Arts: Robert Hanks' Week in Radio

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IT SEEMS like only yesterday that Colin Wilson was doing the chat- show circuit to publicise his last investigation into the paranormal - as I recall, it was to do with ancient Egyptians building the pyramids through collective mind-power - yet already he's back with a book about UFOs.

Wilson claims that there is overwhelming evidence that people are constantly being abducted by aliens - though he does not think we should be alarmed: these are friendly aliens helping to "midwife" us into our next stage of evolution.

On Wednesday morning he was putting his case to John Humphrys on Today - not that the programme has in any sense gone downmarket, goodness me no - and in the evening he was more in his element, taking calls as James Whale's guest on Talk Radio. The most arresting contribution came from Marjorie, a psychic who had apparently turned down invitations to join the Government, and seen Satan descending to earth during a storm. Whale finally lost patience with her because, he said: "Every time you open your mouth a cliche comes out."

But what was interesting and even touching about this programme was the way callers were ready to be convinced by Wilson: their urge to believe in something extraordinary. The reason I mention this is that I have embarked on a grand intellectual project: I am attempting to reconcile Radio 4 comedies with the reactions of studio audiences - to find some explanation of why they laugh. There has been a lot of material to work with this week, what with the return of Goodness Gracious Me and The Cheese Shop Presents... The Butter Factor, and the debut of The Alan Davies Show (Radio 4, Wednesday).

Let's take Alan Davies. He has grasped one of humour's fundamental rules: the word "pooh" is not funny in itself - having it constantly repeated is. The first episode of this sitcom included several pleasant moments (an impression of an asthmatic dog and a headmaster's answer- phone: "Speak up, don't mumble, after the tone"). But overall it was lazily predictable; one plot-line involved an art-dealer prepared to pay thousands of pounds for paintings by seven-year-olds; elsewhere, Alan's friend Murray won't get in the bath because the theme from Jaws is on the radio - when he decides to take a shower, well, just have a wild stab at what movie theme starts playing.

Yet the audience go crazy. The only thing I can think is that it's the same as Colin Wilson: people need to believe that something extraordinary is going on. They watch Alan Davies and persuade themselves they're seeing a visitor from another star.

But it's just a mess of moonlight and marsh-gas.

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