Ants, bats and the human zoo

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IT WAS hopeless. To hear John Humphrys attempt to pin down Gerry Adams on Thursday's Today (R4) was like watching someone trying to divert a column of ants with a twig. Adams seemed programmed only to march steadily around every question and return to his well-trodden path. A persuasively cool Humphrys cut off several avenues of rhetorical propaganda and prodded Adams repeatedly to no avail, until he found himself setting the murder of children in city bombings against the shooting of Diarmuid O'Neill. Yet, in theory, neither would commend such self-perpetuating violence: even if you stamp on a dozen ants, there are always more.

A much sillier failure of communication was broadcast in Wednesday's Return to Sender: It's a Bat's Life (R4), in which Auberon Waugh and John Burton exchanged taped letters about bats. Waugh has them in his cellar and hates them. They're filthy, they prevent him gloating over his wine and they scare him. He used to send his children to swat them with tennis rackets, but now the law insists that he mustn't. Burton passionately declared his love of all animals, especially unpopular ones like toads, Polynesian snails and salamanders. From this high green ground, he loftily suggested that Waugh's aversion sprung from a childhood trauma. Not true, came the crisp reply. His earliest experience of bats was enormous fun: when one ventured into his prep school, all lessons ceased while missiles were joyously hurled at the invader.

So they batted on, getting nowhere and, eventually, rudely accusing each other of battiness. Burton erred, however, in suggesting that The Archers had dealt with the problem, humanely. Considering that the Ambridge church bats endured motorbikes, amplified organ music, mothballs and a stuffed owl, it is scarcely surprising that they departed. Tennis rackets seem almost kindly in comparison.

It is just possible that dialogue might lead to progress in the police force. In Can't You Take a Joke? (R4), Janet Cohen presented a horrifying account of the harassment endured by women officers at work. One brave soul laughed, to begin with. She was sent to the morgue to fingerprint a corpse, which sprang to life and proved to be, ho ho, a male colleague; another commanded her to run like hell from the back of a van he had wittily reversed to the edge of a pond. All this she took in good part, but when she joined the CID and was held down at her desk by two policemen while a third obscenely assaulted her, she suffered a sense of humour failure.

Cohen assembled an impressive collection of victims of such vile behaviour who had braved a grievance procedure that sounded nearly as bad as the initial offence. Thanks almost entirely to their courage, attitudes seem slowly to be changing, but not before time and at a terrible cost to the women themselves. The macho mentality of a largely white male force is inappropriate to the often routine community work to which women officers are well suited. We should be grateful that programmes like this might, eventually, help to change attitudes.

Speaking out for another group of people whose voices are often ignored was Cheryl Armitage. Her documentary Calling to Mind (R4) discussed Reminiscence Therapy. It used to be called listening to people. It seems all too obvious that we have a great deal to learn from the elderly, but this programme illustrated the benefits that they can themselves gain simply from remembering. In a care home for dementia sufferers, young therapists were heard encouraging people to recall their family lives, careers or war work, helping them to recover a sense of identity and self-respect.

There are dangers: such stimulus can be upsetting or patronising but, at its best, it is exhilarating. In Blackheath, we heard a group of pensioners putting together a show for public performance, for all the world like a Mike Leigh play. It may have been therapy, but it sounded like fun.

Old Stirling Moss made a programme For the Hell of It (R5), about the land-speed record. Moss drove rather better than he speaks. Journalists are reluctant to complain about verbal infelicity, nervously scanning their own prose for offences, but this was half an hour of, sorry, wall- to-wall cliche. For example: in a country reeling from the ravages of war, Malcolm Campbell gave the perfect boost to national fervour and pride. His son Donald wanted to create a piece of history in the spirit of his "dearly departed" father, because there's a mountain there, and it's just got to be climbed. The very worst sentence in this stylistic slop-bucket began cheerily: "Also losing his life about that time...".

Relentlessly, Moss accelerated: now the scene is set for people to put their lives on the line and smash the record beyond recognition. In other words, another hero/idiot is planning to thunder through Nevada faster than 759mph next month.

Old Brian Matthew did much better with a jaunty history of The Beatles in Scotland (R2), perhaps because he talked to such delightful Scots. One of them shared a stage with the lads in Nairn, just before they became famous. They were tuppical yingsters oot tae enjy themselves, he said, naice byes, wi' tainy umplifiers. Not tainy enough for another old boy, who remembered telling his friend, "I can't see it Andy. They're just too loud".

Will It Be a Likeness? (R3) was quiet and surreal, a hypnotic monologue that became insistent dialogue as John Berger discussed - well, dozens of things with his rapt listener. "Can you hear Goya painting?" he asked. "I've turned off the music because I want you to hear the silence. Is it the silence of a likeness, or of the mountains at night in south-east Mexico, or of you and me listening?" I don't know, but I was. It took my mind off the gibbering terror that a comet is about to destroy all life on Earth, instilled by John Gribbins, our Companion to the Cosmos (R4). Suddenly, even bats seem lovable.

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