The week in radio: Never mind the lows, the highs are cosmic

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The Independent Culture
As autumn arrives, with its swirling winds battering our dark and chilly mornings, it is once more open season for attacks on Radio 4. The old chestnuts are unearthed, steeped in vinegar and given a spin in ritual combat. Thursday's much-leaked RAJAR statistics discern a sharp fall in listening figures and the pundits are quick to condemn, blaming uncomfortable schedules, over-reliance on focus-groups and mistaken allocation of funds. Some wail that the network is debased by idiot quiz shows while others find it boring, inaccessible and stodgy. Dumbed down or lectured up, all agree that it is definitely not what it was.

Well, there's some truth in all this but it's shallow stuff, aimed at an easy target. Variations in listening figures are inevitable, when so many other stations and media compete for attention, a rare luxury in our increasingly frenetic society. Most radio stations play nothing but records; only Talk Radio, R4 and R5 rely almost exclusively on the spoken word - and when one person speaks, a hundred disagree. Besides, popularity has never meant the same as excellence or Mills & Boon would be out of business and everyone would read Ian McEwan and Hilary Mantel.

It is, of course, easy to discover weak or even frightful programmes during the 20 hours of daily broadcasting put out by R4. Why, for example, did anyone think it a good idea to commission the unspeakable King Stupid, which could drive even the most faithful listener to fury or despair. Yet a studio audience sits there listening to it and laughing immoderately, indulgently, inexplicably - and they can't all be insane, so we must assume that even this drivel has its adherents. But far more important is the fact that R4 still offers a variety of listening which includes some of the most thoughtful, innovative programmes ever made. Take, for example, Lesley Bruce's Vox Bopp - poetry in drama and a shimmering jewel of a play.

It began with Tom Bopp, beautifully played by Kerry Shale, remembering the night when he and Alan Hale first saw the fuzzy distant comet, in the constellation of Sagittarius, that was to be named after them. Bopp is a lolloping puppy, late for his date in the Arizona desert, his car out of action and his phone dying on him, knowing only that somehow or other he has to report this astonishing discovery: Hale is a smooth pro, competent with computer and e-mail, immediately scenting immortality. Cue a snatch from the Messiah; "Glory to God!"

Then, one by one, to the insistent susurrous of crickets, other players introduce themselves, people with no apparent link save their wonder at the brilliant, blazing comet. Sad Nancy leans on her sill, missing her son David and hoping that he too is watching: "On the edge of the Universe at the beginning of time, in ice and gas and dust, we touch". Lorna, the ambitious Bradford school-leaver, sounding like a baby Victoria Wood, dreams up the idea of novelty flights, to view the comet beyond the pollution of earthly light. Caris Spooner, the whimsical Welsh piano- tuner straight out from under Milk Wood ("I am not fair or rich, but I do have perfect pitch") goes out for a better look and discovers an injured owl. She names it Boppo, and spends enchanted nights with him throughout that brilliant summer.

An Indian hospital doctor on night duty, widowed and bleak, finds companionship in the glowing comet and weeps - for beauty, for his young self. "for all the nameless loss"; an exiled Viennese pastry-cook dreams of the Danube; and, near Santa Fe, Nancy's son David and fellow-members of the Heaven's Gate cult discern a vast spaceship in the wake of Hale-Bopp and resolve to die.

As in a Romantic symphony, these themes were reiterated, juxtaposed, entwined. Claire Grove's production made elegant, understated use of the humming near-silence of summer nights, with some occasional, plangent strings. As the comet fades from the sky, the only conclusion is that all our lives were indelibly marked by that marvellous, mysterious celestial visitation.

And that's not all that was outstanding this week. For the last of the Inside Track series, Sara Parker followed a Pauper's Funeral (R4). The subject of this documentary was Leonard, deceased: the star was Alice Beard, from the London Borough of Hackney. It was the doughty Alice who entered Leonard's reeking flat, fought through the fag-ends and pigeon-feathers that revealed his preoccupations and tried to trace his family. The neighbours were useless: "Never seen 'im with anyone... kept 'isself to 'isself" The doctors were worse: "Afraid I can't give you information about the deceased without his permission". Leonard might have had a wife and two sons, someone suggested. Someone else said that he had never married. In the end, Alice had to give up the search - but then came the elegiac coda.

Though such a funeral is traditionally performed early and described, with a cathartic shudder, as "the nine o'clock trot", poor forgotten Leonard received a full, solemn and completely proper service from a thoughtful and very impressive minister. Saying "Go forth upon your journey Christian soul. Goodbye, Leonard", he pressed the dread button. The crematorium machinery groaned into action. At that moment came the long drum-roll in the "Nimrod" passage from Elgar's Enigma Variations, which had previously been whispering in the background: masterly.

Finally, some quotations from just one edition of Woman's Hour, which has, for 51 years, constantly re-invented itself and remains relevant and informative. If once it was the Woman's Own of the air, it is now a splendid mix of Cosmo, Woman's Journal, Good Food and even Red. This was illustrated on Wednesday by interviews with two women, both successful in their radically different ways. Vanessa Feltz, from daytime TV, and Christina Noble, the Irish slum-child who grew up to find refuges for homeless children.

Vanessa: "You're not going to believe this but I've got a whole room full of clothes.... Who wants diamante in daytime? I do.

"I said, I don't know what furbelows are, but get me some...."

Christina: "...I ran away and lived in the park, in shelters and toilets... I ate candle-grease and leaves....

"A lot of the world is exhausted with the terrible things that have happened to children....

"It is through the heart that I speak, that we negotiate, through the heart that so much is done...."

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