The Week In Radio: When a week in politics is beyond parody
Thursday 25 February 2010
Faced with the rich tapestry of life at Number 10, with the bullying hotlines and pens stabbed into car upholstery, most people's response is to say, "You couldn't make it up." Which is fair enough, only where does that leave those people whose job is precisely to make it up, the comedians and satirists of the BBC comedy department? Mocking politicians right now should be like shooting fish in a barrel, and in the run-up to the election, it's almost compulsory, yet how easy can it be at a time when real life effortlessly outclasses political satire?
The first hints came in the new slate of comedy shows unveiled last week, which revealed that Rory Bremner has been wooed over to Radio 4 for a series called Rory Bremner's International Satirists. Bremner always delivers, so this series, which takes a look at satire across the world, is a promising start. Our satire rations will be further increased with the transformation of The Now Show into The Vote Now Show, going out three times a week. Before then, however, the comedy season kicked off with something far less political: Sarah Millican's Support Group.
Sarah Millican, who won the Best Newcomer award in Edinburgh in 2008, is a quirky comedian with a sweet Geordie accent and a touch of Mrs Merton about her. Her tours are a sell-out and this show, in which she plays Sarah, a life counsellor and modern-day agony aunt, certainly featured gales of laughter from a lifelike audience. The format revolves around discussing ordinary people's problems, such as "dating outside of your class" or how to cope living alone. One woman explained how she defended herself at night. "I've got a bat, down the side of my bed. A policeman said I could keep it there if it didn't look like a weapon, so I've got a ball there too." To me, this show epitomised the curate's egg that is BBC radio comedy. Some of the observations are witty and acute, such as Millican's technique for assessing whether a man's belly shape means he's a nightmare or a catch. "Front-loaded bellies that look a bit pregnant mean it's the drink, more rounded bellies mean he can cook." But other parts, such as when fictional characters were asked to explain what "posh" people do, were crass, lame and just not intelligent enough for the Radio 4 audience, accustomed to rapier-swift comedy of the calibre of Ed Reardon and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue.
The comedy in Simon Brett's People in Cars, directed by Peter Kavanagh, was also gentle, but Brett is a veteran and knows his audience well. The trilogy started with a man who has just performed a raid on a building society hijacking a car driven by a mother and her teenage son. This implausible set-up worked because Samantha Bond played divorcée Gilly with exactly the right blend of withering sarcasm and simmering anger. "God, you make me furious!" she tells the hijacker. "You burst into my car, burst into my life, threaten my son and then you start ordering me around just like my husband did, just like every other man in my life did!" Very soon, Nigel, the hijacker, realises there is something far more menacing than a replica pistol, and that is a middle-aged mum.
It's a good job the election has not been called yet, because Radio 4 might have had to postpone the broadcast of David Hare's Murder in Samarkand, so searing are its allegations of this government's complicity with the use of torture by foreign regimes. And that would have been a shame because the story of Craig Murray, Britain's ambassador to Uzbekistan, has from the start been the stuff of Hollywood movies. In the meantime, however, Hare has crafted it into a compelling radio play, with David Tennant well cast in the role of the flawed hero, who arrives in Tashkent determined to make a difference. When he witnesses a local trial, in which a defendant claims to have been tortured, he vows to probe further though his deputy advises him not to bother, describing Uzbekistan as "a pathetic little 10th-grade tyranny". All too soon, however, Murray is summoned back to London where his superiors advise him to drop his investigations. The evidence that Uzbekistan is extracting is apparently vital for the war on terror. When Murray argues, "Because we don't ask, that means we're not complicit?" the QC summoned to advise utters a wonderful line. "That word complicit is opaque. There's some doubt about what complicit actually means... in my view, legally we are in the clear." Shades of the Chilcot inquiry were all around. This drama was adapted straight from Murray's memoir, and yet again, listeners were bound to reflect, you couldn't make it up.
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