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.

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