The Week In Radio: Tragicomedy where nothing's lost in translation

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The Independent Culture

Some years ago, when I hosted a Radio 4 programme that went out on Sunday evening, there was a bit of brain-storming over the appropriate mood. Sunday evening, according to focus group analysis, had a particular feel to it and it was important to strike the right note. Not fun, but not funereal. Weighty, not wrist-slitting. Solemn, not suicidal. Perhaps it was true then, but it's all gone by the board now. Sunday nights – especially with Downton Abbey competing on the TV – are all about having a laugh.

Take Radio 3's Sunday evening offering, The Comic Illusion, a 1636 play by Corneille, triumphantly adapted for radio by Ranjit Bolt and directed by Peter Kavanagh with almost breakneck brio. The story involves Pridamant, played by Paul Moriaty, searching for his errant son, Clindor, and the latter's tangled love affair with Isabella, wonderfully played by Hattie Morahan. The plot is totally convoluted and hops around like a sack of cats, but what made it work – and helped radio audiences keep track – is Bolt's extraordinary comic genius. Bolt, one of our foremost adapters both of classical and French plays, has a feather-light touch for creating a tripping, conversational idiom that doesn't date and sweeps the action along. "You're in the mother of cold sweats/ Your knees are going like castanets!" says one character. When Clindor, played by Michael Maloney, thinks he's going to hang, he laments the approach of "Death/ Which is no picnic after all/ Its charms are few and quickly pall." Corneille's wit about his own profession is especially hilarious in the age of celebrity. When it is revealed that the whole story has been a play within a play and Clindor has become an actor, his father is appalled. "An actor? It's beyond belief!/ Why not a murderer or a thief?"

Another programme dedicated to staving off Sunday's Stygian gloom is John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme, billed as "Radio 4's new Sunday comedy slot to cheer us all up as the autumnal nights draw in". I wish. The debut show was funny, but this week's impenetrable Second World War sketches, including a running gag about trying to establish "cat nav" instead of radar, was just bizarre. As usual on Radio 4, one thing that did work was self-referential humour, hence the explanatory trail for "people who don't really listen to The Archers but know sometimes it's on". "A new arrival at the Bull doesn't mean a baby, it just means someone's come in".

If Sundays are supposed to be fun though, what are Mondays? Serious and sober, perhaps? The Afternoon Play, Henry's Demons, an adaptation of the heart-rending account by The Independent's Patrick Cockburn of his son Henry's mental illness, proved a gripping piece of radio. As in the book, its strength lay in the intercut contributions of Patrick, Henry and his mother, Jan. Henry's were visceral, eyewitness accounts from the foreign land that is schizophrenia. "I saw a golden Buddha in the sky and started to want to stare death in the face," he explained. He had Blakean visions where "the brambles, trees and animals urged me on" and once in the mental hospital, "I walked round the table thinking my shoes were talking to me". Jan, played by Joanna David, focused on the sheer day-to-day anxiety of having a schizophrenic son. During a period when Henry went missing, her other son happened to be studying Catullus's elegy for his dead brother at school. "I silently shuddered," she comments, eloquently. Patrick himself responded by tracing the "genetic gunpowder trail" of his ancestors, including Evelyn Waugh who portrayed paranoia in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, for any clues to Henry's condition. It's rare to get such a glimpse into a family torn apart by mental illness and this felt like very privileged access.