Radio: Talking it over, however you say it

The Critics
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Radio Times can be misleading. It described Thursday's play as a modern fairy tale starring Sue Johnston and Elizabeth Bradley. In fact, Rosemary Kay's Wilde Belles (R4) was a powerful, unflinching contemplation of the lacerating effects of grief and despair, starring Vicky Connett. The other two, as her mother and grandmother, were very good, but this 10-year-old child was phenomenal.

On radio, faults in child actors show as clearly as ash in gin. There is often the sense that they are reading the script, in their best stage- school voices. This little girl was quite different. She was Letti, whose father had died: she could neither bear nor believe it, and the only two people who might have helped her were too beset by their own sorrow to acknowledge hers. An evil fishmonger slithered into their lives, with all the slimy nastiness of a 10-day-old haddock, and attempted to corrupt all three. His final destruction in a fire gave grim satisfaction: he deserved no less. But I worried for the little actress who had given so much of herself to the resourceful, resolute, heartbroken Letti.

To be the child of Ogden Nash must have been a beguiling experience. In the first of a new series of Word of Mouth (R4), Russell Davies was in America with Nash's daughter, sifting through the scraps of verse he left behind in their family home. "Here's one," she said, taking up a stray couplet, " 'When it rains in the city, it rains itty-bitty. When it rains rural, it rains plural.' I've never seen that in print." Well, it deserves printing, so now you have.

Her own daughter was also indulging in affectionate memories of her grandfather. Such a purist he was that he refused to allow them to use the word hamburger, insisting (pretty despairingly) on "meat cakes" instead. If they broke another rule and said thanks, instead of thank you, he'd reply whelks, instead of you're welcome. But he allowed himself frivolous liberties with language, and particularly metre, to the delight of several generations.

Davies had fun with this programme, with the Nash family perhaps more than with "Two Brothers and a White Guy". These three are "snappers", people skilled in exchanging inventive insults designed to make their opponents lose their cool. They did it to Davies, telling him that he had a beautiful speaking voice, but up close, his breath was so nasty he needed Tic-Tacs run off a battery. To his credit, his cool resisted the assault - but if he managed an equally offensive riposte he didn't tell us about it.

Word of Mouth is always entertaining: it has a broad agenda - anything goes, as long as it frolics with the English language on its way. Monday's North of Watford (R4) heard the case for encouraging other languages, namely Welsh, Irish and Gallic. Urbane and quick-thinking as he is, Sean Rafferty had a tricky task controlling his assembled excitable Celts. Ironically, the more heated they became, the more eloquent their English. Tim Williams, a reinvented Welshman, said doomed attempts to revive the Welsh language provided the spectacle of the irrelevant in pursuit of the unattainable. Furiously, the Welsh woman on the team insisted that Welsh was the very skin of her soul, to which he replied with serene impudence that 82 per cent of the Welsh have no souls.

The R4 audience has learnt to wake up and attempt to engage the brain on Monday mornings. It is, after all, Bragg time, the hour of plugging, of arcane theorising and of dissent. North of Watford capitalises on this acquired, unnatural alertness, offering us a similar mixture but from outside London - and, happily, without the plugging. It is worth listening to, if for nothing else than for the sheer pleasure of a good fight in which you can't get hurt. However, if this week's regional linguistics became all too wordy, Kathryn Tickell's The Hidden Tradition on Wednesday (R2) expressed the cultural diversity of the country in all its vigorous variety, but, this time, without the brawling. She introduced music for harp, accordion and bodhran (an instrument pronounced like bar-room, which is confusing) played by young, previously unrecorded musicians, and it was gorgeous.

Finally, brief mentions of three men who might have been born specifically for their radio roles. First, Arthur Lowe was Charles Pooter. He read The Diary of a Nobody (R4), as if he had written it, and the repeat broadcasts, every morning this week, reduced me to helpless laughter. Secondly, John Peel is the perfect, the only man who could present Offspring (R4), a wry intrusion into the comic embarrassments of family life, of which the Peel family has had more than its share.

And thirdly, Hugo Gryn was always the only justification for The Moral Maze (R4). Michael Buerk's sad eulogy, heavy with sighs, suggested that he feels much the same. Just once, I heard Gryn become angry, the day an idiot attempted to suggest that the Holocaust hadn't happened. It did, and it shaped him, miraculously, into a wise and kindly guide through the thorniest thickets of life. This week, Buerk ended another bout of wrangling by remarking that they'd all go off and discuss what Hugo would have said. He will be irreplaceable.

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