To Paul and Mrs Merton: a son

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The Independent Culture
HE HAS the phoniest voice in broadcasting, according to Time Out, which is no small achievement when you hear the competition. But listening to Ray Gosling interviewing Trevor McDonald in Charismatics (R4) or poking his nose round a stately Irish home in High Windows (R4), you realise that thanks to Dame Edna Everage, Steve Coogan and Mrs Merton, the use of the phoney voice has become the interviewer's most dangerous weapon. Its ambivalence flatters the interviewee, who thinks he's being nice, and flatters the listener, who knows he's being mean.

Charismatics is a series of six 20-minute interviews in which Gosling has asked three journalists, two politicians and one businessman to pick someone charismatic (the last one, with Barbara Castle, is tomorrow). The concept of "charisma" slips uneasily between hero-worship, moral guidance and friendship, but the idea allows the guests to get on and talk about themselves under the impression they are talking about someone else. Trevor McDonald naturally chose the cool, unflurried, well-dressed Nelson Mandela.

On TV you can use reaction shots (raised eyebrow, blank face, mock seriousness) to show your amazement; in print you can use quotation marks to create distance; but on the radio Gosling has developed his own brand of cutaway. He pauses, then says, often very slowly, "right", "yes", "no", "ah" or "oh". Sometimes, when he's being truly bathetic, he comes out with a triple "yes . . . yes . . . yes". He might be studying the small print on his tax return. What he's doing is stealing anti-climactic tricks from Paul Merton.

Attention all shipping, the beeps before the news, Brian Perkins's voice - these are aspects of R4, like the masthead at the top of a newspaper, which gain from remaining unchanged. Others don't: the short talk and the one-hour play, to take two examples from this week. The Gallery of Perfection is a new series of talks in which the art critic Waldemar Januszczak considers the five most important paintings in the world. This week it was the Sistine Chapel. Paintings ought to be a good subject for radio because the cliche about the medium is that it deals in pictures. But here we had a short essay tricked out with a bit of wildtrack, an actor reading some Vasari, some church music and a clip from a film (The Agony and the Ecstasy). The approach seemed older than the frescos. Januszczak mentioned, as an aside, that when he was lucky enough to go up the scaffolding he couldn't resist touching the ceiling. The curator hadn't seen him do it. Neither had the listener.

Radio Times said that An Intimate Tragedy was "the first play by R4's drama department on the war in former Yugoslavia". Fortunately the play wasn't by R4's drama department, it was by Jasmin Dizdar and Hilary Dunn. But setting a play in former Yugoslavia doesn't make it any more worthwhile than setting it, say, in R4's drama department. The best scenes were the fraught phone calls between Balham and Bosnia (scenes that could only work this well on radio). Otherwise there was the uneasy feeling that had, in fact, a play of this quality been set in R4's drama department - too many characters, locations and storylines, barely sketched in - it would still be idling on the slush-pile.

You couldn't get much closer to voyeurism than Must Confess (R4, repeated tonight) where a New York installation artist, "Mr Apology", set up a phone line for people who wanted to ring in with confessions. The message told callers not to leave their name as the tapes would be used publicly. Unlike An Intimate Tragedy, this factual programme was full of bizarre detail, and an alarming story developed plausibly out of an existing situation. A man rang in saying he had murdered his nagging mother. He rang in again to say another woman was getting on his nerves. He rang a further time to say he wanted to meet Mr Apology in a bar. Just to talk. Mr Apology was faced with a nice dilemma for a radio play.

Sue Gaisford is on holiday.