The Critics: The greatest love story ever told

The week in radio
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The woman begs him to write to her. She suspects that he is in mortal danger and she longs to learn that he is safe. Though he trusts in God, though he faces the prospect of violent death with equanimity, she is all too aware of her own dependence on his continuing existence. She is, in short, desperate.

Well, it could be Clementine Churchill writing to Winston during the grim winter of 1915-16. After the fiasco of the Dardanelles, he had left England to join the infantry on the Western Front - but we'll come back to them. She was Heloise, a beautiful and gifted French abbess, writing from Argenteuil to Peter Abelard, the most distinguished philosopher and theologian of his time. He was also the love of her life.

For once, that hackneyed little phrase is irreplaceable. Abelard had lived as a lodger with Heloise and her uncle in Paris. Their story is well known. They fell in love, had a son, and were married, rather against her inclination. Her furious uncle threatened her with violence, and Abelard asked her to enter a convent for her safety. But the uncle attacked Abelard in the night and castrated him. Abelard told the whole story to a friend, in a letter which fell into Heloise's hands, whereupon their famous correspondence started.

In "Eloisa to Abelard," a magnificent poem whose overt Romanticism is way ahead of its time, Alexander Pope wrote about their love. I had thought that Pope was using his sympathetic imagination to describe his Eloisa's feelings but his poem is in fact more literal, as we gathered from Wednesday's play, Abelard and Heloise (R4). Ranjit Bolt's fine translation of their letters, read with intensity by Lynsey Baxter and Anton Lesser, became a re-working of Pope - and nothing but the truth. "I preferred love to wedlock," says Bolt's Heloise, "freedom to a bond." Or, as Pope's heroine put it: "If there be yet another name more free, more fond than mistress, make me that to thee."

People often grumble that drama is disappearing from the radio. It isn't true. The reliable daily afternoon drama slot is throwing up plays that are more varied in form and content than ever before. And spoken, dramatic forms merge. These letters became a moving play. The Churchills' letters, broadcast at the old Woman's Hour serial time and repeated in the evenings, were slightly different. Not so much a play as - well, a serial.

Winston and Clementine Churchill were Speaking for Themselves (R4) most of the time, though occasionally an announcer would interpolate explanatory notes. This was a selection from a large archive rather than a structured piece, and it suffered from the bagginess of a long, eventful marriage. Yet that was also its strength. It went from the terrifying perils of war to the chemin de fer tables at Monte Carlo, from political argument to whimsical endearments worthy of the Valentine's columns.

At times it felt almost prurient to be listening. The Winston of renown would surely not want posterity to know about the kicks it gave him to be saluted, nor might an older Clemmie have relished the broadcasting of such wondrously plucky remarks as "I am keeping the flag flying by getting up early and having breakfast downstairs". But that's the guilty frisson that comes with access to private letters. And when Clemmie writes, "I have ceased to be ambitious for you. Just come back to me alive, that's all," she is echoing Heloise and all her forbears and descendants, since the first flowering of conjugal love.

From the sublime to the gorblimey, and A Brief History (R2) of knickers. All right, settle down at the back there, it's not funny. Well actually it was, quite. In her arch, prrrowly, grrrowly voice, Honor Blackman introduced it with an Eartha Kittenishness that belied its serious content. Oh but who can really be serious about garments that attract such a vocabulary? Try saying "double gusset" with a straight face. It's not easy. Yet 200 years ago, pantaloons were unknown. Nobody wore them at all.

From all the lacy flouncing and peach satin of this giggling, earnest survey came the bizarre fact that it all began with divided drawers. Known as "'ever-readies", "free-traders" or "split-arse mechanics", depending on your locality, they were first marketed as hygienic and practical garments. So beneficial were they thought to be that the lower orders made do with boiled-up flour-bags, while aristocrats and actresses toyed with red flannel. Barbara Cartland was roped in, to assure us that people didn't expect to see one's undergarments, as they do today, and old school-girls recalled with affection their baggy bloomers, usefully equipped with pockets. Now the whole caboodle has been reduced to a thong. I can't go on.

"Innocence and Experience" sums up this week's listening. It was also the sub-title of Voices (R3), introduced with his usual urbane sang- froid and formidable knowledge by Iain Burnside. That awkward and uncomfortable poet William Blake wrote the words, and many a composer set them to music. One, Benjamin Britten, tried particularly hard, and included some of Blake's frankly batty proverbs. Try this one: "The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction. If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise. If others had not been foolish we should have been so." As Burnside remarked, how very true.