A little life that helped us deal with death; RADIO

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It's a private pleasure, listening to the radio. Alone in his cell, James Robinson, one of the Bridgewater Three, first heard that he was about to be released from "good old Radio 5 Live": he thought he was hallucinating.

But most of us positively choose to listen alone - when there's nobody around, or awake, to talk to - in the hope of distraction or information, consolation or amusement. Sometimes, what we hear assumes an ineradicable place in the memory: more rarely, it goes straight to the heart.

A recent broadcast had that effect in a big way. Last weekend, in response to unprecedented audience reaction, Lee Hall's Spoonface Steinberg (R4) had its second airing within a month. It starred 10-year-old Becky Simpson as an autistic seven year-old, dying of cancer. Lee Hall spoke on Kaleidoscope (R4) about writing this monologue: he did it in a couple of days, he remembered, just letting it pour unchecked from his imagination. When Becky came to audition she had provided her own punctuation and together they worked on the script.

The result was astonishing: intensely moving but somehow bearable, perhaps because the little girl spoke with an innate calm wisdom which rang true as a tuning-fork. She tells us that she has never been quite right since she was born. Backwards, she says she is, a special child. Thoughtful, logical and grave, she observes her ill-behaved, anxious, doting and helpless parents with a compassionate and steady gaze. She takes comfort from the stories and exempla told her by her doctor, from the affection of Mrs Spud the cleaning-lady and from the music she loves - soaring, searing soprano solos from grand opera. After hearing the play, an old lady phoned the producer, Kate Rowland, and thanked her for allaying her own fear of death.

The first of a series called Messages to Myself (R4) also touched a nerve. It was based on the diary of Eva Marsh, a young Canadian mother whose husband abandoned her when she developed multiple sclerosis. Nothing daunted, she set out to understand and conquer her disease, starting with getting a degree in physics. Her diary, beautifully read by Shelley Thompson, records the various set-backs and triumphs of a long, thoroughly inspiring and remarkably vigorous life.

Diaries make marvellous radio. R4's original Dear Diary was good, but the series became diluted and insipid. The idea behind Messages to Myself is to take little-known, living diarists and confront them with their earlier selves. So far, at least, it is excellent. On Friday the second programme was about Sally Sedgman, who began her first five-year diary in 1956, when she was the plump, bespectacled daughter of a bookie, growing up amongst the crumbling grandeur of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, keeping careful note of how much gin the adults consumed and squirming at the housekeeper's greeting: "Ah, Miss Sally, sure you be powerful fat."

Amongst many other risible adventures, Sedgman described her brief, perilous career as an air hostess with a tiny airline. Her only qualification was half a Red Cross course in bandaging the wrist, but the pilot, flying alarmingly high in an unpressurised plane, would ask her to walk casually up and down and see if people's lips were turning blue. The Sedgman voice is so posh as to be nigh incomprehensible, but she sends herself up with style. She had me hooting with laughter.

Which is more than The Lipman Test (R4) managed. It is as funny as a slipped disc. Maureen Lipman's production team, known as "we" - though you'd bet she's not with them - go to Frinton. "Harwich for the continent," intones Lipman, "Frinton for the incontinent. Oh, please ... ". Well, Maureen, you didn't have to say it, but you were right to heave it out of the old comics' cupboard: poor and exhausted as it is, it was the best - the only - joke in the programme.

"We" interviewed some tennis players who were not particularly young. We tried to stir up some controversy, or bickering at least, about tournaments and partnerships but the players were genial, harmless and, in fact, quite nice. We should have given up and gone to Harwich, or the continent, or anywhere. Instead we stayed there attempting, with dogged persistence, to be risque about balls. Oh please ...

Another disappointment this week was a well-intentioned documentary called Needles of Injustice (R5) which looked at the unfair treatment often given to diabetics. The trouble was that, in its determination to insist that well-managed diabetes need not interfere with a normal active life, it completely ignored the physical difficulties of living with this insidious and often very nasty condition.

And it was a week of highly original plays. First, A House by the Sea (R4) took the listener into at least three time-zones and many layers of narrative. It starred actors acting as actors rehearsing the first production of The Seagull, while flashing forwards to the death of Chekhov and backwards to a wistful old romance. Even trying really hard, it wasn't easy to distinguish between all that and the fiction audibly and continuously spun by the great author out of everything that happened to him.

Secondly, David Constantine's Emma Hamilton and the Elephant Man (R3) was a poetic fantasy in which Nelson's mistress, the loveliest woman in the world, encounters Joseph Merrick, the most hideous man. They could, in fact, never have met, but there were valid, if tortuous, parallels in their lives. Each was blessed, or cursed, with extraordinary looks which were exploited by others; each was adopted by a protector; each died in sadly diminished - if physically grotesque - circumstances (Emma really was powerful fat). In some peaceful Valhalla they exchange stories, while a musical trio entwines their themes together: for Emma, it is "Che faro", for Merrick "Who Were You With Last Night?". I know the whole idea seems completely batty, but, amazingly enough, it was marvellous.

Finally, Tally's Blood (R4) was a full-blown family saga about two generations of Italian-Glaswegians who run an ice-cream parlour (the title means raspberry sauce, by the way). The accents were adventurous, the story preposterous, the acting florid and the ending impossibly romantic. I loved it.