RADIO / Virgin on the inaudible

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The Independent Culture
BLOND, BEARDED and bejumpered, Richard Branson is a happy man. At last he has the radio station he always wanted. That is what he told the world on Friday when Virgin 1215 was launched. At least, I think he did. Where I live, he sounded like Sir Ranulph Fiennes at the end of a long walk. In the car, it's more like Runway 2 at nearby Gatwick. Medium wave is a famously fuzzy frequency and it takes some concentration to hear anything other than a steady thump. You can hear it if, instead of wiggling your radio, you decide to phone Virgin. They put you on hold, and then they play their station so loud and clear that you need very long arms not to blow your mind.

Virgin's average listener went through puberty 20 years ago. He still feels like a teenager at heart, but won't notice that nostalgia has crept up on him. He will be gratified when Eric Clapton is allowed the full five minutes of Layla, because they don't make them like that any more. He'll probably approve of the filing- cabinet approach of playing 1,215 classic rock tracks in alphabetical order over this weekend - as I write on Saturday morning, they're well into the Fs - and he won't miss punk. He probably wants to be Richard Branson.

The advertising began with the Royal Mail reminding us to get down to answering some letters, but is slipping into bank holiday mode - lager, cigars and garden furniture. The hourly news is brief and over-excited, the kind that gives the same weight to massacres as to lost budgies. The DJ babble is certainly less, at the moment, than on Radio 1, but will the BBC's loyal listeners really want to play so safe? Of course, they'd be spared the mawkishness of 'Our Tune', but I'd miss the occasional series 'Things that People Would Never Say', such as 'Yes, I'd love a copy of the Watchtower and would you like to come in for coffee.'

Another dip in this week's bran-tub brought out Kenneth Branagh's Romeo and Juliet (R3), which glittered with stars. When Judi Dench first appeared at Stratford, her Juliet was so heart-rending that the line 'Where is my father and my mother, Nurse?' elicited an anguished response from the stalls - 'Here we are, darling, Row C' John Gielgud's 1935 Romeo was, old hands recall, incomparably sublime. It was clever to cast these famous actors in older roles, but it showed some of the others up. These two really know how to do it. Spoken by them, the lines sound almost newly-written, alive with their own momentum. Dench's Yorkshire Nurse came right out of the radio and bustled round my kitchen, infecting us all with her delight as she told again those stories that always made her chuckle: 'I cannot choose but laugh,' she chortled, and neither could we. Later, her distress at Juliet's apparent death was almost unbearable.

Gielgud as Friar Laurence was a treat for the ears. Dignified, kindly, anxious and honest, his reading of the character revealed a lifetime's understanding. Unfortunately Branagh's Romeo did not. Without the help of his boyish good looks, his voice sounded too old and inappropriately profound: passion was whispering breathily close to the microphone, excitement was raising the registers but the effect was oddly querulous; even wimpish. Samantha Bond's Juliet was much better; spoken with intelligent, rapid clarity, her famous lines sounded impetuous, vulnerable and full of tragic dignity.

The sounds of a warm Verona night were wonderful - all plashing fountains, strong Italian crickets, cracked church bells and a stony echo - but Patrick Doyle's music was annoyingly like Prokofiev's, using the same combination of instruments, the same keys and even hints at the same themes, but never approaching the same sublimity. The best performance came from Richard Briers, who gave Lord Capulet all the capriciousness, rage, devotion and despair that are there in the lines, and then some. Teenage daughters can really put you through it.

When Jane Johnson was in her teens, she started drinking whisky to nerve herself to face school. Things rapidly got worse. In Tuesday Lives (R4), the gentle Scottish voice of presenter Joanna Buchan elicited from her the story of her rescue from the bottom of the heap. She heard on Radio 1 that a pub in the Old Kent Road needed women boxers and she never looked back. Now, without whisky, Jabber Jane can face up to the likes of Dangerous Deirdre from Dublin. What's more, thanks to boxing, she has become 'a helpful, friendly, polite person'. Well, so is Frank Bruno, so we shouldn't be surprised. Know what I mean Arry?