Ambridge's illegitimate offspring

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Indy Lifestyle Online
On your behalf, gentle reader, I have this week consulted two experts. First, I asked a solicitor to tell me about how a legal practice works. Though he conceded, rather loftily, that some flirtatious frivolity might be going on somewhere beneath his notice, the picture he outlined, of tremendous diligence and fevered competition, was more than a little at variance with the set-up in Legal Affairs, R4's new five-part serial set in a Warwickshire firm.

Helen Shepherd has arrived from London, determined to bring in city ways: to raise profiles and lower thresholds; to introduce computers and ban barter-payments; to discourage office romances and to stop people from mistaking her for the new temp. These are regrettable ambitions. Lang & Stafford, of Stourbury, sounded like the kind of enterprise that could be fun to work for, painless to consult. All kinds of hideous correctness are about to engulf it on Wednesday afternoons, if Helen gets her way.

This idea, we are told, sprang from the interest shown in legal problems by faithful Archers listeners. It's hard to believe. The unspeakably boring, deeply unlamented Ambridge solicitor Mark Rebden was only slightly more tedious than the wretched convict Susan Carter. There are many marvellous things about The Archers, but its entanglement with the law is not one of them. Solicitors, bless their hearts, just don't seem to have the requisite charisma. Still, I shall keep listening, if only in the hope that goody- goody Helen is about to be undermined by her surly teenage children: now that story-line is one of the enduring strengths of Ambridge.

Now let us plunge into the slime, where three naturalists are having a marvellous time up to the hocks in the Exe estuary, examining the smaller inhabitants of The Living World (R4). This is the home of every biology student's favourite creature, the slipper-limpet, or crepidula fornicator. Its English name is, for once, less expressive than the Latin. If you have a very deformed foot, apparently, you could see it as a slipper, but to do so you would have to prise it off a pile of up to 17 mates, for this little creature changes sex throughout its life. It starts as male, goes through a worryingly neuter stage and ultimately achieves its ambition and becomes female, all the time settling on top of something of similar genus but different gender. Wow.

If it gets hungry with all this mating, there's no problem. Each square metre of the foul, stinking, pulsating mud these creatures call home contains as much calorific nutrient as 15 Mars bars. Yummy. Our naturalists were eager to soothe the tender feelings of anyone from Mars who might have been listening, but no self-respecting Martian could believe any of this. And then, we were told that some molluscs emit a golden thread which is spun by Italian peasants into bishops' slippers. This prompted many anxieties, not least about the deformities of the episcopal foot.

But we press on, right into the very origin of life, for Arrows of Desire (R4). Edwin Morgan's poem "The Voyage" describes the journey of a cocky little Scottish sperm (yes, that's right), played with appropriate braggadocio by Bill Paterson, towards union with a vast and gleaming ovum. This latter had the dreamy Welsh voice of Sian Phillips and spoke in dubious rhyming couplets (eg "Now I feel a clear vibration / And I tremble with elation ..."). In fact, as an imaginative characterisation of conception - oh dear, it's hard to produce a single entendre about all this - it was stimulating.

Yet even more enjoyable than Morgan's poem were Patrick Hannah's interwoven fantasies about specific conceptions. There was Leda, remembering her downy swan and remarking on the eggs that subsequently hatched into trying children; there was Lady Chatterley's lover, emigrated to Canada, writing to ask his mother to look after their child, John Thomas, as Connie had left him to open a craft shop in Edinburgh; best of all, there was Jane Eyre, The Sequel.

In this little frolic, Joanna David as Jane lamented Mr Rochester's jealousy of his new-born son. He had lurked threateningly over the cradle in fitful candlelight whereupon Jane had snatched up the child and fled. Mr R, his spurs entangled with sheets and candle, perished in the ensuing fire. Jane took shelter with the clergyman who had twice attended her wedding, and who now watched tenderly over her senseless form. She revived under his ministration and, guess what? Reader, she married him.

Now let us end with an orgy. Leslie Forbes is offering A History of Britain in Six Menus (R4) every Sunday morning. If you haven't heard her yet, don't miss her today. She is a marvellous broadcaster, immensely knowledgeable, lively and fun. Her new series began with a surreal visit to a Roman villa in Gloucestershire where preparations for the orgy included boiling up some rotten and fermented fish to make garum, which was the basic flavouring of all Roman cooking - their monosodium glutamate, you might say.

An orgy, technically, is a secret religious rite, but the definition rapidly spread to include any activity in which other people suspected that you were getting carried away. Into the Forbes orgy strode an irreverent Geordie Ancient Brit, three grown men who dressed as Roman soldiers every weekend and were really too seriously mad to belong in the villa, an epicene Greek shy of revealing his sexual orientation and a latrine expert, whose arcane study left no doubt as to the indigestibility of Roman food.

It sounded foul. Forbes investigated something grey and throbbing, which proved to be pigs' brains and tripe, which was at least an improvement on the sows' udders and breast of turtle dove she'd started with. Perhaps. She set to, with a flourish of Latin. I consulted my second expert of the week as to how to spell it for you: she's doubtful of the grammar, but we settled on Ecce magnitudinem illae mollae peperi, or, look at the size of that pepper-mill.

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