One hundred years of exhilaration

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Indy Lifestyle Online
SUDDENLY, it's the eleventh hour. The millennium approaches, and the BBC is getting in early. On Monday's good-humoured edition of Start the Week (R4), we heard how television is heralding the moment with an enormous, expensive series, starting last Wednesday, about the experiences of "ordinary" people, (see television, previous page). The radio is doing it differently. A little earlier the same evening came the first episode of 20/20: a View of the Century (R4), John Tusa's personal account of our age.

Tusa approaches the subject laterally, using the present participle. The first few programmes include Controlling, Enjoying and Exploring, but he began with Dreaming. In fact, he began with Apollo 8 circling the moon, a cosmic image of the progress we have made since 1900. Who could have imagined space travel then, when scarcely a car disturbed the age- old silence of the largely rural world? Rapidly and with mesmeric eloquence Tusa laid the foundations of his contemporary history. The dreams he would explore were "huge psychic rivers" running through the decades: dreams of progress, of perfectibility, of liberation, in a century in which the wondrous has come to be accepted as commonplace and the innovative as routine.

It was exhilarating. Our knowledge of the facts was taken for granted, but Tusa found new illustrations, gave them new significance. Instead of dear old Tennyson reciting in a downpour, we heard real awe in the voice of Isaac Pitman as he marvelled at the very fact that he could be recorded. We heard the voices of famous people, like Lenin, Gorbachev and Kissinger - two of them specially interviewed for the programme - but we also heard from people who just happened to have been close to heroic figures, like an aide of Gandhi's and a pupil of Freud's. Though very old now, both bore witness to the tremendous excitement still generated by the ideas of those extraordinary men. Properly, the programme ended on an upbeat, with Desmond Tutu, who had counselled patience while we wait to see the whole picture of creation, chuckling confidentially as he told Tusa that freedom is coming, has indeed come in the most unlikely places, that "Beauty and Truth have said 'we are around as well!' " Call me biased if you like, but after hearing that, who needs the telly?

Another R4 series prom-ises well. First Bite is a series promoting young writers new to radio. If they are all as good as Andrew Wallace, we are in for a treat. His short play Burn Your Phone was about a telephone operator working a long shift at the Hastings exchange. We eavesdropped on Andy's headphones as he handled the callers, polite, frustrated, anxious and rude, who wanted everything from reductions in their bills, to sex, to meals on wheels, to an ambulance. Nothing fazed him until he began receiving increasingly horrible death threats. Then he started to flip. "You can French-kiss a mains socket for all I care," he snapped, before he realised that he was enduring a nasty Telecom test of his nerve. In the end, he was restored to his real, gentle character by a hopeless soul who had taken an overdose and couldn't get through to the Samaritans. Beautifully performed by Alan Cumming as Andy, this was a marvellous play, superbly appropriate to its medium.

Which is more than you could say for R2's comically absurd account of The Betty Grable Story. It starred Jerry Hall and was called I Can't Begin to Tell You. She could not. Grable's last big hit was Hello Dolly!, which succeeded in spite of the fact that the star wasn't much good at singing, or at acting, or at dancing. But she had great legs. Perhaps that's why they cast the glamorous Texan, whose accent has been strangely modulated, or moderately strangled, by years of being Mrs Mick Jagger, and who reads her lines with the speed and sensitivity of a Frank Bruno uppercut. The script itself was cornier than a model's bunions and the whole thing was an excuse for playing excerpts from forgotten films - which were, admittedly, hilarious, and featured plenty of noisy tap-dancing, an art not well suited to radio. A daft couplet from one of those old films summed it up: "It's almost hoi polloiable, and yet it's quite enjoyable". Well, quite.