RADIO : The truth about Dr Zhivago's Russia: it's a whitewash

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Abandoning the radio last Sunday night, we shivered in front of the telly, as the ethereal Lara and Dr Zhivago-of-the-watery-eyes clung despairingly together, through blind- ing blizzards and glassy icicles, as wolves howled with hungry menace and that music tore at our tear ducts. But, dear reader, this media disloyalty was all in the interests of research, for on Friday the doyen of cinematographers, Freddie Young, Ninety, Not Out (R4) - 94, actually - described how he had filmed it. Russia be blowed. They had gone to Spain: the snow was, he said, tons of marble-dust and the trees were whitewashed. Well, okay, but how come we were so damned cold?

Young is a great old man and Ned Sherrin drew some marvellous stories from him. He'd paint anything for films: he even turned white South African rocks black - to match an Irish beach for Ryan's Daughter - and he went back to Spain again to film T E Lawrence in Arabia. Sher- rin suggested that this film had ruined Peter O'Toole's health. Nonsense, said Young briskly, it was the drink that did for him.

Last week Sherrin interviewed the vain and waspish A L Rowse, for the same series, shouting every question into what, one imagines, was a vast brass ear-trumpet, to be richly rewarded with a gossipy display of wisdom in hindsight, and, astoundingly, the occasional admission that he might have been wrong. The intangible sense of history billows around these old troupers. Young photographed his first film, about the Battle of the Somme, in 1918. It was called, with grotesque irony, Victory. Yet the liveliest memory of his avowedly very happy life was of the cats'- meat man, who prowled the streets of his childhood with a knife and once muttered darkly at him: "I'll 'ave yer gizzard".

When Shirley Temple was a naughty tot, she was put in a pitch-black box with a large block of ice. That's how they disciplined Kids Glorious Kids (R2) in those days, even wicked little starlets. But she was tough: she grew up to be an ambassador with a strong sense that filming is work not play, and that time is money - and she isn't scared of the dark and likes ice in her drinks. So there.

Bonnie Langford, who introduced this entertaining study of performing children, is similarly resilient. She is in her thirties now and a little weary of her child-star image, but she knows it did her proud. And, despite the horror stories about the brat Macaulay Culkin, she thinks children manage better today. She asked choirboy Anthony Way what he would become when his voice broke and he answered, with commendable alacrity, a marine biologist.

Langford's own best anecdote came near the end. Noel Coward, who famously recommended Miss Worthington to any career but the stage, had himself been a tiny thespian. That didn't stop him from giving young Bonnie her best/worst notice, for her part in the staged version of Gone With the Wind. When asked his opinion, he replied crisply "Cut the second act - and the child's throat".

Jeannie from Manchester was but an infant when she went to her first tea-dance at the Ritz, but she's still at it, 40 years on, slapping on the warpaint weekly to do some jolly jiving with her friend Joan. Angela Rippon was splendidly absurd interviewing people who spend a fortune beauti- fying themselves for The Way You Look Tonight (R2) - and indulging in a day of sybaritic pampering herself, at a discreet health club.

For once, the radio was inadequate, or the commentary too polite. A L Rowse would have given us a fine, sharp description of the effect of all the therapies on the likes of the pig-farmer Miranda Shufflebotham, whose pink toenails give her the poise of Bardot, though they are forever hidden by her wellies, but we got little impression of how she looked, beyond the fact that her husband hadn't noticed the difference. As for Pat from Rotherham, she's had every treatment you can imagine for 30 years and claimed to have legs as solid as Schwarzenegger's. What were they like? Goodness knows: Rippon just cooed and went on dipping her chin in camphor.

There's no avoiding it any longer: only three days left before it all begins - or concludes, judging by the build-up. To celebrate this holy Christmas tide, the National Theatre of Brent offered us The Greatest Story Ever Told (R4). It was, of course, absurd. Introduced by Cecil B de Mille pyramid-building music, the two-man company messed about with the story of the New Testament in their own, thankfully inimitable, fashion. They are a deeply infuriating pair, making a virtue of banality and reducing the whole thing to quasi-pompous, sub-Pythonesque misunderstandings, featuring epistolary apostles, Sir John the Baptist and St Mary Maudlin. I managed to stick with them for nearly an hour, but it felt heroic.

And, apart from a particularly frightful episode of Yesterday in Parliament (R4) starring trigger-happy peers desperate to hang on to their weaponry, I heard nothing else but wall-to-wall carols, tinkling away on every station. This was particularly true of Clas-sic FM, where everyone, presenters and advertisers alike, went carol-crazy and even the jingles jingled. Rising long before dawn last Sunday, in a panic about things to be done, I was delighted to catch G K Chesterton fulminating against it all on Something Understood (R4). He wanted Christmas just to happen, without preamble, like magic, on the day itself. I'd lay a partridge to five gold rings that he was a man who never had to do his own shopping.

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