Robert Hanks: 'Asking Bill Nighy to be louche is to ask a snake to hiss'

The Week in Radio

I'm trying to find a good excuse for writing about
Dead Side of the Mic (Radio 4, Wednesday) – there ought to be something I can say about it that is topical or profound. The dull truth is simply that I enjoy these radio dramatisations of Simon Brett's Charles Paris mysteries so much – in terms of reliable, uncomplicated pleasure – they are up there with the mid-morning coffee and biscuits. And unlike other pleasures, you can combine all those without having to worry about religious prohibitions or messing up the upholstery.

When I say I enjoy these programmes, what I mean is that I enjoy hearing Bill Nighy in the title role, playing a dissolute jobbing actor with a knack for being on the sidelines when a murder is committed. Nighy is an actor of extreme intelligence and delicacy – one of my favourite moments in recent films came in the otherwise depressing 'Notes on a Scandal' when, as Cate Blanchett's betrayed older husband, he welcomed her back to the family home: with a nod and a shift of the shoulders he expressed more about love, forgiveness and wariness than you could compress into a whole page of dialogue. But occasion doesn't demand it that often: here, all he is asked to do is be louche, charming and funny, which is like asking a snake to hiss.

He makes it sound so natural that you could easily not notice the cleverness of Jeremy Front's scripts and Sally Avens' production. The major change to Simon Brett's original novels is that staid Paris has been turned into an ageing rocker, creating the perfect excuse for a soundtrack larded with Jimi Hendrix riffs. There are other nips and tucks, some of them necessary to make sense of 30-year-old story-lines: 'The Dead Side of the Mic' is set behind the scenes in BBC Radio Drama, and the murder is committed with the razor blades that they used to use for editing, back in the pre-digital days. There are also topical references to Roger Bolton, Charles has a sexual fantasy about being trapped on a desert island with Kirsty Young and Charlotte Green, and a major character has a CV oddly reminiscent of Jonathan Ross. It's at this point that the pleasure gets more complicated: as the Radio 4 in-joke-based comedy show 'Listen Against' proved in its second series, the Radio 4 in-joke is never far from being too much of a good thing.

Just to show how difficult the louche, ageing charm is to bring off, Thursday's Night Waves (Radio 3) was given over to a lecture by Tony Benn at last month's Free Thinking festival in Liverpool – 45 minutes of curiously bland tendentiousness, with not a single surprising or even interesting sentiment expressed (he's against war, for democracy). The best moment came when, after one of Benn's diatribes about what "They" are trying to do to us all, Susan Hitch, in the chair, tried to pin him down on the question of who "They" are; but he evaded. At several points, Benn complained about BBC bias – he reckoned that the BBC should be making all political arguments available (what all? Even the extremists and the utterly fat-headed?). Then I tried to imagine a senior Tory politician being given this much air-time on Radio 3. Did not compute.

The most impressive non sequitur of the week came on Desert Island Discs (Radio 4, Sunday), when Kirsty Young, talking to the film producer Michael Deeley about his time in the army, asked how he felt when a fellow soldier was shot while standing next to him. Young said it was the most exhilarating moment of his life, realising that it was someone else, not him, who was dead. Then she asked for his next record and he chose the "Pie Jesu" from Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Requiem', because of its spiritual qualities.

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