The week in radio: The ugly sisters struggle with sciatica

Tune in for a better kind of joke, fewer repeats, and archives that span the best part of the 20th century
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In last Sunday's Letter From America (R4, WS) Alistair Cooke said that Washington was "in a state of political and moral turmoil, the like of which I have not seen in the 61 years I have been watching it". Certainly, the astonishing collision between high-tech war and presidential impeachment has a bathos all its own, but Cooke's problem in reporting it was familiar. Years ago, when the possibility of Nixon's resignation loomed large, Cooke had to write his Letter still uncertain of the outcome. He hit on a clever let-out, ending his talk with the words: "and the rest, you know". He did much the same over this one. In perilous times, the radio regains its original purpose as the most immediate form of news-reporting and Cooke, recording his talk on a Thursday, is wary of the danger of being wrong-footed by events occurring after he's gone to press.

It is comforting to fall back on the distraction of traditional rituals, produced, like a flaming pudding, to brighten dark days. Radio gets as excited as a six-year-old about Christmas, preparing for it well in advance and sprinkling the festivities with glitter. The R4 pantomime is a particularly esoteric delight, this year recorded in front of a boisterous audience and broadcast twice on Christmas Day.

Stewart Permutt's Cinderella and her Very Ugly Sisters was full of in- jokes. The Cantate Youth Choir chorused "dumbing, dumbing-down" to the Archers' theme tune, an ugly sister threatened to lock someone in a darkened room with only You and Yours to listen to (grisly fate), and Arthur Smith as Buttons produced a series of plodding jokes in arcane rhyming slang. For example, "I'm all Melvyned out - Melvyn Bragg: shag." Other gags played on the imperfections of broadcasting: "Buttons, you're a brick." "But I thought you'd be pleased!" Patricia Hodge made a very posh fairy godmother, Angus Deayton an entirely deadpan Dandini, John Bird an exhausted Baron Hardup, and Maureen Lipman his adenoidal, domineering wife. But the real stars were Robbie Coltrane and Peter Capaldi as Thelma and Louise, stand- ins for the two Spice Girls on maternity leave and impressively, audibly ugly. Many of their lines depended heavily on their being not long out of Glasgow: when trying to squeeze into the glass slipper, for example, Thelma defines her problem as "sciatica feet". Louise: "Sciatica feet? There's no such thing!" Thelma: "There is so! See, this shoe's a size five: sciatica six." Boom-boom.

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (R4, R3, BBC2) hit a couple of impressive anniversaries this week. It has been going since the end of the Great War, and the BBC have been broadcasting it since 1928. Possibly emboldened by such an impressive, long-service record, it tiptoed outside convention this year by introducing a new commission from Giles Swayne featuring a flute (until now, no instrument other than the organ has ever been heard during this rigidly traditional service). And on Tuesday, Classic FM, the newcomer, broadcast its own Christmas Carols from Westminster Abbey, performed in aid of Music Therapy - a thoroughly appropriate charity. After a slightly hesitant start, the Abbey choir rose magnificently to the occasion. You could wish that they hadn't invited their huge audience to join in that smug carol about merry gentlemen, whose tune is boring and whose sentiment suspect, but that's only a tiny quibble. When the children were left alone to sing, they were downright heavenly.

One of their most charming numbers was the original version of Gruber's Stille Nacht, a lilting country-dance arrangement, sprinkled with grace- notes, and tinkling like an Alpine music-box. But the most sublime moment in this concert came during a flawless performance of Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, when Aline Brewer played the harp "Interlude" with an extraordinary quiet intensity, bordering on reverence. It was as close to silence as music can get, contemplative and utterly ravishing.

Simon Fanshawe plundered the archives to take A Christmas Gander (R4) at past Christmas coverage. He found an enchanting, solemn child from Northumberland opining that children get their own way too much "when we should be praising God. What are we going to be like as adults?" she asked. As this was recorded in 1961, she's presumably in her forties now. She was a lot nicer than wee Jimmy Osmond, recorded long ago in Utah. As Fanshawe remarked, you could melt him down to make a saccharin-based sauce.

This programme was full of goodies. There was a pinch of the Goons, a sugary spoonful of a teenage Cilla Black and a syrupy dollop of Bing Crosby. By contrast, Admiral Sir Edward Evans remembered being with Captain Scott for Christmas in 1911, ten thousand feet above the frozen sea in a tiny tent on the vast and inhospitable plateau that surrounds the South Pole. They tucked in to "pemmican with pieces of pony-meat, chocolate-and-biscuit ragout and two tiny Christmas puddings, wrapped up in a pair of old socks." Then, against the melancholy background of the Tristesse Etude, a Strangeways prisoner read a touchingly bad poem, and Max Bygraves smiled upon a poor benighted patient in hospital. Again, Fanshawe's comment was apt: "I've got a thing in my wallet that says in the event of an accident, please can I not be visited by Max Bygraves."

But the two most moving episodes had an unexpected resonance. One described people queuing in the snow, in 1963, to try to cross the Berlin Wall for a glimpse of their families. The other, which was almost unbearable, linked a sick Ukranian widow (described, unbelievably, as a "peasant") lying in a displaced-persons hospital, with her two sons who had been adopted by a family in Baltimore. It was 1951, and the broadcast must have been a technical coup, but you couldn't fail to weep, to hear their young voices speaking careful, broken English and her distraught, incomprehensible response. Oh, the pity of war.