Radio: There'll be a welcome in the showroom

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The Independent Culture
JUST FOR A MOMENT, let's forget the sabres rattling around Baghdad. Let's also forget the family who ate an afterbirth on the telly, though R4 listeners had it thrust down their ... had far too much of it this week. Instead, let us turn quickly to higher things, to the consistently excellent R2 Arts Programme slot and some great music.

The Welsh, as everyone knows, love nothing so much as Singing Their Hearts Out (R2). In 1948, a car salesman called Bill Smith gave them his showroom to practise in and, hey presto, the Welsh National Opera Chorus was born. Many of them couldn't read music but, boyo, could they sing. In 1952, they revived Verdi's Nabucco, an opera not heard for a century, and made its great Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves their signature tune: "We felt it was written for us: it had a sort of religious flavour to it, like hymn- singing" - or, as Sir Charles Mackerras said, "It socks it to you." By 1955, they were performing at Sadler's Wells, though a certain Muriel Pointin had to be sure to catch the last train back to Wales, get to the abattoir by 5am and work in her butcher's shop all day, before her nightly London transformation.

It's still tough - a woman described singing Fidelio as "excrewciating" - but they pride themselves on the fact that 42 of them sing works - in large theatres - for which other companies would use 160. Their conductor, Italian himself, described them, endearingly, as "the Italians in the land".

Their car-showroom was, let's say, acoustically challenged. A man who might have helped was Derek Sugden, who designed the acoustics of Snape Maltings and Glyndebourne. On Friday, he explored The Acoustics of Everyday Life (R3). He was an unassuming guide, his manner patient and explanatory - like an oral hygienist or a pest-officer running one more time through the virtues of flossing or the life-cycle of the flea. In fact, so knowledgeable was he that Imogen Holst's request - that he should keep the noise of motorbikes out of the house at Snape, but admit wind, rain and birdsong - seemed perfectly reasonable.

Matt Thompson, the producer, tends to let his subjects muse, uninterrupted, which makes for meditative and satisfactory programmes - unless you're bursting to ask them something. This happened when we heard that there was a problem at Christ Church Spitalfields. It has a beautiful acoustic that decays evenly with a lot of diffusion (he said). However, Jack the Ripper tours coming down the pavement are audible inside and tend to diffuse the ambience. I just wanted to suggest double glazing.

The current serial on Woman's Hour (R4) is Diana's Story, written and read by Diana Longden's widower, Deric. It is outstanding. Diana's unidentified but increasingly frightening and painful illness is observed with such honesty, gentleness and humour that you laugh through tears. It is bad luck for Peter Tinniswood that his Visiting Julia (R4) begins in the same week. So many elements are the same: middle-aged, northern, helpless writer; batty old mother; sick, long suffering wife. But this is fiction, and sounds flippant. Any other week, it would have seemed funny.

It was easy to laugh at Israel Horovitz's cleverly plotted short play about coincidence, Phone Tag (R4), narrated entirely by means of telephone messages: separated lovers decide simultaneously to cross the Atlantic as a lovely surprise for each other, causing rippling confusions. The third batty mother of the week emerges, but (encouragingly for those of us beginning to fear that motherhood must inevitably result in rambling senility) ends up with a brand-new lover. The story ended with the lovers agreeing to marry in Paris but, inevitably, waiting at different airports: delicious.

Finally, back to Woman's Hour where Diane Messias was pondering a recent medical theory that acting in a soap is more dangerous then being a steeplejack or a Formula One racing driver. That may be true of gritty urban British soaps, she said, but in Australia people go off to Melbourne and come back with a new head and nobody notices.

But that's telly. The biggest danger in Ambridge is falling over the coconut inadequately representing the hoofbeats of various large horses. Still, as Messias urged, we mustn't muddle fact and fiction. Q: What will you never hear people in Ambridge saying? A: "Shush, I'm listening to The Archers."