The week in radio: Creativity, thy name is Woman

Voluspa R4 Bleak House R4 Enoch Arden R4 Gaia R4 For One Horrible Moment R4 Susan Jeffreys Says ... R2
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On top of the world in Iceland, not far from Reykjavk, pulses the fontanelle of the globe. On a bleak and windswept plain, inconceivably vast tectonic plates grind slowly against each other, sending tremors along volcanic faults to threaten earthquakes on distant continents. And in this barren, constantly changing landscape, the Norse people composed their sagas, dreaming up myths and allegories to explain the origins of mankind. Towards the end of the last millennium, before the arrival of Christianity, a visionary prophet wrote Voluspa, a great alliterative poem recounting the creation of the world, its destruction by greed, avarice and war, and its eventual rebirth.

Introducing a new translation of Voluspa (R4), the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie remarked that scholars have always assumed it to have been written by a man. Yet the poet speaks as a woman, declares herself to be a woman and - it has recently, tentatively, been suggested - might actually have been a woman. So this anonymous, shamanic female vision was narrated by Jamie herself. It made a suitably apocalyptic start to the last year of our own, weary old millennium.

"Listen up," she commanded, "you rabble and mighty alike, as I do the bidding of Odin himself" - and she was off, describing the world as dominated by Yggdrasil, the ancient ash-tree, under whose branches such characters as Have-a-go-Hero, Clever-Bastard, Finn-the-Frost and Finn-the-Wry performed their daring deeds. And the more she spoke, the more familiar her story sounded. The first man and woman, she said, had life breathed into them by the gods; Frig, the saintly mother, wept for the death of her heroic son, while a cock was crowing for the third time. The earth, the seer predicts, will perish when fire erupts against fire, playing against heaven itself until the bright stars vanish. But a better world will follow: a dark and gleaming dragon will clear away the corpses of the slain while the good rejoice forever in halls of gold.

Among such startlingly Biblical images lurked shadowy creatures belonging to a Germanic world - wolves, dwarfs and giants and the yellow-beaked carrion crow. The poem, punctuated by an echoing chorus, somnolent bees, mournful owls and, occasionally, strong rhyming and alliterative sequences, was magnificently produced by Tim Dee. I had only two minuscule problems with it. One was to do with genealogy - I needed one of those who-begat-whom lists to follow it - and the other came because I found a repeated phrase risible, when it was probably intended to be ecstatic. What do you think of "lush with leeks"?

There are many ways of broadcasting literary works. Two, from the 19th century, have recently been aired, in very different forms. Last weekend came the final episode of John Dryden's highly original Bleak House (R4), recorded on location, with a microphone following the actors, for all the world like a contemporary documentary. This allowed the heavy message, that the courts of Chancery offer wealth and happiness only to lawyers, to sound loud and clear.

Particularly in the wake of Claire Tomalin's discoveries about his loathsome marital hypocrisy, some of us find Dickens's portentous and moralising narrative hard to stomach, but this method dispensed with it, leaving only a gripping, intricate story. True, Esther Summerson was addressed as "little woman" too often for comfort but, in a superlative cast, Clare Price shone with such convincing goodness that even such sugary epithets failed to grate. The scene in which she discovers the body of her tragic mother, Lady Dedlock, slumped in the fog at the gate of the burial ground just before dawn on a foul winter's night, even wrung a tear from a hardened and cynical critic. The serialisation ended with the dotty Miss Flite releasing her caged birds, with the grand farewell: "Goodbye, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon!" To hear this was ten thousand times better than having to read it.

Tennyson took an even more sentimental line with the hero of his poem, Enoch Arden (R4). Poor old Enoch sails away from wife and family, bearing a lock of hair cut from the head of his sickly baby. He is shipwrecked and given up for lost, but returns, ghost-like, to discover his wife married to their childhood friend. Reluctant to disturb their bliss, he lingers on and only on his death-bed, clutching the curl of the now-dead infant, discloses his identity: "Tell her I died blessing her, praising her, loving her." Beat that, Dickens! In Viv Beeby's production, Andrew Sachs narrated with careful sensitivity while Victor Sangiorgio played the accompanying music - by Richard Strauss, no less - with all the melodramatic verve of a silent movie pianist.

Back to creation myths now, and Gaia (R4), by the talented playwright Sarah Woods, which began a series of "Elemental Tales". More bees featured in this, but these anthropomorphic insects spoke through a maddening buzz, in Cheshire Cat riddles, to a child called Hebe. Hebe is in fact a stroppy brat, but she gets the full Alice in Wonderland treatment, falling down holes into mysterious lands where creatures of varying malevolence change size, float away or eat disgusting things (including her dead mother).

When she eventually discovers the weary Earth Goddess Gaia, we change gear and do a rapid gallop through the history of London, via the likes of Chaucer, Cranmer and Queen Victoria, skeetering to a halt with the death of Diana. Neither protagonist pays any attention to this pageant (even when Wilfred Owen's masterpiece "Futility" is disgracefully misquoted) and Hebe emerges from the underground tunnel at Piccadilly, without a ticket. It was a right old muddle - but there might well be half a dozen fine plays in the material. Your reviewer remained unconvinced by Gaia's gnomic utterance that "the hardest thing is letting go of your children": any mother, Earth or otherwise, might welcome some respite from Hebe.

If you need respite from all this angst, try Peter Bradshaw's great new cod-gothick "autobiography" For One Horrible Moment (R4). In the first episode our hero introduced his manic father, who made his money in bleach and retired to the Fens, there to wield his cane, "Mr Swishy", across his hapless son - who, in turn, takes pleasure in the company of his Nicaraguan terrier, Jif Mousse. Bradshaw narrates this enjoyable twaddle with earnest bewilderment.

And if even that isn't frivolous enough, pay attention when Susan Jeffreys Says Make it a Double (R2). Jeffreys and her producer, Francesca Plowright, are adept at discovering terrific old songs, as was proved in the prize- winning series Ironic Maidens, and here they do it again. The first programme was all about songs of work and Jeffreys offers a sly commentary to link these treasures. She asks, for example, whether the Judds, mother and daughter, honestly expect us to believe in their hard labour at the coal face when they sport such elegant manicures on their CD cover? Here is her choice:

"Pep, Vim and Verve", Andy Paley and Jeff Vincent;

"Dig Dig Dig for your Dinner", Phil Silvers and Gene Kelly;

"16 Tons", The Purefys;

"Working in a Coal Mine", The Judds;

"Little Betty Bouncer", Flotsam and Jetsam;

"Ferme jusqu'a lundi", Mireille and Jean Sablon;

"Full Time Job", Johnny Ray and Doris Day;

"The Gas Man Cometh", Flanders and Swann;

"Gone Fishin", Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong.