Radio: Out of the mouth of a doomed teenager

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Indy Lifestyle Online
ONE afternoon in high summer, 17-year-old Effi is playing tag in her smock. There is a dangerous swing in her garden, but she loves riding high on it; the pond nearby was once used for drowning unfaithful wives. Into this scene of girlish bliss rides the icy Geert, come to court her. A provincial governor and holder of the Iron Cross, he is old enough to be her father - in fact, he was once her mother's lover. The clues are all there waving flags at you: without a doubt, Effi Briest (R4) will come to a bad end.

Theodor Fontane died 100 years ago. His strange novel about nasty provincial snobbery and savage vengeance is the new Classic Serial. It is presented in a shaky translation, sounding occasionally modern and frequently archaic, but there is a fine central performance from Emilia Fox. The narrator is a seriously irritating know-all with a sepulchral bass voice; you keep wanting to tell Effi to get out of it fast - good lord, she'd stand more chance of a happy ending in a Hardy novel than in this.

Or even in an opera. Talk Radio is assuming the mantle dropped by Classic FM and venturing into musical features. Matthew Boyden presented a very Rough Guide to Opera on Monday which lurched between praising the form as surprisingly relevant and sending it up as preposterous. There was a snatch of James Whale revelling in Lesley Garrett's cleavage and chortling that "Every filthy disgusting thing you can think of is in opera"; there was a painful moment from Michael Bolton's recording of great tenor arias (I've heard better coming from the bathroom); there were lurid stories of strong men killing themselves in pursuit of high C's. But it was worth it to hear Quentin Hayes talk about the night he nipped out of a rehearsal in Birmingham, wearing a Union Jack T-shirt, a skinhead haircut and big DMs. Two huge men cornered him, accused him of belonging to the National Front and pulled a knife on him. Protesting "No, I'm an opera singer!" Hayes launched into Figaro's "Largo al factotum", singing, literally, for all he was worth. Understandably flabbergasted, his assailants fled.

More Voices (R3), this time of prisoners, were singing the Jailhouse Blues on Tuesday. Iain Burnside introduced this jaunty, eclectic mix of the real and the imagined. Six merry murderesses blasted out an unrepentant tango from the musical Chicago and the likes of Carissimi and Mahler jostled with Elvis, the Fat Boys and the Pogues. But in the middle of all this came something quite different: an intense love-poem written by a Frenchman to his wife days before his death in a concentration camp, smuggled out and given an almost unbearably poignant setting by Poulenc: for a moment, I found it hard to breathe.

Singing can be both powerful and dangerous. The series Playing in a Volcano (R3) marks the 50th anniversary of the State of Israel in a thoughtful, original manner, alternating Palestinian and Israeli presenters who discuss the political effect of music in their furiously contested land. Last Sunday, it was the turn of the Palestinian broadcaster Arif Hijjawi. He spoke to a musician whose recording of a patriotic song had caused him to be arrested by the Israeli police and tortured for 12 days in an effort to get him to reveal the names of the artists involved. He shrugs it off now, saying that the main effect was that the tape sold more than 100,000 copies within a month: even though the words weren't translated, the bewilderment and sadness of Palestine howled through the music.

A concurrent, equally impressive series, Israel Among the Nations (WS), this week studied the special relationship between America and Israel. Fascinating research suggested that a strong American Biblical tradition still sees the Jews as the chosen race - and besides, Americans are a settler people, who understand pioneers (viz, Israelis) better than those born in a country. One senator is so mindlessly pro-Israeli that his staff has standing orders to support any petition that is backed by a Jewish lobby.

Now back to 17-year-olds. The perennially excellent Word of Mouth (R4) set out to discover how teenagers appraise each other. Girls, we heard, are (still) babes, birds or goers: boys are fit, sorted, sound or sweet. I checked this with our resident expert, who tells me they missed something: in her circles, a boy you really fancy is called a fox. Then Miles Kington judged the acronym competition and there was another teenage term. If you call a chap a Lombard, he's Loads Of Money But A Real Dork. Oh, and by the way, if you find your doctor has written "Teeth?" on your notes, don't make a dentist's appointment. It means "Tried Everything Else. Try Homeopathy?"

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