The Week in Radio

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The Independent Culture
IF YOU happened to be a Carthusian monk in 18th-century France, you were probably best advised to steer clear of the Abbe Jean Nollet. Otherwise you were likely to get involved in one of his experiments. Unfortunately for the monastic brethren, their Abbe had a scientific bent, and a particular interest in electricity. In 1746, he lined up 200 monks, joined them together with wire, and connected them to a crude battery. This human chain extended for almost a mile, yet the current coursed easily from one end to the other. As the men jerked and convulsed, Nollet concluded that electric signals could be transmitted over long distances.

So began this week's serial on Radio 4. The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage tells the story of the electric telegraph, and its eventual worldwide development by Samuel Morse and other pioneers. David Rintoul provided a nice tone of relaxed factuality for the reading so that the required technical explanations were not overawing or tedious.

Science seems always to have been one step ahead of the people who live with it, and 100 years ago the laws of physics must have seemed quite baffling. When the telegraph system was first laid out in America, few people understood how it worked. One farmer even decided that it must be a failure because he never heard any dispatches going up the line.

Years later, after the invention of wireless radio, Mark Lamarr sat in a studio with a big pile of records. Rock'n'roll is something else that resulted from noises being sent along wires, and if the genre is to survive its enforced leap from Radio 1 to Radio 2, then it needs someone like Lamarr to make sure it arrives safely.

He opened his new series Shake, Rattle and Roll (Radio 2, Monday) by announcing the one great truth: "Elvis is still dead." Lamarr takes over the ground so well-prepared over the past four weeks by Frank Skinner's In the Days before Rock'n'Roll. This week he delved deep and came up with several songs about Cadillacs, including a 1947 version of the Jackie Brenston classic, "Rocket 88".

If you ain't got a Cadillac, you could always try a motor-scooter instead. This was the form of transport encountered by Henry VIII in Corridors of Light and Shadow (Radio 3, Sunday). Actually, he was looking for a horse, or maybe a mother, for his unborn son. He didn't seem to have made his mind up yet. Instead, he wandered around an Italian Renaissance city disguised as a musician and plagued by this bloke on a Vespa. All very mysterious.

If the young king really did once make a furtive visit to Mantua, as this programme suggested, then he was surely tempted by the late Duke's widow, Isabella d'Este. Set against a background of very modern noises, the regal pair went sightseeing together, and she seemed to drop a few hints. She pointed out frescoes where English royal livery lay entwined with Gonzagan marigolds. "Apollo wears a short skirt and leans forward," she observed. "He wears nothing underneath." This undoubtedly made Henry go all hot and sweaty, and when she led him into her secret garden he probably thought his luck was in. Trouble was, he was already married and she was having none of it.