RADIO / Too much of a good thing

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The Independent Culture
THEY WERE in love. In the soft warmth of an Indian night he asked her to marry him. At the water's edge, the ancient marble palace shimmering behind them, they glimpsed a boat gliding across the lake. It contained all that was needed to complete their rapture. Beneath a white parasol reclined a lady all in pink . . . Hang on, just a minute. Pink? Not the very famous lady in pink? And yes, indeed it was she, the queen of romance in person, come to bless their union, Barbara Cartland herself.

You'd scarcely credit it. But then Classic Romance (Classic FM) often leaves you feeling like that. In a breezy voice, with just a hint of embarrassment - the voice a best man adopts when it comes to reading tricky telegrams at a wedding reception - Nick Bailey unfolds the secrets of a dozen hearts every week. It is painful to listen to these letters, sometimes because the stories are sad, sometimes because they sound too private to be broadcast, but most often because they are written in the style of a policeman's report to the court: 'Having established the possibility of a mutual attraction, I proceeded to suggest a rendezvous,' that sort of thing. Happily, I still haven't heard that 'intimacy took place', but it can't be long now.

Classic FM is going great guns. In among the corny bits, the revolting recipes and the fluffed lines, there are some lovely programmes. In Classical Gas the irreverent Johnny Black introduces odd renditions of familiar gems. This week he played a horn-free horn concerto, toyed with memories of the Alhambra on tubular bells and followed a contra-bassoon into deeper water than Schubert's trout has frolicked in before. It sounded like the urgent growl of a Hoover caught in the fringes of a rug.

On The Classic Opera Guide Hugh McPherson treated Nicolai Gedda with more respect. Gedda remembers singing with Maria Callas, a woman he admired for her courage and kindness as much as for the splendour of her voice. The conversation led into a strongly emotional recording of the pair of them in the harrowing closing scenes of Carmen. Though she was supposed to have been past her best by then, her 'Non, je ne t'aime plus' cut like a scimitar.

Another evocative voice to be heard this week was Julie Christie's. She was the ancient earthgoddess in Grandma and Mrs Chatterjee (R4), a play that should remind us all of the formidable powers of the older woman. She spoke in that slightly husky, teasing, irresistibly seductive way she has, persuading the two old ladies of the title to turn to goddess-worship, with all its attendant eroticism. Her medium was the radio - 'medium wave, sweetie,' giggled Mrs Chatterjee - and she came through even when it was turned off. Phillip, a prissy young fundamentalist, even hurled his set into the bath, but nothing could stop her. When a young constable had to arrest the two old things for profanity, he explained to his superior, 'Er, they just used the penis word again, Sir, the place is in an uproar.' Later he comforted himself, in one of many gloriously surreal asides, with the consoling thought, 'I've got my allotment.'

Goddess-worship would be quite at home on The Big Holy One (R1). This has as much in common with a conventional religious broadcast as a wetsuit has with a bikini, but they both cover essentially the same subjects. Simon Mayo zips along at a cracking pace from his welcoming 'Blessings on you, big holy listeners, everywhere,' right through to the interrogation of the week's victim in the Last Judgment. It is not satirical, exactly, nor is it profound, but, remarkably, it succeeds in making religious issues topical, challenging and far from dull. As Mayo says, there's enough sex and violence in the Bible to make Michael Winner look like Disney World.

The Actress and the Bishop is another regular slot. This week Helen Lederer talked to the Rt Rev Michael Marshall, but he was trying so hard to be trendy that he sounded more like the week's heretic. He seemed to be saying that a sin is not a sin when it's fun, dismissed fornication (his word) as a peccadillo and reminisced about his time in Raymond's Revue Bar. This provided an irresistible opportunity to lead into a grand old joke, with a tiny twist: 'I never slept with my wife before we were married. Did you, Bishop?' 'I don't know, my boy. What was her maiden name?'

Perversely, the Heretic of the Week was rather tame. The true Green Jonathon Porritt even claimed to be a Christian who had 'er, a resource that is . . . spiritual, if you like'. Some heretic. All Mayo got him to admit was that he had a weakness for hugging trees.

The Big Holy One skips along a narrow line between queasy religiosity and offensive mockery without, for my money, ever dipping a toe in either. It's a great act. I especially liked a spoof new book, called Nostradamus: The Final Countdown, in which the old prophet foretells the British Empire, the London blitz, The Bill moving to Saturday and Asil Nadir to Cyprus. 'Also, rather spookily, the ordination of Ann Widdecombe after her marriage to John Selwyn Gummer.' Now that would be a classic romance.

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