RADIO; This is a comedy? That's a laugh

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WELL, I didn't laugh once. I did groan now and again, with incredulous disgust. Gladiators (R4) was billed as a comedy. It concerned a 35-year- old drunk whose mother committed suicide, whose wife had thrown him out, and whose father had just married a paralysingly stupid woman with whom the son had once had a grotesque fumble in a potting shed. In his new caravanette, the impotent father displayed his suede thong, designed to arouse the ardour of his new wife - who, incidentally, probably had an artificial leg. No wonder the actors sounded desperate.

It was, to say the least, not what we expect from R4. It made you long for Gerry Anderson - and there he was, back on Mediumwave (R4), reminiscing about his doomed residence in Anderson Country, which brought him such opprobrium as to make the preceding paragraph seem gentle. One listener sent him daily advertisements from a funeral parlour - this to a man who had been threatened with assassination by paramilitaries. "Now that's what I call radio criticism," he said.

It really wasn't Anderson's fault that the format of the series made such poor use of his remarkable talents, and it was a relief to hear him bouncing back. At home in Northern Ireland, he has taken up his old daily radio programme and he hasn't upset anyone for months. "Life," he said, "goes on here as it always has. Men on the dole walk their greyhounds silently, housewives still run with their arms folded, disaffected youths glare at their elders and people pretend that their lives are normal - well, mine is anyway." Hooray. Now, please, let's have some more Letters From Stroke City.

We critics got our comeuppance all week in a series of dispatches from The Maxton Festival (R3). It was an everyday story of farming folk. Sylvia Maxton has eight sons; her husband yearns for a daughter and has come to hate his chemically-run smallholding. By Friday, oh joy, the daughter was born and the farm had become organic. This was all observed by a horde of barking-mad arts critics, under the delusion that it was a multimedia festival. It was completely barmy.

The festival had two venues. In the Market Garden Arts Centre, the highly gifted young movement artist Alistair Maxton performed "Crop Spraying", to the breathless delight of dance critic Steffie Dawson (look to your laurels, Jenny Gilbert). "It was," she gasped, "a miraculous coming together of circular female creativity with linear male destructiveness - this young man has everything, the sinuous hips of a young Sinatra, the magnificent moodiness of a Jimmy Dean, the raw fierce energy of a Swayze. Great pecs, great butt, fabulous parabolics!"

Meanwhile, in the Maxton House Galleries, there was a daily recital of modern British gong music, at one o'clock at The Kitchen Window. In The Kitchen itself was to be seen a moving exhibition of hand-thrown pottery on the floor - a collection of shards, we were told, as eloquent as Pompeii or Troy. The Lounge was the setting for a small photographic exhibition by Happy Snap Studios, which displayed a genius for capturing "that peculiar stiffness that characterises post-modern family life". And on the festival fringe, at The Infirmary, Sylvia Maxton, a prima donna of the old school, performed "Accouchement 9", a variation on her earlier Accouchements, which had been staged as street theatre, as water ballet and, once, on a plane to Ibiza.

Hugh Walters, sounding exactly like Kaleidoscope's Paul Vaughan, introduced each item with an air of earnest innocence and enthusiasm - "Tomorrow we are promised a visit from the Secretary of State for National Heritage" (pause) "so that's something to look forward to" - and a small, brilliant cast assumed dozens of dotty characters. Chris Miller's complica- ted, sustained and hilarious par- ody was produced with subtle elegance by Louise Greenberg.

Last year Celia Toynbee compiled a delightful programme of listeners' responses to Elvis. This week Ed Thomason did the same on R3, with Bach. Dancing Bach took its title from the notion that the genius with 22 children wrote the kind of music that everyone can dance to. To this end, the choreographer Terry Gilbert was asked to imagine a ballet set to "Wachet Auf". Actually, his ideas sounded pretty dire, but the other contributors were utterly fascinating. Musicologists unravelled the great choral preludes to reveal the astonishing intricacy of their form, theologians spoke of the scriptural relation between music and text - you could hear the wise virgins scurrying about, trimming their lamps - and children imagined volcanoes and electric chairs as they listened to the harrowing of hell. In short, the programme concluded, he meets you on your own terms: if you want a beautiful tune, or gorgeous harmony, or elaborate cleverness, you will find it in Bach.

Finally, a mention of the best castaway to choose her Desert Island Discs (R4) for ages. Chili Bouchier was sacked from Harrods' Small Ladies Department for impropriety, jumped off the Eiffel Tower in a silent movie (well, sort of slithered, actually), twice refused the hand of Howard Hughes, married a couple of rotters and is hanging on by her fingernails to the end of the century.

Asked for the secret of her popularity by a clearly entranced Sue Lawley, she said that she'd been different, she supposed - plump, and nearly always happy, despite some spectacular disasters. She laughed again, slightly sheepishly, when choosing her luxury: like all the girls, she said, she'd need her make-up kit. Good for her.

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