The Critics: Radio: Let's hear it for Michael and Sir Jimmy

Click to follow
People say that it was an early indication of Orson Welles's genius that he managed to fool so many people with his updated radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. I'm not so sure. Never mind that he went as far as possible to make his broadcasts sound like news flashes. Radio has three things going for it that, even in these sceptical days, make people believe it. They are: its residual air of authority; the manner in which we do not give our imagination full credit (we fill in the gaps to our own satisfaction very readily); and, most importantly perhaps, we're a bit dim. If I'd heard Welles's show I would have the family and 200 tins of Spam in the back of the Chevrolet before you could say "Martian".

Or maybe I'm just gullible. I remember when I first heard Alan Partridge, in the days when he had a slot on Radio 4's On the Hour. What a pricelessly cretinous interviewer, I thought, until it dawned on me - I won't say how long it took - that he was a humourous construct.

I found myself thinking along similar lines when, four weeks ago, I heard the trailer for a new show called The Sunday Format, whose premise was that it was a radio version of a Sunday newspaper for those too busy to read Sunday newspapers. We were promised a wide range of lifestyle articles, features like "My First Shoes" (with Vikram Seth) and the like. "It does what all good journalism should do," said a vox pop, "which is ... which is nice." Bloody stupid idea, I said to myself, and snapped the radio off, although I was attempting to find the right turning off the Harpenden- St Albans road in the dark and rain at the time.

It turned out that this series was in fact comedy. You will forgive me if I thought otherwise - it did go out at 6.30 in the evening, after all. But every so often the BBC goes crazy and puts out something in that slot which is funny, and The Sunday Format was one such offering.

Its style was very much derived from the deadpan, satiric surrealism of Chris Morris and his erstwhile colleagues, but there was no sense of diminishing returns. It did the clever thing of making its sketches shorter than you might have thought possible, rather than dragging them on until the audience realises that laughing, however half-heartedly, is the only way the show is going to move on. No, TSF was hilarious, even if it did spend much time, actually its en-tire time, lampooning Sunday newspapers. But not this one, of course.

I got fooled again listening to Radio 3 last Sunday. Featured on Michael Berkeley's Private Passions (basically, Desert Island Discs on performance- enhancing drugs) was that "great British character", the conductor Sir Jimmy Disprin. Now in his late 70s, Disprin has a voice somewhere between a bull seal and Alan Clark, and, like the latter, could be said to be a ladies' man. For a conductor, music comes rather low on his priorities. "Lovely women, lovely food ..." he would say. "And lovely music," prompted Berkeley. Impatiently: "Yes, of course, lovely music ...". Then he was off again, now talking about a woman's "creamy quivering whiteness of her thighs as she steps from the bath ..."

Sir Jimmy's musical opinions were surprising. "I stood a few more drinks than friend Mendelssohn ever did," he said. "You don't mind them chalking you a suit but that's as far as it goes." (Mendelssohn was Jewish, you see.) On his own conducting technique: "Mark out the dull bits ... the bits that aren't going anywhere, like the whole of the St Matthew Passion ..." Berkeley demurred, but Disprin persisted. All Bach, he said, "sounds to me like a chap running up and down the stairs all the time. No?"

Sir Jimmy believed in the English love of the amateur. "I mean, look even at those chaps - Leavis - he just sat in a big comfy chair, I mean, he reached for the first big book that came to mind, or to hand, read it, and said the first thing that came into his head and published it, and you know, people worshipped him."

"I think there's a little more to it than that," said Berkeley.

"I don't think so. No. I mean it's the same as all the best English composers who like lying with a pretty woman with dimples in her cheeks and, heh heh, also her adorable little back end."

Described by another conductor as "a rutting giftless sex-monkey with all the musical acuity of a fire-escape", he declared, with the first five words in ringing Churchillian tones: "I let it be known that I had no truck with that fleet of Bertie Woofters who were preparing to scare every self-respecting herring from the shores of Aldeburgh with their nancy-fest."

"The Aldeburgh Festival."

The Aldeburgh Festival. Yes, that's one way of putting it. Michael, look. I really don't want to patronise you, especially on your jolly little programme. But people like me and Tommy Beecham fought a war to rid the world of people like Ben Britten."

Eventually, the penny dropped. Sir Jimmy Disprin did not exist in the way that you or I do. He was, in fact, John Sessions, and I haven't heard a better sustained fictive impersonation (Berkeley, as straight man, kept his end up very well, too). There are times when it is an honour to be fooled.