The Week on Radio

Reviewed by Robert Hanks
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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE few things that unite us more than poop, as Natalie Wheen remarked, taking in the smells at a sewage farm in The Influence of Effluent (Radio 4, Monday): "It's the same in Calcutta and it's the same in Boston. It reminds you that the human family is all basically up to the same... works."

The pause before the final euphemism gave you some sense of the strain involved in excremental talk: we all do it but we still have to pause and acknowledge the embarrassment every now and then. But it was to Wheen's credit that only once or twice in this programme - the first of three on the subject, which is ambitious - did she show even remote signs of coyness. She is perhaps not the gentlest or warmest personality on radio, but if you were stuck on a lifeboat and suffering acute appendicitis, you'd want somebody as frankly unsqueamish and as unbothered by the niceties as she is at the other end of the broken pen-knife.

Most of this first part of The Influence of Effluent was no-nonsense factual stuff, touching on such topics as why it's brown (waste-products from used red blood cells), the earliest sewage systems (Minoan Crete), the invention of the water-closet (Sir John Harrington, 1594), and the opening of London's sewage system in 1865. It was entirely natural that this last subject dominated the programme: London's drains are by all accounts a mammoth achievement of civil engineering, and a reminder that poop can also be an occasion for patriotic pride.

But alongside the factual stuff, the programme took time to notice that excrement can be horrifying, or simply horrid (at one point in the sewage farm, Wheen took time to exclaim: "That's a bit strong - what have they been eating?"). More dangerously, it admitted dung's strange fascination, through some of Jonathan Swift's extensive writings on the subject: "There is no man that ever was so humble as to observe human ordure, but must confess there is a wonderful variety in all production of this nature...." Altogether, this was an agreeably solid, well-formed programme, and a change from the sloppy stuff Radio 4 has been pushing out lately.

Later the same evening, and also not for sensitive stomachs, came It's Just Like Watching Brazil, Ian McMillan's verse documentary about Barnsley FC's first season in the Premier League. There were some moments of pure, stomach-churning McGonagal in here, with the fans (played by McMillan, Barrie Rutter and Michelle Hardwick) chanting: "And some of us are ancient, And some of us are young,/ And we make the ritual noise from the collective lung." Or the comment made on the opening match of the season against West Ham: "The unthinkable happened and we took the lead./ Oh, this was truly life indeed" - a line that even Rutter's savage enthusiasm was unable to rescue from bathos.

But sentimental and pedestrian though much of the verse was, it fitted its subject. The commonplace emotions of ordinary football fans, inspired by an ordinary team in a run-down Northern town - somehow conspiring to produce a kind of communal ecstasy, a thrill that poetry will never be adequate to capture. McMillan gave some sense of how the workaday can sometimes metamorphose into the indescribable; you couldn't ask for more than that.

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