Radio: And death shall have a dominion in Ambridge

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Indy Lifestyle Online
LOOK, IT'S all right; it's not real, it's only a story. Despite the fact that his untimely end made all Thursday's front pages, John Archer never existed, so he can't be dead and it's silly to cry. Right. That's settled.

Vanessa Whitburn wasn't crying on Today (R4). "We decided to have fun and put him out with a bang," she said cheerfully. It was the morning after Ash Wednesday, when the 22-year-old heir to all The Archers was found crushed under his father's cherished Ferguson tractor. The previous episode had been all pony-club and pancakes; but it had ended with an unprecedented don't-miss-tomorrow trailer. A chill presentiment prompted me to check the cast list in the coming week's Radio Times: no John.

The prosaic truth is that young Sam Barriscale had played John for 10 years and wanted to leave before he turned into Tom Forrest. But for four million listeners - R4's youngest audience, incidentally - who have witnessed John growing up and behaving badly, and have lately heard his tiresome father nagging him to repair a fence, it's seriously upsetting to have him dead and no fences mended. No wonder Tony blames himself: I blame him too. But his remorse is scarcely to be endured. On Today, Whitburn reminded us that coping with death is one of life's great challenges: another is voluntarily tuning in to other people's grief - even if they are not real, really. Not sure I can face the funeral.

Behaving better than we're used to was Martin Clunes, who introduced R2's latest social action project, Cancer and You. It is to last a year, focusing every two months on a different kind of cancer and, as usual with these initiatives, its main purpose is to inform and encourage listeners via the R2 helpline. Against the sort of aimless tune you'd associate with a warm-up organist at a crematorium, various individuals related their experiences and exuded optimism - people like the ebullient Scotsman who certainly doesn't feel less of a man because he now has only one testicle: "mebbe it's because the other is still arrmed and deangerrous."

By coincidence, the previous week Virgin Action '98 ran a breast-cancer campaign, using similar techniques. Given the age of Virgin's audience, it was fitting that they should dwell on the risks to younger women, particularly targeting those whose mothers have suffered the disease - but the message was doomier and the music even more strangely tinkly than on R2. Virgin's advice was to phone the Cancer Research Campaign, who report a large increase in enquiries as a result.

Ash Wednesday's Midweek Choice (R3) set the mood for the Ambridge disaster with a couple of sad and beautiful recordings: Callas singing Violetta's Second Act aria from La Traviata with infinitely slow, regretful gravity and then Terence Judd, who killed himself at 22, playing Barber - arguably better than anyone else before or since.

On the same afternoon the crime novelist Minette Walters was the first speaker in a Lenten series called Stages of Redemption (R4). It was profoundly moving. She spoke of yet another young man she had met - this one had been condemned to death but given a skin-of-the-teeth reprieve - and of the link between him and the woman taken in adultery in the gospels. Walters speaks with rare authority: she is a prison visitor who sees a disproportionate number of sex offenders - because nobody else will.

Though she is an atheist, her admiration for the courage and kindness of Christ and her astute perception of the importance of forgiveness could be a lesson to many a Christian.

Ian McMillan, who sounds like an affectionate old mastiff, hosted a Lenten Poetry Please! (R4) last Sunday in which many of the poems were read by the incomparable June Barrie. She never "performs" poetry, as so many actors do, but reads with quiet intelligence, allowing the words to speak for themselves.

No sooner had she finished than Jack Klaff presented My Best Poetry Voice (R3), a welcome send-up of the declamatory art. After taking advice from two extremely good readers - the chirpy Liz Lochhead and the dead-pan Roger McGough - he went to a Glasgow school where a thoughtful girl was praising Alfred Noyes's poem "The Highwayman". Her friend thought it soppy, and read it with passionate exaggeration. But she stuck to her guns saying there was no need to go OTT and, dear reader, it worked: "I'll come to thee by moonlight," she concluded, plainly and softly, "though Hell should bar the way": every hair on my arms stood on end. Fiona Shaw gave another example, this time from Sappho - just five slow, effective words: "Pain penetrates, drop by drop."

Finally, begone dull care: let us join Arthur Smith, making his own, dinstinctive gesture towards Lord Reith with The Smith Lectures (R2). This column has not always been kind to Smith, but it now humbly apologises. I'd assumed that he would just introduce yet another compilation of tired old sketches but he found some lovely, unfamiliar stuff. His own favourite came from an American called George Carlin: it was a spoof advertisement for a book club. If you joined straight away, they would send you, free of charge, books called Eat, Run, Stay Fit and Die Anyway; Rid Yourself of Doubt - or Should You?; 64 Good Reasons For Giving Up Hope; Caring For the Seated and The Wrong Underwear Can Kill - or instruction books advising on "How to kill a rat with an oboe"; "How to spoil other people's fun" and "How to spot truly vicious people in church". There were more, but I was laughing too much to write them down.