Radio: From Elizabeth I to Elton John ... it's the same story

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Indy Lifestyle Online
She was profoundly insecure, possibly because her childhood was miserable and her family riven and dysfunctional. Her image was famous far beyond court circles and reproduced in myriad forms, often wearing glamorous clothes and fabulous jewellery. Everyone knew that she was expected to provide an heir for the throne of England but, despite her great wealth and high public status, a happy marriage eluded her. In the end, there was a collective, unhealthy conspiracy to deny the realities of her life. Who could this iconic figure be? Why, obviously, Queen Elizabeth I, the subject of this week's history quiz Battling With the Past (R4).

Recorded well in advance of the sudden, shocking death of Princess Diana, this was one of many radio programmes which heaped ironies on to the already richly ironic obsequies of Saturday. Another was Monday's short story, Getting a Life (R4), Alex Shearer's bizarre fantasy about a man seeing his life go down the road on the back of a lorry. He goes to the police, complaining that his life has been stolen prematurely, and is asked if he has any proof that the magnificent existence he describes is in fact his own. Any other week, it might have been merely surreal.

Occasionally, a kind of gloomy serendipity gives a scheduled programme new relevance. A two-part Kaleidoscope feature, extensively trailed, began last night and is to be completed next Friday. Paul Gambaccini, at his most reverential, interviewed Elton John, whose fingers (unlike, we were told, the more elegant Gambaccini digits) are rather small and fat for a pianist's - hence the catchy title, Rocket Man and the Chipolata Fingers (R4).

Elton John might have been considered more of a R2 kind of artist before last Saturday. In the event, this was an unsatisfactory piece for either network, full of name-droppings and folies de grandeur, although the Abbey pianist did eventually display a mildly disarming self-awareness - and an eerily familiar catalogue of preoccupations and complaints, including bulimia. When he admitted that he had "Eltonised" his previous lovers, sending them away with a Cartier watch and a Versace shirt, you realised that this had been recorded quite a long time ago.

Gambaccini flattered and simpered - at one point he even said, "I like something about the way you look tonight" - but after a startled moment I realised that he was referring to a song. He could not have been more fawning if Verdi had been sitting opposite him. Indeed, in what must surely be a misguided venture, we learned that Elton has elbowed Verdi aside and written "a musical version of Aida". It puts a dangerous strain on the brain to try and imagine what it must be like.

But the original Verdi's music was second to none at the Princess's funeral, broadcast on virtually every network. The "Libera me" from his Requiem, using the most appropriate words for that surrounded, beleaguered lady, was performed with exquisite purity by Lynne Dawson, whose soaring soprano drew the readiest tears from at least one listener. It was lovely to catch that heavenly voice again on Wednesday's Morning Collection (R3), once more in a scheduled coincidence, and this time lending its beauty to the more jubilant Chandos Anthem "O be joyful in the Lord".

Other great souls have left us this week. Sir Georg Solti was due to conduct the same Requiem on Friday's penultimate night of a particularly splendid Proms (R3) season. (Incidentally, thank goodness Nicholas Kenyon decided to go ahead with broadcasting the Albert Hall concert on that terrible Sunday, so close to Kensington Palace. As Classic FM also realised, we needed music that day.)

When Solti, too, died unexpectedly, his place was taken by Sir Colin Davis, and Friday's performance of the grandest of all Masses for the Dead became a magnificent, cathartic tribute to both of them. And again, the coincidence factor was at work: Solti as conductor was heard, as planned, on Friday afternoon's Mining the Archives (R3) in highlights from his exuberant 1961 recording of Der Rosenkavalier.

In the middle of all this bereavement, Mother Teresa slipped quietly away. It seemed typically modest that she should depart at a time when the world was so distracted. On Wednesday's Woman's Hour (R4), Jenni Murray talked to Michael Walsh and Angela Tilby about the possibility of there being a fast track to canonisation. The record is held by Thomas a Becket, whose thaumaturgical powers elevated him to sanctity within two years. But many of the early saints won their status from popular support and never went through a formal process.

It's a delicate business explaining the two-way system of the communion of the saints in a couple of minutes. Mother Teresa must be proved to have been influential in procuring two miracles before she can be canonised, but it's a technicality, really; she is already widely regarded as a saint and therefore able to pray for those of us left behind. Canonisation would merely confirm her, officially, as a model for us all. Inevitably, the case of the Princess was raised. She is, alas, a non-starter for many reasons - and, besides, it was usefully suggested that our attitude is not so much "Diana, help us, pray for us", as a desire to pray for the repose of her soul.

At the funeral, John Tavener's ethereal Songs For Athene took us to the very gates of Heaven, but only an occasional mystic has looked through and reported back. Nicholas Shakespeare, however, has been to Lesotho, a tiny mountain kingdom shaped like an angel fish. In Letters From Here and There (R4), he described this remote, inaccessible and ravishingly beautiful place, where, free from all modern intrusion, "the mind is released from whatever troubles it". He asked his guide - a man who had known great suffering - if he was happy: "Ourself," said Ishmael, "we are very happy always." It may not really be Paradise, but I'd like to give it a try.

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