soaked old quasi-aristocrat heartily hurling hairbrushes at anyone who thwarts her and doing her best to ruin her son's burgeoning romance. The Archers' repeat on Monday afternoon was followed by Wimbush again as an even wickeder old bat in The Faithful Heart (R4). This was a play about Anne Becher, Thackeray's mother, who, as a girl, fell for a dashing Major. Her witchy grandmother tried to finish this romance, too, by telling the girl he was dead, although later they met again and married. It's a great story but the play was marred by a wimpish Major who sounded as if he couldn't dash to catch a bus.

Better was Audrey Evans's Mossy (R4). Miss Stone, a tough Glasgow teacher with a hand like a breeze block, volunteers to take detention to avoid her own retirement tea-party. Sitting laboriously copying out spellings is Kevin. Against her every principle, she lets him and his terrible story touch her and agrees to go with him to confront his violent, drunken father. Strong writing was matched by an astounding performance by Mary Riggans as both teacher and pupil - I had to check the Radio Times before believing it possible for her to inject such power simultaneously into two such contrasting characters.

The World Service reached the last of its current fascinating Heritage series when Malcolm Billings went to Hadrian's Wall. Here the archaeologist Robin Burley has discovered a remarkable cache of Roman letters, written on strips of bark, detailing the lives of the poor devils who manned the wall. Sealed in an anaerobic chamber, nine levels below the ground, is a letter from the commander's wife, asking friends to her birthday party. Another is from a German soldier called, incredibly, Chrautus, grumbling that he is treated no better than a native, or Britunculus, which means a nasty little Briton. Burley reckoned that there is enough still to uncover to keep the experts busy for another 200 years.

Finally to the potato, vegetable of the week. It starred in this week's Strange Tales from the Pantry (R4), an entertaining series in which Sue Phillips, cheeriest of the Gardeners' Question Time team, celebrates everyday treasures. Of 157 varieties listed, the spud she likes is called Monster of the Mould. For The Food Programme (R4) Dylan Wintour went off to the West of Ireland to sample illegal poteen with three silent men called Pat. That man gets some good jobs. He discovered the potency of poteen and the fallacy of thinking that it leaves you with no hangover. I made the same discovery myself late one memorable night in the company of a garrulous vet in Synge country. On reflection, I think I'll stop now.

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