Review: Tomorrow's radio sounds a right turn-off

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Indy Lifestyle Online

ON THURSDAY I saw a prototype of Tomorrow's Radio. It is like a little spaceship, or a hard pin-cushion. Detachable, ear-sized speakers can be stationed either side of sink or ironing-board, to elevate domesticity into stereophonic, CD-quality entertainment, while a personalised plunger chooses your station for you. Digital sophistication has eliminated doubt about what we hear. Serendi- pity has departed, downcast: chance encounters with, say, an unknown broadcaster extolling Finnish vodka will never happen again. Technically, though in a purely metaphorical sense, it's the cat's whiskers.

Two things are worrying: first, two new BBC radio channels will be dedicated to yet more sport and yet more old pop music, culled from what Matthew Bannister (late of R1) describes as an unparalleled archive. Yet sport already dominates R5 while R2, along with many commercial stations, currently flogs old songs way beyond death. No commercial station however - not even born-again Talk Radio - can rival the BBC when it comes to the spoken word, to drama, documentary and debate. Why don't they dare to play to this strength instead?

Secondly, digital radio will also display pictures. If, for example, Sinead O'Connor is singing, a nice photo of her will appear by magic on its surface. I don't think it will actually be a moving picture, but one day soon ... Oh goodness, we seem to have invented television.

The media are rapidly colliding with the World Wide Web sprawling over every home. If the very surface of a radio has become yet another screen, it seems unlikely that future generations will experience the power of pure, evocative sound to ignite the imagination. So, while we can, let us glory in it.

Two plays this week experimented with truth and speculation. Something to Declare (R4) began with the voice of Aurelia Labetz who was 14 when she boarded the SS Empire Windrush on 13 May 1948, in Mexico. The Windrush was, of course, bringing 450 West Indians to England in response to an urgent appeal for manpower, but Aurelia doesn't remember seeing any of them. War had tossed her from Poland to Siberia to Australia to New Zealand to California to Mexico and now she was sailing to join her father, a general whom she had not seen for seven years but who was waiting for her in London.

An enthusiastic, multi-racial cast of actors from the Royal Court Youth Theatre improvised scenes from her journey. The play, which is to be performed on stage next month, complemented last Saturday's equally affecting Archive Hour: Crossing the Water (R4) - though the latter cast its nets more widely, landing a young African stowaway, old Jews, the hungry Irish, dispossessed Ugandan Asians and Vietnamese boat people onto our shores, to experience an often sadly muted and suspicious welcome.

Archive recordings were also used for another innovative drama, Joe Dunlop's The Strange Petitioner (R4). Robert Andrews was a Dunkirk survivor who had suffered some undefined wrong and wanted to clear his name. He supported himself by outwitting arcade slot-machines, later becoming a tramp and for 34 years haunting the central lobby at Westminster, petitioning MPs on the subject of world peace.

He died last Christmas Day, on the streets. Karen Rose's intriguing production wove live interviews into snatches of news bulletins, surreal conversations between Andrews and his younger self and dramatised scenes from his shadowy life. It was a fascinating, ultimately tragic play, asking more questions than it answered. Why, for example, did none of these grand Parliamentarians, all of whom liked and admired Andrews, ever manage to discover the nature of his grievance? Peter Bottomley gave him birthday cakes, Emma Nicholson begged him to see a doctor, Lord Weatherill wished he had granted him a debate, Tony Benn intends to erect a plaque - but the enigma persists.

Two R4 series struck gold this week. Matchmakers described the work of agents out to make successful matches. These were: unspeakable, money- grubbing head-hunters; contented rose-breeders; a high-class marriage- broker; an adoption agent and a woman whose job was to match human bone- marrows. This last was particularly touching. She described the strong bond that develops between donor and grateful recipient, a special blood- relationship as powerful as parenthood. I hope it makes everyone want to contact the Anthony Nolan Trust.

Finally, Intimate Death went into a palliative care unit in Paris, via the best-selling diary of Marie de Hennezel, their staff psychologist. Not since The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly has there been such a forthright and tender account of terminal illness. The introductory music sounded like an underwater recording of a slow ambulance siren and the translation was awkward in its determined accuracy but Frances Barber's low and level voice was a cool hand on the forehead. It ended with Marie visiting a very old woman who advised her: "My child, life is generous to those who seize it with both hands. Live!" Marie's comment on this was profoundly grateful: "The old lady has fanned my own life's flame with her dying breath." You don't need a picture to see that.