The Week In Radio

"THE WAY I see it," said Quo Vadis's director Mervyn Le Roy to a young Peter Ustinov, "Nero's a guy plays with himself nights." And because a Roman gentleman, let alone the Emperor (Running the Empire, R4, Saturday) could never lower himself to being a musician or a charioteer, Nero's other great pursuit, his urge to perform, was a fatal flaw. He would have loved the Coliseum, built after his death on the site of his enormous Golden House, where one wing alone comprised 142 rooms of polygonal complexity, ceilinged with fretted ivory and awash with rose petals.

"Now I can begin to live like a human being," he announced on its completion; such profligate hobbies in fact made his early death politically inevitable. "Qualis Artifex Pereo" - "What an artist dies with me" - he quipped for posterity at his suicide, and off he went to his predesigned mausoleum.

It's a line that Orson Welles, no stranger to hyperbole himself, might easily have used. Fresh from the delights of his Peggy Ramsay memoir, Simon Callow reads from his paean to the Wisconsin Wunderkind (Orson Welles - The Storyteller, R4, Saturday), following a trail from teenage success at the Gate Theatre, Dublin ("Solomon had a thousand wives." Voice in audience: "That is a dirty Protestant lie.") to his carte blanche contract with RKO for Citizen Kane.

As the author's reverence deepens, so does his diction - the "you" in "illustrated" is usually silent - so that when he says of the Mercury Theatre radio productions that they "were made with dangerously high levels of adrenalin", he becomes perilously like Peggy Ramsay after rather too many espressos.

Like Nero, even whose murders were theatrical, Welles was an impossibly larger-than-life figure, casting himself in every radio play he ever produced, including Hamlet, and a Count Dracula who eerily evoked Seventies Soul Giant Barry White, the basso profundo "Hippopotamus of Love". His production skills though were remarkable, as shown in the Hallowe'en 1938 War of the Worlds, when the citizens of Grovers Mill, New Jersey heard themselves run screaming for the hills, and then did exactly that.

This would have thrilled Alfred Hitchcock (Everyone's Wicked Uncle, R3, Sunday); his passion for practical jokes and need for total control were very Orsonian, even if his narrative talent was a fundamentally pictorial rather than a theatrical one. Peter Bogdanovich, with immaculate mimicry, recalled the blackly comic trailer for Psycho, with Hitch touring the Bates Motel, lugubriously murmuring "terrible thing, shocking" over and over. Some see him as "the baby-faced ogre in the business suit", an evil genius who locked Tippi Hedren in a giant birdcage for five days with 300 sparrows, but in Psycho we imagine more and more violence and actually see less and less as the film progresses. Although as he said, "the audience were screaming in agony by the end - thank goodness."

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