The Man with Many Names, Radio 4, Tuesday
I've Never Seen Star Wars, Radio 4 Extra, Monday
'I want Flann O'Brien out of here, and I want him out of here today!'
There are many instances of the great and the good living double lives, but it usually involves something unsavoury.
More creditably, there are the part-time writers: Douglas Hurd pens thrillers, for example, and there's that Archer bloke, of course. But Brian O'Nolan, senior civil servant and scribbler of distinction, would probably win any prize going for incongruity in the two halves of the one life.
The Man with Many Names was an appropriate title for the programme celebrating his centenary: Flann O'Brien, Myles na gCopaleen, Brother Barnabas, they were all O'Nolan. (I'll call him O'Brien, as that's how I first made his literary acquaintance, through his utterly unique book At Swim Two Birds.)
Strangely, though it ran the rule efficiently enough over his life, the programme didn't even begin to capture the spirit of O'Brien's writing. Anyone listening not already familiar with his work – by turns surreal, satirical, whimsical, madcap, mordant – wouldn't have been fired up to seek it out. Instead we were given a rather glum account of a life unfulfilled – he effectively drank himself to death at 54, embittered by the rejection, on the grounds of its being too fantastical, of his novel The Third Policeman.
His double life was part of the reason why he adopted so many noms de plume. He was private secretary to three ministers in a row, producing six Irish Times columns for the coming week on a Sunday afternoon, as well as maintaining his vast booze intake. He was quite happy to give his bosses a hard time in print, and finally he produced a column so provocative that the minister he'd slagged off that morning was heard to cry, "I want him out of here – and I want him out of here today!"
The words "national treasure" tend to be overused these days (and often by me). O'Brien certainly makes the grade in Irish terms, and Kathy Burke would be up for consideration to the British pantheon. Her appearance on I've Never Seen Star Wars did nothing to dispel that notion (and made me think how good she'd be with her own show, just playing stuff she likes and chatting to people).
As the title indicates, the show – shunted off for this fourth series to the railway siding, relatively speaking, of Radio 4 Extra – exposes its subject to new experiences, and it always makes for a jolly half-hour. The studio-bound format is slightly frustrating, though: Burke had never been to Harrods, and judging by the account she gave the host, Marcus Brigstocke, it could have been a programme in itself. She clearly had some fun in the pets department, with the full-body grooms and blueberry and vanilla facials for dogs. And she wasn't put off by the general snootiness: at one point, she said, she asked one of the uniformed types hanging around, "Are you called a shop assistant?" He leaned over and said, "No, madam, we're sales associates."
Another thing she'd never done – true to the title – was see Star Wars, and it proved to be a revelation. "The parodies made sense all of a sudden ... I was in a French and Saunders sketch and I had these buns on – that's who I was supposed to be." Go on, you BBC suits – sign her up and let her loose.
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