Princesses and pigeons, birds of a feather

THE CRITICS

IT may begin in a small, fairly harmless way, but the trouble is that it becomes obsessive. No, no, dear reader, not bulimia, just read a bit more. What starts with a little discreet billing and cooing can rapidly develop into something steamier. A higher authority must intervene before courtship goes too far. The moment comes when separation is in everyone's interests. He must be sent away from her so that he can get on with fulfilling the destiny to which he has been born, bred and expensively educated. No, really, this is not another column offering advice to an unhappy couple. It's about pigeons.

Is that a relief? Are you still with me? Right then, here is some astonishing information. Racing pigeons have very low-pitched hearing. When the amorous cock is released from his basket, in some distant railway station, he is guided by the sounds of the sea. Even in north London, he can hear the Channel, keeping him on track for home, where his hen is waiting in eager anticipation for her night of treading - yes, that's what it's called, honestly.

Except that north London is not where he's likely to feather his nest. The expert on last week's Midweek (R4), who produced this arcane stuff, only prepared us for the real thing. On Wednesday Jennifer Holden, sounding as innocent and ingenuous as Princess D - sorry, as can be - went to Redditch to beard This Happy Breed (R4) of fanciers in their lofts, wherein no woman ever sets foot. Here Eric and Derek, tough-talking tattooed pigeon- men, opened their hearts to her. One of them even invited her to feel his hen's very secret places, to prove that she was indeed in egg - the pigeon, that is. A wife grimly remarked that if she'd had feathers she'd get more attention, but then wives often feel like that. Actually, there's a Royal Loft at Sandringham.

Not far from Redditch another drama was going on. Alex Jones's play Lightbulbs (R4) was ridiculous. Spooky supernatural stories need some logic to keep you half-believing. Set in the Black Country, this one presented a ghost- baby which returned to life then faded out and back like a light bulb on the blink. When dead Aunty Dot reappeared in the garden shed and we were asked to credit zombies in Tesco's, well, pshaw. Anyway, in our house light bulbs just go pop.

Lighten Our Darkness (WS) was more fun. Roger Fenby clearly had a lovely time watching the sunrise in the thin clear air of the Austrian Alps: it shone through his voice. A seriously know-all American professor-of-everything pontificated about the nature of light, which was a shame, but a fighter pilot made up for him. High in the sky, just before dawn, returning from patrolling the Channel, he was dazzled as the sun burst searingly over the horizon: then he dropped thousands of feet into darkness and saw it all over again. After that, Fenby described brilliant morning light streaming into a tiny alpine church: the picture remained, burning on the retina of the ear.

The celebrations of Purcell's tercentenary came to an end in all the splendid panoply of a grand concert, Purcell 300 (R3), in Westminster Abbey (see Michael White's review, opposite). But before that came Mask (R3), an extraordinarily powerful evocation of the character of the man himself. It was dominated by the strong, rough-hewn voice of Nicky Henson, as Purcell the street-wise Londoner, looking back on a life packed with incident, dominated by thousands of deaths from plague and fire, blessed with healing cynicism.

Henson's was a bravura performance, now talking urgently on a mobile phone about the cost of commandeering 10 counter-tenors and a consort of viols, now reminiscing tenderly about his wife, now marvelling at the power of music to teach him about God, about death, about the sick feeling of falling in love. Claire Randall's superior production juxtaposed Ian Burton's jagged, glittering text with Ron Geesin's pastiche Baroque score. It was enough to make you want the whole year to start again.

But it's no good. You can't really expect to escape the washing of dirty royal linen when your critic has been through the mangle of vox pops, gruesome Nicholas Soames, and ubiquitous, oleaginous Jonathon Porritt on every channel. Even Purcell himself seemed caught up in it. Mask had one splendid line on the subject: as the virtues of royalty - justice, mercy, courage, devotion - were intoned, Henson as Purcell growlingly derided "the vain, egotistical, poxy reality" of it all. And one further comment from a woman who chose to Call Nick Ross (R4) with a fine historical point: if Anne Boleyn had had access to the media, she said, she'd have done just the same. Yes, Madam, and look what happened to her.

Two more media events filled up all remaining airspace. The Beatles' dreary new song thumped endlessly, remorselessly from every hole in my radio and the Children in Need appeal galloped heroically out against all this fearsome competition. Hooray for them. At the last hearing, Terry Wogan's contribution, a jungle remix of "The Floral Dance" which embarrasses him so much that he is incapable of playing more than a minute of it, is edging ahead of the once Fab Four in the charts. So there is some justice after all. Perhaps.

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