RADIO / Too much is never enough

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The Independent Culture
BIRTH and copulation and death. And in-between, really vast amounts of eating. Mike Leigh has, when you come down to it, a fairly reductionist view of human existence. When he made Too Much of a Good Thing in 1979 - his first and, as yet, his only radio play - Radio 3 refused to broadcast it, apparently worried by its sexual explicitness. It finally reached Radio 3 last Tuesday (the length of the delay being, you suspect, due to forgetfulness as much as to prudishness), bringing with it the realisation that the BBC's initial delicacy was misplaced - the shocking thing about this play is not so much the sex as the food.

The play details the affair between Pamela and Graham, her driving instructor. He takes her out for a succession of meals - Chinese, Berni Inn, fish and chips. She brings him home for veal, ham and egg pie. When she isn't out with Graham, she's eating faggots ('They're fresh faggots, Dad, not frozen faggots') with her rat-catcher father, and snacking on Crunchies, Mars Bars, Maltesers and countless sandwiches: chicken paste, chicken and ham paste, pilchard and tomato paste, cheese and pickle and ham. 'You do like your food, don't you?' Graham comments in the Chinese restaurant, moving on by a process of tactless association to the giraffe at the zoo that collapsed and died because it couldn't stand up - 'High cholesterol content. Ngh. Overweight, yuh.'

It is a disheartening world that Leigh portrays, dominated by appetites attached to stereotypes. This may be the natural consequence of Leigh's method, working up characters and script through improvisation. You get the impression that Leigh would like you to think the persons of the play have been short-changed by life; actually, you feel they've been short-changed by Leigh. There are moments of caricature in Too Much of a Good Thing - the rat-catcher who wants to be called a rodent operative, discussion of the meal at the Berni - that wouldn't seem out of place in a column by Peter Simple.

What redeems the play are moments of sharp emotional realism: Graham's diffident, non-committal pledge of something that might be mistaken for love - 'I nearly rung you last night' - that wrings little gasps of surprised pleasure out of Pamela (Lesley Manville); and the consummation itself. Sex on radio is nothing novel, and this was done in much the usual way - a sequence of rustling and panting, punctuated by occasional embarrassed negotiations over positions and clothes. But it was remarkable for its length, and the precise choreography of breathing, gasping and sobs - so that the exact moment of penetration was obvious. All the same, this doesn't seem enough by itself to make the play unbroadcastable. Perhaps what put the BBC off was the sheer distress that Lesley Manville conveyed, the reluctance matched with anxiety to please that she made embarrassingly explicit. Her inarticulacy and Graham's shambling unwillingness to see her again made the end of the play painful in a way that it hadn't led you to expect; maybe somebody at Radio 3 just wanted to spare the audience that agony.

The other thing that distinguished Leigh's play was the authentic sound he got from location recording - when somebody yelled from the kitchen, they sounded as if they were in another room, not standing away from the microphone. And backgrounds weren't tidily selected to match situations - during the consummation scene, in a room at Graham's parents' house, the main noise under the grunting and heaving was determinedly undomestic: cars and lorries streaking past on the road outside, giving you a hint of the ordinary deprivations the characters have suffered.

This richly textured, often grotesque fantasyland contrasts strangely with the filleted, bland reality of The Village (Radio 4, Friday), now returned for a sixth series. Everybody remembers Norfolk by the old Noel Coward jibe - 'Very flat' - but that's only the scenery: in Nigel Farrell's documentary series, Hampshire emerges as flat and featureless deep down in its very soul.

Not a great deal seems to happen in Bentley - and as the old newspaper saying goes, 'Good news is no news'. But even when something by the way and peculiar does occur (such as this week's display by Romanian Morris dancers, which blocks the main road), Farrell's soothing, faintly intrigued commentary smothers it. Each episode is 15 minutes long, and barely manages to sustain interest for that length.

Mike Leigh's world may be fictional: but for all its faults, in its ability to touch your emotions, or bring you something new to consider about other people, it feels far more real than this does.

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