New Labour, dodgy old records

RADIO

You have to admire Tony Blair's tolerance. He can happily imagine contemplating his sandy toes while relishing the least distinguished collection of Desert Island Discs (R4) since Otto Preminger picked all his own film themes. Most politicians choose a wily mix of the impressively highbrow and the matily populist, with a rousing blast of "Land of Hope and Glory", or something similar, to illustrate their optimistic patriotism. Not Tony. He was definitely not trying to impress, unless with his honesty: he must really like the idea of listening to this stuff. It's curiously soothing to picture him under the palm tree, humming along, wallowing in Ivanhoe's romantic pursuit of the lovely Rowena, and picking out little tunes on his guitar the while.

Though Sue Lawley was gentler with him than she had been with Gordon Brown, she is a terrier when she suspects disingenuousness, as she showed when innocently inquiring why he felt that he needed to share the story of his father's stroke with the entire Labour Party Conference. On the whole, he handled her tougher questions with aplomb. Asked whether he'd be rescued, he replied with alacrity that he would expect the National Executive of the Labour Party to pass a resolution by 20 votes to five asking him to return. He was frank and, frankly, charming, but, oh, what music ... "Throw down your gun, you might shoot yourself," roared one of his heroes. "If I could have sung like that," sighed Tony, "I would probably have stuck with being a rock musician." That's one of the great Ifs of history.

These programmes can be revealing, given the right interviewer. In the same broad genre, Bob Monkhouse chose his Personal Records (R4) in the company of a fawning Jeremy Nicholas, grateful for having been allowed into his "lovely home". I longed for a Lawley to pick up his remarks and really talk to him, but Nicholas is not the man to engage in anything controversial. Monkhouse's grandfather died when he was eight, he said, and so shocked was he that he didn't speak for several months. Nicholas wasn't listening. He just asked him why he wanted to make people laugh. In the end, all we learnt was that Monkhouse has a realistic view of his own ability to irritate, a tantalisingly unconventional past and a large collection of records.

Lawley has famous or infamous guests; Nicholas has showbiz types; Michael Berkeley has music-lovers. His is often the best such conversation of the week, and so it was with Eleanor Bron, when she revealed her Private Passions (R3) yesterday. The banter between these two came close to flirtation, and she chose some marvellous things, particularly Bartok's splendid, threatening music for Bluebeard's Castle, which is, she said, generously spiked with squeaky bits that grate on your nerves. It would be better known, apparently, if it were longer. Why didn't Berkeley himself compose a companion piece for it, inquired the flattering Bron, in her irresistibly mellow voice. He positively purred.

Her next choice was Chopin. The pianist was Pollini because, they agreed, such emotional music should be played lightly, not imposed upon: give the composer the means and let him work his magic. It is, apparently, the same with acting: an audience is less moved by a sobbing actress than by one who is trying not to weep.

So here we are again with drama, which often makes the very best radio. This week saw three highly original plays, two set in America and one in France. Carey Harrison's A Walk in the Bois de Boulogne (WS) told the story of a young novelist whose book about his parents' deaths had been taken up by a Great Actor who wished to film it and invited the boy to Paris in 1968 to work on the script. A sinuous plot led the listener into a thicket of lust and betrayal, set against a background of student riots. It positively reeked of youth, rebellion and despair.

Aileen La Tourette's play was about the mysterious, lonely death of Edgar Allen Poe. Its title was a line from Poe's poem "Annabel Lee", My Darling, My Darling, My Life and My Bride (R4). For decades, it was assumed that Poe was an alcoholic, but later research suggested that he died of diabetes, a condition not then identified. The most recent, and less convincing theory is that he had rabies, and judging from repeated reference to the waters of Chesapeake Bay being full of snapping teeth - hydrophobia being associated with rabies - this is also La Tour-ette's conclusion.

Be that as it may, the play stayed true to such facts as are known and embroidered a febrile, hallucinogenic fantasy of dream and nightmare to fill in the missing hours. James Aubrey was desperately touching as the dying poet; the only false note was struck by the hysterical parody of a nurse with whom he spent his last moments.

In 1861, 12 years after Poe was buried in Baltimore, Harriet Jacobs wrote her autobiography. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (R4) was based on it, the first slave narrative written by a woman. Orphaned, flogged, branded, sexually abused, sold down the river to work on plantations, hunted with dogs and guns, the heroine (superbly played by Cecilia Noble) eventually made her escape from Mississippi via New York to Boston, where a kindly woman offered to buy her and her daughter into freedom. Proudly she refused, declaring that as long as she could say no she was free already. Listening to this grim, ultimately triumphant account was an instructive, tense and sobering experience.

Another defiant character was spotlit in Sarah Dunant's glittering gallery of Sensational Women (R4). Lady Caroline Lamb was an androgynous beauty whose unconventional antics and gorgeous cloths delighted the public. Granddaughter of Earl Spencer, high-society wife, darling of the tabloids, she had more than a little in common with her ex-royal descendant, but she is remembered only as the vengeful mistress of Byron. Dunant and Michele Roberts discussed Glenarvon, her vast Gothic handbag of a novel, which revealed the cruel details of Byron's treachery - and damned its author. She took to drink and died at 42, disowned by her haughty in-laws. These days, she'd be top of Sue Lawley's list.

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