Radio: A heartfelt tribute to the Feast of St Loneliness
Sunday 28 December 1997
To round off the year, here are a few stand-ups, a couple of stories, some distinguished guests, two unusual Christmases and a muddy farm track - not necessarily in that order.
Although Frank forgot to get any crackers, he and his friend Paul Durcan had a jolly Christmas Day (R3) together. Well, it was a bit jolly, in an Eeyore-ish way. No. Actually it wasn't jolly at all, but then Durcan describes himself as the kind of turkey who'd settle for a mobile home in a field, and milk cattle with only a wireless for company.
Luckily, Frank invited him out, and the poem he wrote about it was droll, doleful, low-key - yet soaring to eternity in its stark compassion and the boundless scope of its imagination; a glorious solemnisation of the Feast of St Loneliness. Frank, said his guest, is the archetypal petty bourgeois Dubliner, than whom "there is no more rose-red spectacle in central Asia or north Africa". Crackerless, they shared balloons and a serious feast; Frank revealed the exotic (and extravagantly erotic) events that befell him when he went to buy curtains and then Paul went home and described it all.
Poetry, Paul suggested, is another word for losing everything except purity. Wrong: his poetry is lucid and perceptive, with a gentle irony and searing, sorrowful joy.
Up in the mountains near Darjeeling, they do it differently. Christmas at the Windamere (R4) is celebrated with bagpipes, tea dances, stone hot- water bottles and 15 turkeys and six geese, transported in dripping ice- bags on a train from Calcutta. This old hotel is managed by - honestly - Mrs Tenderflower (I've just discovered you spell that Tenduf-la, which is, actually, nearly as nice). Alhough she is a 92-year-old Tibetan, she went to school in Giggleswick and her hotel offers its delighted guests the kind of hospitality with which memory and old films have played kindly tricks: ye olde England, in the shadow of the third highest mountain in the world. The past was never this innocent but, damn it, it is at the Windamere, so who's to say it's bogus? Clare Jenkins was the clever, lucky reporter sampling the Windamere's comforts: there can't be many better jobs.
Even older than Mrs T is Manfred Sturmer, the 112-year-old percussionist on yesterday's Private Passions (R3). If you missed him, try and catch the repeat this afternoon and thrill to tall tales of Clara Schumann's lasciviousness, her greasy ringlets and her enthusiasm for Knackwurst. Sturmer was a reluctant musician, pining always for a career in property- management. Now he is rewarded for his perseverance on the spoons, and enjoys regaling audiences with his memories of Brahms as Father Christmas and of Mahler chloroforming a leading lady so as to appear, himself, as a scrawny Salome. Sessions with a man like this must be revelatory.
Beside him, Harry Secombe is but a lad, though he sounded valedictory enough, on Desert Island Discs (R4), to reduce Sue Lawley to whimpers. Not for long though: his giggle - rapid and high-pitched as a fast-forward button, more infectious than mumps - soon had her laughing again, in the geniality of his company. He wants to take The Pickwick Papers to his island. This was a fitting choice: not only did he play the eponymous hero for years, the book was also being (slightly over-) dramatised on R4 last week. The iron grip of Dickens on Christmas will, it seems, never be loosed.
The stand-ups are the Turns of the Century (R3), short programmes devoted to the memory of several late, great comics. They were patchy. The nastiest was written by Peter Nichols, who savaged Kenneth Williams, describing him as "a low-born prodigy" who became "mere noise, repeating himself into an early grave". With friends like this ... but Nichols seemed offended that Williams had not written more about him in his diaries. He boasted about the glamour of his dinner parties and made the serious error of attempting to mimic the Williams voice. Whilst ostensibly illuminating his gifts, he diminished him: a strip-light, trying to out-sparkle a glittering Christmas tree.
The other three were quite different. Maureen Lipman's was an efficient and appreciative assessment of Joyce Grenfell; Robert Cushman was excellent on the mixture of seediness and grandiloquence that was the assumed persona of Tony Hancock, and Roy Hudd brought such admiration and affection to his account of his great hero, the cheeky chappie Max Miller, that it left me smiling foolishly for 20 minutes.
The stories now, each of them a classic, dramatised within a narration. First, King Matt (R4). This was written by a Polish Jew called Janus Korczak, whose achievements were recalled by Dr George Misiewicz (himself a holocaust survivor) in King Matt's Creator (R4). The two programmes twist like a corkscrew into the memory. Korczsak was a really great man: he founded orphanages in Warsaw, championed the rights of children, and, eventually, went with them from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka. In Jeremy Mortimer's subtle, moving production, Korczak's famous story about a child-king whose ideals are betrayed by scheming selfishness was narrated by "Dr K" to a group of sleepy, slightly fretful children on a train. Only when it stopped, amidst barking dogs and cries of "Heraus!" did we realise where they were going.
Another train features in The Affair at Grover Station (R4). Grover is a halt in the wilderness, where Willa Cather's ghoulish story of revenge and murder is played out, against howling weather in the wilds of Cheyenne country. This was a perfect play for the dead of winter - the kind that makes you shudder with relief that you're warm and safe. Jonathan Holloway dramatised it, and Kerry Shale starred as the ill-fated, bitter narrator.
Now, how are you doing with those Grand Masters? Give up? All right then. It's chess nuts boasting in an open foyer. And the muddy farm track? Well, that's where you always get stuck. Happy New Year.
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