The Week In Radio: A round-the-world trip from Ambridge to Ystad

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The Independent Culture

If you don't like England, you're probably sitting next to Martin Amis on a plane right now, seeking some civilisation more worthy or cerebral than our own. Well, I don't know about that, but I've just spent a week in New York and I can't tell you what joy it is to come back to British radio. Granted, this week has been a little more introspective than usual. Vaughan Williams came in both second and third in Classic FM's Britain's best loved piece of classical music, The Archers and Gardeners' Question Time, those bastions of Middle England, engaged in radio incest, and everyone braced themselves for tomorrow's big one. But as a place to look out at the world, British radio takes some beating.

One utopia often cited by the disgruntled is Sweden, yet in The Swedish Invasion, Danny Robins, a Swedophile, acknowledged that there is now a darker side of Swedish culture, a flipside to Volvo, herring, Abba and Ikea. Until now, the top word association for Sweden has probably been sex. "Somehow from meatballs, it always leads back to sex," sighed one contributor, who suggested that Sweden is often represented by contrasts – "a bizarre combination of a country endlessly making love and when they don't do that, they're committing suicide." Yet the contrast now is between the levelling sense of normality at the heart of national identity and the note of violence that arrived when Olaf Palme was shot dead in 1986. It's probably that which has made Sweden interesting, of course, and allowed the British, with their own empire in long retreat, to identify. In the new Sweden, there is Scandi-crime, hip indie music, unemployment and a huge increase in rape. Henning Mankell noted "the rise of xenophobia, growing heavily and very fast" and racism too. Yet Robins, married to a Swede, believes Sweden remains something of a promised land because "They never seem to lose confidence that they're still doing things better than everybody else."

Over at Radio 3, Berlin was the setting for Kafka the Musical, Murray Gold's drama about a tubercular Franz Kafka appearing in a musical about his own life. This should have been fun, and indeed David Tennant was subtle and amusing as a gauche and hesitant Kafka, urged by his wonderfully overbearing father (played by David Fleeshman) to make something of himself and break out of the short story business. "If you can't sell it, means people don't want it!" In a reworking of The Trial, Kafka finds himself cast in a musical about his own life by a producer he has never met, the mysterious Herr Grossman, and then suspected of his murder. Strange callers come and tell him "your fingerprints are all over his house" and it doesn't help that Kafka finds himself sleeping with Grossman's wife. But as the play wore on, the sensation of being in a bad dream intensified and the counsel of Kafka's dad, "People don't pay money on a Saturday night for dark thoughts!" began to resonate. Was it deliberate, one wondered, that the listener should end up wishing the play less Kafka-esque, or even, failing that, just a bit more of a musical?

And so to Ambridge, where in a Radio 4 hall of mirrors, real-life Gardeners' Question Time came to fictional Archers. This was either a playful mingling of fantasy and reality, or as Amis might prefer, an example of the celebrity-obsessed, self-referential media moving in ever smaller circles to cannibalise itself. Either way, Matthew Wilson got the unlikely task of supplying sexual tension by teaching Lynda to aerate the lawn with "a little wiggle" and Eric Robson acted himself drinking tea with stolid conviction. Despite all that, the Kafka-esque thought arose... when Vicky, Lynda et al listen to themselves later on GQT, will they have listened to The Archers episode beforehand?