Radio: Noble courage of taking Desert Island risks

Some years ago, Susan Hill appeared on Desert Island Discs (R4). As the programme was about to end, she sighed with real regret. Her life had lost its direction: her one burning ambition was achieved. What had she left to aspire to now? (In fact, she was invited back later, but that's beside the point.)

Many of us feel the same. It is the supreme accolade: we can play the game at home but we know we'll never make it for real. And the reason such an invitation is so desirable, and so unattainable, is that every now and again the guest is someone like Christina Noble.

Not that there is anyone like her, though some people, inevitably, call her the Mother Teresa of Saigon. She says that in Ireland they call her Mother Teresa with balls ("excuse that expression, you can take it out later, can't you?"). What she has done is to fulfil the prophesy of a dream she had, long ago, that she should help the suffering children of Vietnam.

To start the cash flowing, she took two executives of Enterprise Oil out to Ho Chi Minh City and put children into their arms. "Now," she said, "don't tell me that they're different, that they don't have basic human rights." From their initial contribution and her huge efforts, between 60,000 and 70,000 children have been helped, in 14 different countries.

But the extraordinary thing about her was that she achieved this after one of the saddest childhoods imaginable. Her father was a violent drunk; her adored mother died of TB; she was separated from her siblings and told that they were dead. At 16 she was gang-raped: innocently unaware that she was pregnant, she lived in a hole in the ground in Phoenix Park until her son was born and taken from her (they have still to be reunited). And yet she overcame all this, and achieved her dream. Sue Lawley's tendency to asperity evaporated: she like we, could only listen, in awed respect. Ours was surely not the only house in which the gravy round the Sunday joint was laced with tears.

The sad story told in Relatively Speaking (R4) seemed almost bathetic in contrast. The idea behind this series is to take two well-known members of a family and discuss their relationship. The central event this week was the birth of twin sons to Barry Norman's daughter Emma, the subsequent death of one baby and the joy brought to his grandfather by the survivor. The story reflected well on the Norman family, but it seemed artificial that a central character, Mrs Norman, was not interviewed - presumably because she, unlike the other two, is not a TV presenter with a column in Radio Times.

The World Service has launched another potentially tragic series with a more robust attitude. Dying Notes explores the fragility of life in grand opera. Death comes, Gordon Stewart remarks cheerfully, in the form of poisoned rings, ready-heated ovens and misjudged leaps from great heights. It's all really an excuse for some marvellous singing - particularly, in the first of the series from the dangerous, shimmering voice of Maria Callas as Anna Bolena, facing the executioner's axe. Stewart's irreverence is fun, as when he remarks on the reinforcements required for the tumbrel transporting Luciano Pavarotti and Monserrat Caballe to the gallows.

Satire is an invaluable weapon in the puncturing of pomposity. In Monday's Laughing at the Learned (R3), Penelope Corfield gave a genial talk on the uses of cartoon and lampoon in improving the lot of the common man. Shared laughter at a object worthy of ridicule, well defined by Thomas Hobbes as a "sudden glory", can be a subversive and effective weapon: mocking the professions brings the professionals to account. Corfield demonstrated that the likes of Skinall and Dryboots, 18th-century predecessors of Private Eye's famous law firm Sue, Grabbit and Run, probably resulted in the foundation Law Society - which did at least attempt to regulate a notoriously self-important body of men.

Oscar Wilde's suffering at the hands of clever lawyers was the background to a disturbing Monday play. Rod Dungate's Friends of Oscar (R4) dared to ignore the central character, concentrating instead on the shady milieu of gay 1890s London. It flirted with the real thing - a birthday party for Alfred Taylor began with the host eating all the cucumber from the sandwiches which is, shall we say, teasingly derivative. And Wildean epigrams were attempted, for example, "Little Lord Alfred is fond of saying that money doesn't count, only because he doesn't count it."

The play centred on the real "marriage" between Taylor and Charles Mason and on Taylor's heroic refusal to betray Wilde, but it was marred by an unpleasant recurrent fantasy in which the coterie composed a novel, including a truly revolting misogynistic scene that I wish I'd never heard.

The echoes of Wilde's most famous play inevitably recall Edith Evans, whose pronunciation of the word handbag spanned a couple of octaves. In Quote, Unquote (R4), Stephen Fry (who plays Wilde in the forthcoming film of his life) told a nice story about her. In the 1940s, she bought a fabulously expensive Renoir and, when a friend asked her why she had hung it so low on the wall, out of the light behind a curtain, her answer was loftily superb: "There was a hook." Fry (who, incidentally, was on excellent form) had no more excuse for telling that story than I have for repeating it, save that it made us laugh.

And the same motivation drove the first really good radio sitcom for ages, Peter Kerry's North-East of Eden (R4). The sit is that a young female doctor has taken a job on Paradise island, off the Northumbrian coast: the com derives from the reactions of the insular locals. The young hero, William, asks his friend to cut the string uniting his mittens through his anorak, in a determined attempt to appear glamorous. He is threatened by an enjoyably gloomy Norwegian sailor, the first mate of whose ship (the Wild Duck) has just realised that the universe is empty and his existence pointless. There is a pig called Arthur Askey, high on amphetamines, and an omnipotent landlady who berates William for bad language: "He only said cobblers, Mrs. P. Not exactly Oscar Wilde, is it?" No, but it's very funny.

Suggested Topics
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Sport
football
News
i100
News
Perry says: 'Psychiatrists give help because they need help. You would not be working in mental health if you didn't have a curiosity about how the mind works.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

    £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

    Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

    £28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

    Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

    £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

    £18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?