Radio: Wallis and Gromit, the new Simpsons

"Her dancing style is a cross between marching on the spot in heavy mud and milking a very tall cow." I managed to catch only one sentence of Monday's Short Story (R4) as I hurried out, but that line, from Ioan Meredith's Will You Marry Me?, was too good not to be scribbled down hastily, just in case it could be shoe-horned into this column. The radio is a tyrant and a tease. For every full programme I hear, there are a dozen jottings like that around our house: it's time to use a few.

Farming Today (R4) generates such notes almost daily. On Tuesday, I surfaced just in time to hear of another scare about the poor benighted cow. Did you realise that when cows are fed on silage, they ingest as much alcohol as if they consumed a daily bottle of Famous Grouse? No wonder they mooch about abstractedly and allow strange men to strap machines on to their udders.

And cows suffered yet another damaging slight in Monday's Advent Calendar (R3), when Bishop Jack Spong remarked that not only are no animals mentioned in St Luke's account of the Nativity, but there isn't even a stable. The Christian imagination has generated the tradition of gently lowing cattle from the one word "manger", which Luke does mention, twice. As we are learning, gratefully, to expect from this series, his remarks introduced a new (to me) and beautifully performed setting of a favourite carol. I was also reminded of my daughter's early, cow-free version of the second verse, which began: "The battle below him, the baby awakes ... "

Julian Pettifer was down among the ape-men this week, in Africa, seeking out the origin of our species. But, even by the end of the first part of Slaves to Nature (R4), we were still with animals. Homo had been robustus and become erectus, but was not yet sapiens, developing in tandem with another large and omnivorous creature, the pig.

Though Pettifer apologised for simplifying the story, it was still a lesson in anthropology that made heavy demands on your reviewer. I clung to a single clear fact: we can be confident that, apart from hairlessness, we have nothing at all in common with the naked mole-rat.

Cue for another snippet. What do the following have in common: Longfellow's tiresomely jog-trotting poem Hiawatha and that masterpiece of anguished, contemplative religious verse, the Dies Irae? Answer, courtesy of Jane Glover on The Heritage Quiz (R4): they are written in exactly the same octosyllabic metre. Think about it.

Now for the return of one of R4's best series, reinvented yet again. It was interesting to hear what Ben Pimlott was confiding to his Dear Diary (R4) while his biography of the Queen was being published, though it sounded a little bogus and contrived, especially when he began quoting rave reviews. With his family, he sounded nice, but unwise: first to let his children watch Silence of the Lambs, and then to try to justify such leniency. Things improved towards the end when he quoted other diarists' views of events, which was more like the old formula for the series. I wish they'd bring it back.

Oh, by the way (are you getting used to this?), do you know what they call hot flushes in Yorkshire? A listener told a startled Jimmy Young (R2) recently that they are referred to up there as "Tropic- al Moments" - isn't that nice?

While tuned in to R2, I could mention a new "nostalgic" quiz show about old pop music. But Wowfabgroovy is really so trite, and the teams so absurdly aggressive with their perishing buzzers, that I'd rather not.

Let's go back to royalty instead, and a tour de force by Stockard Channing as the Duchess of Windsor in Elizabeth Proud's three-part drama Wallis - the Life and Legends of Wallis Simpson (R4). One of the most enduring legends about the famously rich and thin Mrs Simpson is that she learned mysterious sexual tricks in the Far East, with which she ensnared her Prince. There was a naughty reference to this in a scene where her drunken first husband drags her off to the Shanghai fleshpots and then evilly cackles: "Still, you learned a thing or two, didn't you?"

She confided the secret of her charms to one man, who had the unenviable task of escorting her in her flight across France just before the abdications - but, alas, he was exhausted and fell asleep while she was talking, thus miss- ing the juiciest piece of Royal gos- sip until Squidgygate. What he did learn, however, was that the Duke was not, as she nastily put it, "heir-conditioned".

Channing dodges up and down the century, transforming herself from the pathetic old lady imprisoned by the fiendish Maitre Blum in Paris, to a wilful Baltimore teenager, a sadly disillusioned young bride, an impoverished divorcee and a bitter, ambitious Duchess, without ever losing her convincing identity or the listener's attention.

Sue Wilson, who did so well with the recent radio adaptation of Women in Love, directs the piece with panache, using bitter-sweet contemporary songs for period atmosphere and toying with the listener's sympathy as the embattled pair behave with increasing petulance, and even serious treachery. With Proud, Wilson and Channing all giving of their considerable best, and a strong supporting cast of lovers, courtiers, servants and society gossips, it makes for compulsive listening.

And it leads straight to the last eavesdropping for today, the moment from the eternally happy and glorious I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue (R4) when Willie Rushton performed a verbal charade. He was asked to utter a sentence which would lead his opponents to guess the identity of the television cartoon series, The Simpsons. In an execrable New England accent, he enquired: "Surely she's not going to marry that dysfunctional upper-class chinless wonder from London, England? What, I ask you, was the matter with Gromit?"

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