Radio: Regrets, I've had a few; most of all, the tuba
Sunday 29 March 1998
John Florance began with Danny Kaye's song about the melancholy instrument never allowed a tune - but it went way Beyond Tubby (R2). At its highest pitch, a tuba can summon a greyhound; at its lowest, the world shudders to the rumbling reverberations of a windy elephant in a confined space. It is so cumbersome that, on Japanese railways, it can only travel strapped to the back of a train; so heavy that its owners risk permanent back injury. You need a Volvo to transport it and, in its carrying-case, it is often mistaken for a portable lavatory.
So why does anyone take it up? Some old pros claim to have had little choice - one was simply the tallest in his class, and another had a mother with a car (a Volvo, presumably). But one of them had, as a boy, wandered without permission into the music-room, crawled inside a tuba and played. It was beautiful, and he was scolded: the combination of the lovely feeling of curvy instrument all around him, its warm and gorgeous sound and the fact that it was forbidden was irresistible.
Tubas have progressed beyond the comic, bedrock town-band oom-pah, beyond the gloomy fanfare that announced Hancock's Half Hour, into the realms of solo glory. They are better designed these days, and easier to play. Great composers write for them, and there is even a club, the Tubists' Universal Brotherhood Association, to unite scattered aficionados across the world. The day of the tuba has arrived, and I'm too late to play.
So, to compensate, off to the land of brass bands, to Compo's Country (R4), where for 27 years they have been draining The Last of the Summer Wine. Bill Owen, now 84 but less decrepit than his filthy old alter ego, wandered around Holmfirth out of season. Slipping in and out of his Yorkshire accent and his scatological character, he led us to "the hallowed spot, the temple of my desire", Nora Batty's kitchen. The real lady of the house sounds as if her stockings are always smooth. On summer Sundays the producers fill her kitchen with flood, fire and ferrets, but she didn't mention what she earned from this sacrifice. Other residents showed less reticence. The vicar gets pounds 50 every time he doesn't ring his church bells and the newsagent has retired early on the fortune he made from selling Summer Wine maps and postcards. Ah, if only we could find Ambridge, what riches ...
Prince Leonard and Princess Shirl have been happily fleecing the tourists in their little patch of Western Australia. They announced their independence from Canberra, refused to pay taxes and returned all state benefits. They set about printing stamps and bank-notes and attracted the attention of Alan Whicker, who visited them, was offered a knighthood, and recalled the experience during the first of his nostalgic journeys Around Whicker's World (R2). Whicker was so wickedly parodied by the Monty Python team that it was a surprise to hear how good he was. He'd certainly never dream of avoiding a cliche, but after a while you forget that, as you succumb to his obvious delight in the remarkable people he has encountered.
Esther Freud's mother went off seeking adventure in Morocco, taking her two small daughters with her - not necessarily such a bad thing, but it turned out to be Hideous Kinky (R4). In Esther's play, the mother takes and leaves several lovers, abandons one child at a dubious school in Marrakesh while she has a go at being a Sufi, and is generally pretty irresponsible. Lisa Jacobs gave the mother a loving warmth at odds with both script and plot, but the play was saved by Lana McAdam as little Lucy who - although, mysteriously, the only Scot in her family - is clearly a natural.
Far more hideous kinky is Chris Morris's Blue Jam (R1), anxiously scheduled for 1am. If you're amused by deranged gunmen and children burnt to death you might laugh at him, but he'd rather unsettle you. In one monologue, the narrator crashes a media party where the host, Tony, demands that a starlet give him a blow-job. While she hesitates, wondering whether this would be a good career-move "... Tony produced a rubber vagina and shouted 'I don't need you anyway, you filthy whore.' He looked at me and asked why I wasn't laughing." Can't imagine.
Keep to the Path (WS), broadcast at 1.30am, also reaches insomniacs. In Monday night's dreamy edition, Chris Yates took producer Roger Fenby on a spooky journey into a dense and moonlit Wiltshire wood. You could hear the frozen grass crackling under their boots as they made their dark way through a ruined icehouse to the edge of a huge, glimmering lake. Across the surface stole a cold mist diffusing the moonlight; owls hunted around the margins and ghostly deer "brandished" their eyes. Eventually, very wisely, our two chilly heroes switched off their tape recorder and repaired to the pub.
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