Radio: Moving in Mysterious Ways

This Column is about heroes. It is not really about Terry Wogan (R2), though as I'm feeling slightly ashamed of being unkind about his singing for charity last week, here's a bouquet for him: he is unparalleled amongst breakfast presenters for his gift of stepping into his solitary listener's life, eg, "The Bishop of Southwark will be here soon, so I want you to smarten yourself up a bit: he's fully dressed ..."

Nor is it about the clergy in general. I had thought they might be heroes - I've known some who are - but Libby Purvis found few to admire in the latest instalment of Mysterious Ways (R4) - apart from scholarly types, like Gilbert White. Breezily assessing a thousand years of priests, she found an expert who dismissed the savage age of religious persecution following the Reformation as "a period of little funny, sad anecdotes", and another to define the probably disturbed - certainly disturbing - Rev Charles Kingsley as a "pioneer in social tolerance". Gosh. Or mark this, and by golly, as she is given to saying.

But perhaps the above is unfair, too. Purvis has set herself a nearly impossible task in this great, bulging laundry-bag of a millennial series, ripe with unsavoury items of dirty linen. Still, it would have been interesting if she had grasped the nettle and tackled the nature of religious vocation - perhaps with reference to Chaucer's truly heroic poor parson, if she wanted literary references - instead of viewing the Church as a career suitable, as Lord Chesterfield wrote, for "a good, dull and decent boy". She did just touch on the possibility of divine inspiration at the end, when a group of theological students spoke movingly, encouragingly, about their hope for a shining future. Maybe she has it in mind for future episodes.

Who Sings the Hero? (R4), of its nature, gets closer to the ideal. The new series began with the story of the French teacher whose life was taken over for two days in 1993 by a gunman who wired up her infant classroom with dynamite and held the children to ransom. Laurence Dreyfus - played by Adjoa Andoh - had heroism thrust upon her. Her really brave moment came after the gunman had allowed her out of the room - and she had seen her husband and cuddled her own baby - whereupon she chose to go back to the frightened children, and to the ghastly business of having to choose which should be released in exchange for each of their persecutor's demands.

The only difficulty with this dramatisation was in finding sympathy with the children: they clearly chose some very young performers, perhaps too young. Surely French children don't learn that dreary dirge about the wheels on the bus going round and round? Even "Frere Jacques" would have been better: at least they could have done it as a canon. Anyway, their endless repetition of the worst hymn to public transport ever penned would have driven a saint to infanticide, let alone a psychotic gunman.

Whoops, we've reached saints. Our sister paper revels in them, reminding us daily of those whose feast-day it is: recently we've had St Bean, St Genesius the Comedian and St Chef, and if anyone can throw any light on them, please do. However, in view of the season, there's an obviously topical one to consider - but Who Was St Nicholas? This question was posed by a R3 interval item on Friday. His feast-day, yesterday, is widely celebrated in a pre-Christmas bonanza of present-giving across Europe, but he'll be back in three weeks in his much more recent incarnation as Santa Claus. Apparently, he is only dressed in red and white since being marketed by Coca-Cola, with the slogan "Thirst knows no season".

The facts are pretty thin. He died on 6 December 350, Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. At the Council of Nicaea, in 325, he is said to have hit a dissenting priest. He is the patron of almost everyone, including coopers, boys, Moscow-and-all-Russia, sailors, fishermen, pawnbrokers, brewers, bakers, Aberdeen, and the wronged losers of law-suits. And he is said to have performed some pretty impressive miracles, including a surprisingly topical one of doing battle with the goddess Diana.

None of them, however, matches up to the Christmas round. Gill Pyrah's richly enjoyable feature ended with an analysis of that annual trip which, at a conservative estimate, covers 75 million miles at 3,000 times the speed of sound. He'd be instantly vaporised, travelling like that, so it looks as if the rest of us will have to deputise, again.

The image of the hero is growing fuzzy: let's go back to Richard Dyer's excellent, spirited defence of melodrama, Unhand Me, Rogue! (R4). At one time, a night at the theatre involved magnificent spectacle - and beer, threepenny pies (lubricated by a gravy-vendor), rotten tomatoes, for the throwing of, and handkerchiefs at a penny a time. The valiant hero was introduced by a resounding trumpet. How sad that, as Will Rogers wrote, "heroing is one of the shortest-lived professions there is".

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