REVIEW / Close your eyes and think of the BBC

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS the television set versus the wireless on Arena Radio Night (BBC 2, Saturday) - four hours of shared programmes and never-before-attempted hook-ups which required you to have both appliances running in the same room. 'It's a bit like letting the canary out of the cage while the cat's in the room,' warned David Attenborough at the start, trying to whet our appetite for a scrap.

In the event, what we got in this battle of the media was more of a backslap than a punch-up. That whiff of self-celebration which the BBC specialises in was your guarantee that no one would get hurt. Attenborough also characterised the clash as 'the miraculous toy meets the magic rectangle'. In other words, however you eventually scored the fight, you would have to admit that both of the contestants were pretty spiffy.

Peter Cook played 'the body and soul' of television (just a mouth, as in Beckett's Not I), bantering with Josie Lawrence as the spirit of the wireless. The screen blacked-out altogether while Alistair Cooke broadcast a special Letter from America and there were several other daring periods of silence and visual freeze-over - those things which are anathema to television. Perhaps the night was short on truly staggering moments. Most of the time, you could believe your ears. Still, the option was always there to increase the surreality by occasionally flicking over to see how Match of the Day was getting on.

One of the pieces took us back to the famous 1960 television and radio debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. Of the two presidential candidates, Nixon had the more authoritative voice - deep and rounded as against his opponent's yokel twang. But Kennedy had a recently topped-up California tan, a bouncy hairdo and the advantage of not having been ill recently. Additionally, Kennedy's aides had rigged the studio's heating system to capitalise on Nixon's greater propensity to sweat. Then they occupied the control room and cajoled the producer into going up close on Nixon's face, which now looked like lard in a warm frying pan.

The television audience came out for Kennedy; the radio audience for Nixon. This story was offered up on Saturday night as evidence, not so much of the ruthlessness of political aides, as of television's wickedly manipulative nature. As Nixon reflected, damningly, years later: 'More important that what you say is how you look, on television.' On the other hand, though, any medium which threatened to get Nixon elected should surely be recognised as a national threat.

In defence of the wireless, Armando Iannucci (the producer of the magnificent On the Hour, a radio programme which is about to become a television series) pointed out, perfectly reasonably, that radio is 'a hard man's medium', whereas 'telly's a medium for nancy boys'. This was succinct. Dennis Main Wilson, who worked on The Goons Show, preferred the more traditional defence, talking about 'the theatre of the mind' and the greater vividness of the imagined image. It took the never less than literal-minded Alan Partridge (sportscaster turned chatshow host and, again, about to make the move from radio to television) to nail this nonsense once and for all. 'It's often said the pictures are better on the radio. Actually, the pictures are better on television because radio doesn't in fact have pictures.' This was perhaps a glaringly obvious conclusion to arrive at after four hours of debate; but if you want to look at something, it's television every time.

The first part of Prime Suspect III opened, rather worryingly, with some tacky overlapping images - a fire in which a 16-year-old died, a drag queen singing in a Soho club. Had the series finally gone soft and arty? No chance. Like its predecessors, it snapped to attention the minute it reached the office. Helen Mirren is heading a vice squad, Tom Bell is stalking the morgue. 'Got any more on the barbecued kid?' The hackles rise, the fur flies.

Thomas Sutcliffe returns tomorrow