RADIO / To criticise the critic of the critic

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The Independent Culture
'JUST another chance for people to yap at each other about plays, films and books that you haven't seen or read and probably aren't going to,' began Humphrey Carpenter, presenting Night Waves, Radio 3's new arts show, in a perilous attempt at irony. Following two disappointing arts shows launched in the past few years - Third Ear (now axed) and Third Opinion - they might equally have called it Third Time Lucky. It's thrice-weekly, late-night (10.45-11.30pm), and, so far, competent rather than compulsive.

In Tuesday's first edition it was four men (two academics and two quasi-academics) talking about culture, America and Alan Rickman's Hamlet. They started with the tired old Keats-versus-Dylan debate, as seen too often on The Late Show, but enlivened it by enlisting the man who first made the comparison, Professor Christopher Ricks, who gave a splendidly abrasive performance. Barbs were elegantly handed out to Alistair Cooke, Gerald Kaufman - 'a failed politician' who happened also to have given an unfavourable review to the professor's new American anthology - and Night Waves itself, which he dismissed as 'a show for insomniacs'.

You began to take Ricks's point in Wednesday's edition, in which, following the pattern of the day, the interest rate shifted alarmingly. A dull discussion of teaching Shakespeare in schools was followed by Jeanette Winterson at full blast: 'Critics disgust me . . . Sometimes I look forward to being dead, because then only the book will be there and there'll be none of this shit.' Lisa Jardine, presenting, agreed - though not with the death wish, she hastily explained. Her presentation was less assured than Carpenter's - all nervous giggles and wooden reading of the script - but no doubt she will ease into it.

Overall there is an uneasy mix between Third Programme discussion and Kaleidoscope first- night reviews, and not enough production (no recordings from the plays discussed). Urgency and interest might have been easier to sustain had Nicholas Kenyon given the show half an hour five nights a week. But it is good to see Radio 3 responding to competition with serious programming instead of the thoughtless flight to the middle ground.

In the same vein, Impressions (R3), a new fortnightly jazz magazine, managed to live up to its title. Although not as gloriously improvised as the John Coltrane theme of that name, it avoids the straitjacket and corduroy trousers style of most jazz broadcasting. Giving a theme to each show relieves the usual piecemeal feel with its litany of band line-ups and CD numbers. Appropriately, in view of the Coltrane connection, they started with the fall and rise of the clarinet. Brian Morton, a presenter who brings a critical edge to his enthusiasm, argued that the instrument was being revived, with a more mischievous sound, building on the sober legacy of Coltrane. His promotion of a 'featured album' by a debutant saxophonist, Don Byron ('one of the essential jazz voices of the Nineties'), steered just the right side of hype.

America has been the subject of much of the last fortnight's output. Two Americas have emerged from the glut of features and reports. The first was most sharply drawn in a series of doom-laden despatches from John Humphrys on Today (R4): a country in terminal decline, where the American Dream is little more than empty rhetoric. In six five-minute reports, Humphrys covered a lot of ground - from affluent Seattle to the ghettos of Los Angeles in the space of a sentence. Everywhere glad confident morning seemed gone forever. The same message was given by a clear-sighted In Business (R4), on the tarnishing by recession of the golden state of California.

And then there was the other America: a place of hedonistic revelry, ethnic mixing, and burgeoning creativity. This America turned out to be New Orleans, and it was the subject of three misty-eyed documentaries. Piers Plowright's Frenchmen Desire Good Children (R4), a moody collage of sounds and opinions of the city, started with a memory of the place that sounded like a Bill Clinton commercial: 'When we first came it was like living in a village: everybody knew everybody else; nobody locked anything up.' Soon, however, small- town cosiness gave way to sultry exoticism: 'It's hot, it's damp, it's sticky. Everything grows here. It's kind of like living in the uterus of the United States.'

The image of creativity and abundance persisted into the companion piece A Bus Named Desire (R3), which, masquerading as a quest for the spirit of Tennessee Williams, further strained the city's creative juices. New Orleans creativity was seen to derive from the tension between Latin American freedom and North American restraint. But if all this seemed too lushly celebratory, Young Americans (R3) offered the counterview, in a series of profiles and readings of promising American writers. The presenter, the Irish novelist Timothy O'Grady, who seemed a far better writer than any of the featured tyros, reasserted the romantic New Orleans: 'It's as seductive as a rake's grin.'