The Week in Radio: Beauty queens save face in a skin-deep study

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The Independent Culture

We're all getting older of course, but there are some pockets of space/time where the ageing process has speeded up and Radio 4 is one of them.

The proportion of its audience aged over 55 has increased to 62 per cent and consequently the network is keen to attract more of the slightly less crumbly 35-to-54-year-olds. Earlier this year, the BBC Trust recommended enticing this "replenisher" audience with more of the comedies and documentaries they like. Hence, After I Was Gorgeous, which tackled the vital question of what it's like to get older, though not necessarily wiser.

Some of the beautiful women rounded up by Deborah Bull, former Royal Ballet dancer, were perfectly sensible about it. "I remember lying in bed and looking at my arm and seeing I had not young skin any more," said Tania Mallet, the Goldfinger actress. "It was comforting. You could relax more." Jean Shrimpton was even cooler. "At 26 I was finished in many ways," she said insouciantly, but then she had never liked the way she looked. "I was a bit vacant looking. I was more interested in animals."

But such pearls of wisdom were thin on the ground and although Bull set out to find out "why we value beauty so highly in our society", her interviews with experts on facial symmetry and gender studies stuck to the brow-slappingly obvious, with truisms like "when really important attributes, which define our concept of who we are leave us, that gives a terrible sense of insecurity".

Attitudes to ageing are a fundamental issue for our society and while this was a welcome start, you yearned for something more than skin- deep, though the similes women used about themselves were devastatingly telling. Annabel Giles defended her brow lift on the basis that, "I didn't want to look like a shar pei, I wanted to look more pug." And if comparing yourself to dogs wasn't enough, the reconditioned Angie Best's analogy was downright depressing. "Just like any car has to look good when it comes onto the front line, so have you."

Elsewhere on Radio 4, there are suggestions that the 64-year-old Gardeners' Question Time is making increasingly embarrassing attempts to attract attention to itself. Stefan Buczacki, who pops up like a prickly perennial to criticise the programme he used to chair, claims the show has become "a pathetic shadow of its former self" making a tragic play for showbiz by visiting wacky venues including Tube stations and nudist colonies and recently, the fictional village of Ambridge. I think he has a point. The independent producers, Somethin' Else, appear to have upped the banter quotient between panellists, possibly in the hope that giggling and double entendre will raise a frisson of sexual chemistry, but I find it horribly distracting when I'm trying to concentrate on leaf mildew. Each time a questioner stands up, you pray they're not holding a phallic vegetable. The producers should take heed from the fact that they had to cancel a nationwide tour due to lack of interest and settle for authority without celebrity. Last week's "postbag" edition without a live audience allowed us to luxuriate on the endlessly fascinating issues of "can lilies explode?" (No, but sometimes eggs in chicken compost do), when to dig in compost, bleeding grapes, and taking cuttings. The plants, it's worth remembering, are the stars of this show.

Star of the week, though, was the magnificent Life and Fate. The gamble of filling every drama slot on the network with Vasily Grossman's epic paid off fabulously, mainly because it has been fashioned into individual dramas of enormous power. Much credit is due to the adapters, but credit too to the network, for having the confidence to know we would like it and the ambition to pull it off.

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