RADIO / You, yours, them, theirs, and Stoppard

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The Independent Culture
WE WERE about to have a party one New Year's Day about five years ago, and Radio 3 was keeping me company in the kitchen, when suddenly it happened. Live radio produced a living nightmare.

I had been trying to follow a learned musicologist who was lecturing about the collaboration between Petipa and Tchaikovsky in the creation of The Sleeping Beauty - five beats to a bar, five steps in the pas de cinq, you know the kind of thing. He finished, and the announcer said that he intended, as we might have guessed, to play the music, but there was a problem. He couldn't make the CD player work. He had hoped he could find an old-fashioned tape, or even a record, but it was a bank holiday and the famous BBC record library was locked there was nobody about with a key. Controlled panic set in as he played other things, interrupting them with bulletins about his search. The tension became intolerable. What could the poor fellow do? Would he shoot himself?

At last, after 10 sweaty minutes, an engineer appeared: he knew how to work the thing. The announcer's voice gratefully sank back to its deep, assured timbre and the orchestra started up. The whole episode confirmed what we always suspected. At Christmas, Broadcasting House is virtually empty. Woman's Hour returns to its rightful place at the stove, You and Yours spend time with them and theirs and the pre-recorded programmes take over. It's lovely, almost like a holiday.

Every day of the week Radio 4 gave us Agatha Christie's Murder at the Vicarage, a vintage whodunnit. The names are Dickensian in their aptness: Inspector Slack is obviously inattentive; Griselda is hiding a grisly secret; Nancy Pratt is clearly daft; Mrs le Strange is not what she seems; Professor Stone is a bogus archaeologist; and Gladys Cram's suitcase is stuffed with deception. Over it all reigns a new Miss Marple, June Whitfield. Spry, wry and whimsical, she recreates the brilliant old thing in her own likeness, giving the full weight of four syllables to the word 'everything' and aggravating the entire cast, to the listener's delight, with her smug sleuthing. A tour de force.

Another daily pleasure has been That's What Friends Are For (R4), in which unlikely friendships are aired. A convicted robber and his prison tutor, Bosnians from opposing sides and, most movingly, the journalist Jill Tweedie and Falklands veteran Ken Lukowiak talked about why they were fond of each other. Jill Tweedie was dying of motor-neurone disease - in fact, she died the next day - but her ability to put death in its place, to be still so intensely herself, so amused and amusing, was nothing short of inspiring.

Two dramas stood out. Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (R3) sounded as if it had been written for radio. It is a play that appeals to the historian lurking in every stately home visitor. The action cuts between 1809 and the present, with the latter- day inhabitants of a great house in Derbyshire attempting a scholarly reconstruction of the behaviour of the earlier incumbents. Only the audience knows the poignant truth. In the earlier period, the dialogue is Wildean: 'As her tutor, you have a duty to keep her in ignorance'; 'Do not dabble in paradox, Edward, it puts you in danger of fortuitous wit.' It is surprisingly easy to spot the modern bunch by sound alone: their casual use of words such as dickhead and date-rape is in grating contrast with the eloquence of their ancestors.

A Stoppard familiar is the tortoise, in this case called Plautus or Lightning according to period. Perhaps this creature stayed at the National Theatre when the recording was made: though pivotal, his is not a speaking part. The rest of the cast transferred en masse. Harriet Walter made a winsome, fruity Lady Croome (Stoppard's Lady Bracknell), Rufus Sewell a dangerously attractive tutor. Emma Fielding, as his clever pupil, turning her attention from carnal embrace to quantum physics to the burning of the library at Alexandria - 'How can we sleep for grief?' - was the embodiment of the exuberant intelligence of the play, her fate a casually cruel illustration of the chaos theory she had nearly discovered.

Monday's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (R4) was another surprise. Produced in Edinburgh, it emphasised the Scottishness of Stevenson's horror story, and its uneasy, perverse motivation. A discordant honky-tonk piano hitched a wild waltz ever further out of key, faster and higher, as the good doctor mixed and knocked back his fizzing green potions and the dread Hyde emerged to spread murder and despair in the dark rainy streets. Alexander Morton played both halves of the man, his voice dropping from a Morningside gentility to a thick, rasping, guttural growl. Tom Fleming whispered villainy in his ear as Legion, the devil with many voices, tempting him to increasingly dangerous excesses and eventually to suicide. I found myself glad not to be alone in the house.

Another Scot with a wild imagination is, believe it or not, Armando Iannucci. Released daily into the sound archives, he has been making a new surreal logic out of familiar clips to illustrate Down Your Ear (R4), his highly personal and very funny history of the radio. Declaring that man is drawn to broadcasting as irresistibly as a baboon to a car aerial, he began with pre-history and the discovery on Easter Island of 40 identical sculptures of the profile of Libby Purves. By Thursday, he was standing on the banks of the BBC watershed outside John Birt's office, watching burly Greek fishermen remove obscenities from the filthy scum, only to replace them after nine at night - though sometimes, he confided, odd buttocks float by unobserved.

There were still a few old diehards at the microphone this week. On Radio 1, a newsreader confidently predicted a knighthood for Bruce Forsyth. Grimly, Michael Buerk chaired the last of this series of The Moral Maze (R4), though frankly admitting that he could think of 10,000 subjects more interesting than fox-hunting. Melvyn Bragg did his best to Start the Week (R4) but he was outgunned by the garrulity of Germaine Greer. As so often happens, it was The Archers (R4) that sprang the surprise. Still reeling from the shock of tiresome Susan's imprisonment, fans were astounded to hear the righteous vicar (who has been getting unusually frisky lately) suggest a night of passion to the lovely Caroline. I blame the Bishop of Durham.