He's sorry, he hasn't a clue

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Indy Lifestyle Online
OK EVERYONE, quiet please. Yes, you've had lovely holidays but it's time to knuckle down again and start dusting off the grey matter. Here's your first question: how might O Winter be confused with a deputy minister of high nuisance-value and a cerebrally-challenged balloonist? Oh John Julius, come along, don't be dense, a bear of little brain. Have your months on Classic FM blown your mind? Do you really need more clues?

Yes, the new season of Round Britain Quiz has opened; we are back on that island of self-indulgent academic mayhem, as Gordon Clough put it, in the sea of high moral purpose which is Radio 4. You love it or you hate it, probably depending on whether or not you can happily while away half an hour on a crossword, but you have to admit it's unique, a national - even an ancient - monument. The chastened Lord Norwich remarked that, if laid end to end, the panel's ages would reach back to before the French Revolution: they haven't forgotten much in between. Where else but in their company could you learn, in passing, that the man who designed fridges, refused the presidency of the state of Israel, described himself as an artist's model and was once offered a guaranteed three-week booking at the Palladium was none other than Albert Einstein?

Probably only on the World Service, whose programmes so frequently instruct as well as delight. Gordon Stewart certainly does both in his new series The Great Lovers, a chronological history of musicians in love. It started in the pearly dawn of romance, as it first broke over five great composers. These lovelorn baby grands were smitten in their boyhood with huge passions, whose intensity can still be heard in their music. Fittingly, we began with Berlioz, the supremely romantic Romantic, yearning for his Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, who was to bring him joy and despair, and whose eternal legacy is the glorious Symphonie Fantastique. Passing swiftly over the adulterous pranks of Bellini and the shoddy vacillations of Brahms, we reached the sad story of Dvorak, who married the sister of his first true love. Thirty years later, when she was dying, he rewrote the ending of his cello concerto for her: once you know that, it sounds almost unbearably poignant. Last came the boy Mendelssohn, newly fallen in love with his Cecile, whom he ultimately married, to the great happiness of them both. "And here are the two of them," sighed Stewart, himself clearly affected by all this ardour, "forever intertwined in a duet." Cue violins.

High emotions were evoked by enduring love in A Picture of Helen (R4). Helen was a baby given up for adoption by her teenage mother: the picture of her at three months was all that stayed with her mother, who never gave up hope of seeing the child again. So anguished was she that she wrote a play about her experience and, on the play's first night, Helen turned up. This true story was a real tear-jerker. Mother and child recounted the years between and their joy in the reunion. The only niggling worry concerned the absence of Helen's adoptive parents. Anyone who heard a recent harrowing edition of Michael O'Donnell's Relative Values (R4) will have realised that they were unlikely to have been moved in quite the same way.

The First Bite season of work by new young authors continues to excel. This week saw The Seduction and Demise of Joseph Loughran (R4), Pearse Elliott's extraordinarily effective play about the way in which paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland have destroyed the lives of their adherents. "The Troubles spawned them, the shebeens reared them - them and their fractured minds and razor-blade tongues." And the Troubles murdered them, and their children. Directed by the brilliant Pam Brighton and narrated with bitter compassion by Des McAleer, it left you feeling sadder and a little wiser.

The week's frivolity was provided by Radio 3, the unlikely venue for a silly series about old musical comedy. The Land Where the Good Songs Go had Mark Steyn and John McGlinn raving ecstatically about long-forgotten numbers from shows by Jerome Kern and P G Wodehouse. They were fun, and unashamedly dotty, but even McGlinn seemed reluctant to admit that he had once hailed Kern as a better songwriter than Schubert. Ironically, the next number to be performed after that snippet of chat began with a direct quote from Beethoven, an irony that would not have been wasted on the R3 audience, if they were still paying attention. Look out for this appearing in a future bout of Round Britain Quiz. Oh, and in case you're still worrying about that first question, here's another clue. It's Winnie. Anybody still bewildered could try sending a stamped addressed envelope to John Julius. He didn't get it either.