RADIO / Two knights, not much silence

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Every Christmas the BBC holds its Great Recitation Handicap. Those parts of the schedules that are not scandalously jammed with repeats are given over to readings - the corporation's way of returning us to childood. Old favourites are delivered by other old favourites, and half the pleasure lies in betting on the best combination of runner and reader.

This year I was worried that the perennial favourite, the popular grey, Sir John Gielgud, might have made an unwise choice of partner. In recent years, Sir John has romped home with Bunyan and E F Benson, suited, respectively, to his gifts for the sonorously sublime and the donnishly ridiculous. Edward Lear's The Jumblies and Other Nonsense (R4) threatened to reduce the violoncello voice to bathos, as Spitting Image did when it had Gielgud's puppet declaiming 'Baa, Baa, Black Sheep'.

I shouldn't have worried. The master handled his material brilliantly, with a voice pitched between puzzlement and defiance. You didn't know whether to believe him when he told you 'they went to sea in a sieve', nor whether the twinkle in his eye was one of mischief or madness.

Other favourites fared less well. Kerry Shale gave Harry the Horse a Noo Yawk accent as authentic as a yellow cab in More Runyon Rogues (R3), but was unseated by the monotony of the wiseacre, down-in-the-mouth narrative voice. Shale is capable of impersonating a multitude of characters, but here he was imprisoned in one.

Sylvestra Le Touzel's heart wasn't quite in Lynne Truss's short story They Can Because They Seem to Be Able to (R3), a piece of pastiche-Gothic about a woman who suspects her fox-fur may be alive. It was an entertaining piece of journalism, but the old adage that a hack won't win the National stands.

Jenny Agutter with The Snow Goose (R4) was a serious contender. If she seemed at times as bogus and sentimental as a Christmas card, then so does Paul Gallico's beauty and the beast rewrite. Only a fatal stumble in the final run-in, with a dreadful rendition of a crusty general describing the hunchback hero's death at Dunkirk, lost her the title.

The surprise winner, pipping Sir John, was another venerable knight, Sir William Golding. In With Great Pleasure (R4) Golding read prose and poetry on the subject of 'first and last things'. The chief authors were three Williams: Blake; Shakespeare; and 'another who wishes to remain anonymous'. Golding's performance was magisterial: he handles the language as if he owns it. A hint of Dorsetshire burr added to the feeling of bardic power, and he was able to switch comically from the awesome (Blake's lyrics) to the awful (Housman's parody of Greek tragedy).

Another Christmas tradition is the celebrity presenter, the more incongruous the better. This year someone had the idea of turning Martin Bell, the BBC foreign correspondent with the white suit, the lived-in face and the recent shrapnel wound into a disc-jockey. The result was From Suffolk to Sarajevo . . . and Back] (R2) - a tour of his postings, with connected songs (including an anti-Bell calypso composed at the behest of the St Lucian government). Both serious and self- deprecatingly humorous, weighing his words but expressing opinions trenchantly, Bell would normally be out of place on Radio 2. When he quoted his commanding officer in National Service as having said 'The trouble with you, Corporal Bell, is that you think too much', you could imagine Radio 2's controller concurring.

He laboured the contrast between the glamorous image of his job and the grim reality. Few of the public can have the illusions he attributed to them after watching him writhing wounded on television. But his diffidence about his work seemed deep: a painful confusion of relish for the road (his musical mantra being Willie Nelson's 'On the Road Again'), the need to holler to the world what's going on, and the faint hope that one day he'll be 'a peace correspondent'. The programme, of course, was recorded. Bell spent Christmas in Bosnia.

Fanny and the Plaster Saints (R4) was a parable of a feature - about what, it's hard to say. A wonderfully polite actress sought to track down some religious statues she had gilded for an artist in the Forties. She found them covered up in a church in Farnham. The fun was in the chase, as Fanny thanked people the more profusely the less help they gave. She settled on ringing 'The God Shop', which had commissioned the statues. After riffling through the directory she conceded: 'I don't think God's in the book.'

Classic FM celebrated Christmas with an hour-long documentary about Howard Blake's and Raymond Briggs's The Snowman - itself only 30 minutes. It was altogether a trite Christmas, as The Snowman made further appearances on Channel 4 and twice on BBC radio: read by Hannah Gordon (R5), and excerpted in a sumptuous anthology of words and music, A Christmas Carol (R2). It didn't sound any better the fourth time. Bernard Cribbins's merry narration could not disguise the fact that it's a snowflake-thin piece of humbug.