Radio: They're sinking fast in the typing pool

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The Independent Culture
If you don't live in London, you've probably never heard of Bristow. Bristow is a cartoon strip which has been appearing in the London Evening Standard since God was a boy, about the eponymous, mustachioed wage slave who works as a buying clerk for the firm of Chester-Perry. He has a bullet- headed boss called Fudge, who shouts at everyone, and a straight man to bounce jokes off called Jones. There are jokes about tea ladies, the girls in the typing pool, and the fabled wealth of the firm's founder, Sir Reginald Chester-Perry. As you can imagine, it is not actually funny; but its creator, Frank Dickens, is one of those engaging cartoonists who can't really draw yet who has a nice line, as they say, and the cartoon is an inoffensive, unremarkable landmark of life in the capital, a testament to the five or six seconds it takes to read it on a packed Tube train.

So Radio 4's decision to take this strip, which is very much in its autumn years, and turn it into a comedy series is somewhat bizarre. Frank Dickens writes the script, too. This was honourable of the BBC but it might not have been the right decision. For a start, it is difficult to work out which era it is meant to be set in. There is still a typing pool (you hear the clatter of typewriters in the background, an evocative yet hardly contemporary sound) but the girls in it have nose-rings. I will accept that offices still have paperwork but I am not sure people are called post-boys any more.

This is hardly Frank Dickens's fault. He is not accustomed to writing for radio and can hardly be expected to know what goes on in offices these days. But you would expect someone at the BBC to have worked this all out and accounted for it. What we have instead is another mystifyingly unfunny comedy. The man who plays Bristow - Michael Williams - sounds a bit like Richard Briers, and Jones is played by Rodney Bewes, so you might expect it to contain a laugh or two; but it doesn't. Perhaps that is how it got off the starting blocks. (You don't have to be contemporary to raise a smile, as R4's daily 15-minute-long extracts from Jerome K Jerome's Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow shows. How nice, I thought, they've got someone who sounds just like Hugh Laurie to read it. It turned out that it was Hugh Laurie, who sounds different somehow.)

There is other stuff that doesn't quite fit the medium. I remember, many years ago, listening to a programme about Fred Astaire, and my mother, who is American, expressing bemusement that she had ended up in a country that put tap-dancing on the radio. So when I found out that Radio 2 was broadcasting something about the great hoofer last Sunday, I couldn't resist. This was the third of a six-part series called Fred Astaire: Step by Step, although the presenter, Michael Freedland, made use of the celebratory phrase "Astaire Century", which is handy as I was beginning to wonder whose century it was. (It's actually his centenary.)

By great good fortune this one dealt, almost surreally, with his dancing. If anyone knows one thing about Astaire, it is the great talent-spotter's remark: "Can't act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little," although some people mistakenly replace "slightly bald" with "can't sing". Either way, it is as a dancer that he was celebrated from the start. Now I never thought that listening to dancing rather than watching it would add anything revealing about the subject (I bridle at calling dance an art form; it does neither art nor dance any favours), but it did, especially when they played the whole of the song that begins with these lines: "I wanna be a dancin' man/while I can,/gonna leave my footsteps on the sands of time,/even if I never leave a dime/I'll be rich as old king Midas might have been - /least until the tide comes in."

And as Astaire sang it, leaving you frustratingly aware that the pictures were missing, you began to appreciate both what the song celebrates about any dancing - and how sublimely the lyrics fit Astaire himself. If you don't know the tune, the words might look as if they don't scan, but they trip and weave against and alongside the beat, in fact dancing themselves, and in doing so they enact the joy and ephemerality of dance. And that "least until the tide comes in" - what a line. (It was nice, too, to hear swing and big band music on the radio again, and in its natural habitat, ie, Radio 2. You don't hear enough of it these days and whenever you do, it makes you feel as though you have had, or could just do with, a proper 95 per cent gin martini.)

Whether the interviews with Jack Lemmon, Ginger Rogers and others were archive or specially done for the show (unlikely, as Ginger Rogers hung up her dancing shoes in 1995), the show didn't have a cobbled-together feel; and Freedland himself only sounded a bit dim because R2 obliges all its presenters to end each sentence with a chuckle. You could read out Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in a Radio 2 voice and make people think you were a simpleton. Try it some time. But hurry - for, as Astaire sang, "Life is short, we're growing older, don't you be an also-ran, you'd better dance little lady, dance little man, dance whenever you can."