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RADIO: A finger pointing the way towards hope

A fog descends on my brain when words like 'molecule' and 'hydrocarbon' emerge from the radio
IF YOU'VE read this column before, you might well have deplored its shameful dearth of informed wisdom on the subject of science. A foggy curtain tends to descend on your reviewer's brain when words like "molecule" and "hydrocarbon" emerge from the radio, but encouragement from a dear friend who also happens to be a wizard immunologist prompts greater efforts, and this week immunology is news. So here goes, at least for a paragraph or two.

Science Now (R4) included an item that offered a beckoning hand to idiots. In fact, it was a finger, the Zinc Finger: this useful digit is part of a recognised pattern of proteins with specific DNA-binding properties. I'm afraid they lost me again in the details, but it seems that this finger might be pointing the way to establishing a means of immunising people against Aids, which was an encouraging thought for World Aids Day.

And by chance it was the power of fingers that Manuel Patarroyo used to describe his own progress in the field of immunisation, this time against an even bigger killer. Patarroyo is The Malaria Man (R4). A colourful - he calls himself "flambogiant" - Colombian, he has used an empirical approach to create SPF66, a synthetic vaccine made from off-the-shelf chemicals. It is still the subject of much scepticism, but although not yet totally effective, the vaccine has no harmful effects and has significantly reduced the incidence of this horribly malevolent disease. Patarroyo isolated the demon that latches on to blood cells and lopped off its fingers so that it couldn't get a grip. Well, OK, once again it probably isn't quite that easy, but his dextrous analogy filled this simpleton with enthusiasm.

Rita Carter went to see Patarroyo and came back with an exhilarating account of the excitement generated by such research. She clearly relished the excitable company of Colombia's great new hero. So important is he to that country's national pride that when he was kidnapped recently, and the terrorists realised who their victim was, they asked for his autograph and removed their masks to pose with him for a group photograph before releasing him. Patarroyo is a name we will hear again.

So is Purcell, and no apologies for returning to him. To have heard Sunday's Don Quixote (R3) and not to have mentioned it would be unforgivable. It was based on a work by Thomas Durfey, a prolific, hugely successful playwright, raconteur, actor, singer and plagiarist celebrated earlier in the evening in Daniel Snowman's The D-D-Drunken P-P-Poet (R3). Pope described Durfey as "the merriment of our age" and he seems to have been the kind of happy man who had no enemies. Given that he was famous for his fearful stammer, it was odd to have him portrayed without it in Don Quixote, but that is my only quibble with a superb piece of broadcasting.

Don Taylor's enormous, compelling play had Durfey, Purcell and Betterton putting on a production they had supposedly cobbled together out of Cervantes' masterpiece. Paul Scofield's wonderful, heroic Don quavered with romance, thrilled with daring, rang out with idealism - and was splendidly matched by Roy Hudd's earthy, pragmatic, immensely likeable Sancho Panza, surely the part he was born to play. Add to that the piercing beauty of the voices of Emma Kirkby, Lucy Skeaping and Evelyn Tubb singing some of the loveliest music you could imagine, and a sparkling script that sped, simultaneously, towards the bitterly tragic early death of Purcell and the mournful demise of the heroic Don, and you have a work that would surely fill any theatre, or even cinema. It must have been an expensive production, but one that was worth every penny.

The music covered every genre, from operatic aria to bawdy ballad. A similar kind of range was essayed in Kit and the Widow's Sound of Music (R4), a new quiz show which got off to a shaky start. Kit and the Widow, with their Rupert Brookeish voices and mannered delivery - "Welcome, you happy housewives, lighting up the Belling at the sound of the Sunbeam on the gravel" - are very funny, but their manners slip when things get sticky. A round of Musical Hangman was so dire that Kit snapped at his producer "Patricia, get over here and put that fag out!" but, poor thing, she probably needed it. The audience was indulgent and, luckily, quite knowledgeable, but maybe they were glad to be in out of the cold. Still, it was fun in parts, and it could get better.

Another quiz show currently making a rather better start is Booked! (R4), a literary frolic that relies heavily on the genius of its panellists. The likes of Roger McGough and Miles Kington play with words as if they were Lego, identifying books from misleading descriptions and producing their own alternative versions of great classics. The star was Dillie Keane, who produced a tour de force in a superb, eternal sentence beginning "The nocturnal journey to the inferno of the paternal taverns in Smyrna and the earnest concern discerned through the Colonel's epergne."

It was certainly better than Frankie Howerd with a bad script, but then that is true of almost anything. Why R2 should have chosen a particularly limp 1966 programme as Howerd's moment of glory in Comedy Classics beats me. Harold Wilson was featured cosying up to Kosygin and an uncomfortably macho Howerd was unable to pay an enormous restaurant bill of pounds 18 and ended up, guess what, ho ho, doing the washing-up. When you remember how terrific he was later on, it was embarrassing to hear him trying to raise a laugh with this stuff. Ooh, Missis, we could scarcely manage a titter.