IoS radio review: A New Cycle of Mystery Plays, Radio 3, Monday-Friday Grimm Thoughts, Radio 4, Monday-Friday

Morality – and immorality – tales that still sting

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The Independent Culture

There was at least one lesson to be learnt from Radio 3's updating of certain parables. Don't, whatever you do, hire a builder whose brother and ex-wife move in together across the road, distracting him dangerously from the job at hand.

The good advice came in the first of A New Cycle Of Mystery Plays, which found modern settings for biblical tales such as the raising of Lazarus and the Good Samaritan. Monday's was "The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders", in which wise builder Tony turns horribly foolish in the run-up to Christmas when the aforementioned lovebirds become his neighbours from ell.

There's something wrong with the foundations of the house Tony is working on, but with his mind on other things he does nothing. And when his ex-wife turns up and they talk, he realises that he had let things slide there, too – he'd ignored the foundations. For most of the second half, almost every line is about both the house and the failed marriage. It might sound pat and formulaic, but like the others in the series, it was clever and engaging.

As were the first five instalments of Grimm Thoughts, Marina Warner's 10-part exploration of the tales which did so much, as was the Grimm brothers' intention, to crystallise a German cultural identity. Dark and disturbing, they only later acquired the patina of sentimentality which softened them up for Disneyfication. Thursday's episode explored the real-life inspirations for some of the stories, though Warner concluded that, by and large, they dramatise generic human experience rather than specific events, "speaking volumes about a world where hunger and thirst are the lot of the majority and injustice is endemic … people steal and brawl and drink and cheat, and sometimes justice is on the side of the cheats." Sound familiar? The tales speak as clearly to the modern day as they did to the 19th century. "But they also convey messages of resistance, hope of escape."

And as some of the readings showed – "Fitcher's Bird" is like a particularly dark episode of The Killing – Wilhelm Grimm had it right: "They are never merely the shimmering colours of insubstantial fantasy."