RADIO / These you have loved

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The Independent Culture
THE visitor to The BBC Radio Show in Broadcasting House is greeted by two exhibits. To the left, a sprawling Heath Robinson contraption of large bulbs and mazey wiring: Marconi's original transmitter. To the right, a glass case containing what looks like a Sony Walkman and a small satellite dish - incongruously unvenerable relics. On closer inspection it turns out to be - shame on you for not realising - the equipment used by Simon Bates to broadcast his recent round-the-world trip. The intention is to illustrate the long journey of technology, but these two items also symbolise the problem with the show: the overshadowing of today's radio by the ghost of radio past.

The show divides in two: an exhibition and a 40-minute son et lumiere. The exhibition proceeds from equipment of various vintages - crystal sets with 'cat's- whisker' detectors, a 1929 Groves battery set, Philco's cheap 'People Set' of 1936 - to panels outlining BBC history. Then into 'Heritage Corridor' and archive material from the different departments. There are some remarkable curiosities here, most memorably a letter to Children's Hour from the 15-year-old Vanessa Redgrave: 'Dear Miss Jenkin, Is it possible for my brother Corin and myself to have an audition please? Uncle Mac says that he has already telephoned to you about us . . .'

The piece de resistance is the audio-visual show, a spectacular display of images flashed on to screens that glide up and down like periscopes, to the accompaniment of recordings from the archives. Conceived as a radio documentary with images, the show was at its best when the picture was kept simple. A shadowy picture of a winding colonnade perfectly offset Richard Dimbleby's gravely moving commentary on the funeral of George VI: 'It is very simple, this laying in state of a dead king, and of incomparable beauty.'

At times, though, the images seemed to pull too much weight, with the radio documentary degenerating into a succession of sound-bites. The march of time down radio history worked well, but the present day heralded an exercise in show-casing BBC output. A travel report was played to give an idea of radio's regional role; BBC correspondents were heard signing off around the world, as if their voices would provide a thrill of recognition.

The BBC clearly has hopes for a high turnout, with a canopy at the side of BH to shelter the queues, though it seems unlikely that mummified Bakelite will draw Tutankhamun-type crowds. The thing has been devised to draw attention to radio's achievements, before the autumn Green Paper. Good as it is to see BBC radio making an exhibition of itself in ways other than on daft billboard advertisements, there is something ominous about its becoming a museum piece.

Radio features continue to mainline on nostalgia too. Radio Lives (R4) is now in its third series of profiles of old radio performers. It originally seemed unpromisingly retrospective, but has turned out to be compelling. The subjects of the programmes all have the advantage of being dead; and so, contrary to popular wisdom, their friends and relations talk more frankly of their foibles. Last week we had the anguish of 4'3' comic Jimmy Clitheroe at the heightist world; this week the predilection of Mr Murder, Edgar Lustgarten, for blowzy blondes of uncertain reputation.

The programme was introduced by the criminologist Jonathan Goodman, who, after a shaky opening of personal reminiscence ('In the late 1960s, he provided a flattering preface to my first book . . .'), left the stage mainly to Lustgarten's maid.

It was she who was first alerted to the body in the bath of Lustgarten's girlfriend, Gilbert - the second suicide on the programme in two weeks, if we are to believe Phil Smith's hints about Jimmy Clitheroe's overdose. Lustgarten breathed his last slumped over a desk in Marylebone Library, a seedy, diminished figure. It is remarkable how often these radio lives have revealed wretched souls trapped inside the smiling public service broadcasting men and women. Maybe all lives viewed from the mouldy end seem declining and unfulfilled, or perhaps it is a comment on the hollowness of media stardom, or the outsiders that radio seems to attract. At any rate it would be fascinating to be around for a series on current performers - Sue Lawley, Brian Redhead, Simon Bates might do for starters - in 50 years' time.

'The BBC Radio Show' runs until 4 October (071-927 5055; credit cards: 081-752 4666).

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