The Week in Radio: When the art of darkness is the stuff of fantasy

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The Independent Culture

Everyone, it seems, is obsessed with sleep nowadays. You can't move for competitive insomniacs who discuss how they spend the night hours obsessing about global meltdown or the future of the Labour Party. And each insomniac has different theories on how to get through it. I think about gardening in intense, boring detail, but according to The Darkest Hour, Radio 3's collection of essays on sleeplessness appropriately scheduled at 22.45pm, we should just lie back and enjoy it.

As a child, Margaret Drabble, lifelong insomniac, whiled away the night with an invented family of children with a pony. "My harmless little fantasies would ramble on like The Archers," she said, but her mother, the Gina Ford of her day, used to disrupt this soothing routine by yelling "Shut up and go to sleep!" As a tough-love tactic this turned out to be useful because even now Drabble uses her mother's cry "as a mantra to frighten myself into insensibility". And gradually she learned to embrace the night hours. "If one thinks of insomnia as an illness it will become one. If one regards it with interest and respect it is far less distressing." To be honest, this sounds wildly optimistic to anyone who is holding up their eyelids with matchsticks, but according to John Sutherland, sleeplessness has inspired great fiction. "Much of our literature smells of the lamp," he claimed. Dickens, for example, was "the laureate of insomnia", so sleep-crazed that he carried a pocket compass to ensure his headboard faced due north, and would situate himself centrally with arms in crucifixion pose for absolute equidistance. He also used his insomnia artistically – so dreading the scene in which Bleak House's crossing sweeper Jo was to be dispatched that he waited until a sleepless night, rose before five, and wrote the heart-wrenching scene in "a paroxysm of insomniac energy".

One genius who sounds as though he has never lost a night's sleep in his life is Paul McCartney, whose interview with Classic FM's Anne-Marie Minhall about his new ballet, Ocean's Kingdom was full of genial insights into his laidback brand of creativity. When crafting the story for his ballet, he was a little stumped for characters so he went out and bought some baby-naming books. "Some of my friends were a little worried. What's he doing now?" he joked. But however the reviews turn out, they're not going to keep him awake at night. "I've been criticised so many times," he shrugged. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was panned by The New York Times, so I'm not worried."

It was the comic genius of Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci that was celebrated in six programmes on Radio 4 Extra commemorating the 20th anniversary of On the Hour, one of the sharpest comedies to satirise our love affair with the news media. I can hardly believe it's two decades since we heard Steve Coogan in his first incarnation as Alan Partridge and Chris Morris uttering surreal headlines with Paxmanesque urgency. "Cream is good for you if you're left-handed, according to a survey in 'Which Survey' magazine!" But the big surprise, especially given the gnat's attention span of the broadcast media, was how nothing had really dated. All the pomposities and absurdities were recognisable. Then, as now, there is much pleasure to be had from regional programme running orders. "Hopping lessons for Tim the amputee badger, and later, how news of the 17,000-megaton warhead that blew up France affects plans for a cycle path in Tarrogate city centre!"

It may be, in the age of social media and fragmenting news sources that our love affair with news will diminish. Our information addiction will perhaps, decline. So far, thankfully, there's no sign of it, but will future comedians ever tackle it so brilliantly?

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