RLS and the lore of an ass : THE CRITICS : Radio

IN FRANCE, towards the end of 1878, Robert Louis Stevenson acquired a small donkey called Modestine. With her, he wrote, invoking the Psalms, he would set off on his travels "out of which if I do not make a book, may my right hand lose its cunning ". Travels with a Donkey was the famous result, but Stevenson was already the author of at least 600 letters. Alan Cumming has been Reading Aloud (R4) tiny selections of them, written in the 18 months before the purchase of Modestine: they are a joy.

Cumming has an intelligent, young, Scots voice, full of enthusiasm and warmth. Through him, you could hear the affection and resolution of the wayward son reassuring his parents - "You know I love you. I'll try to behave better if only I can''; the gratitude of a grown-up child to his old nanny - "Many a long night you sat up with me when I was ill. I wish I could hope to amuse a single evening for you with my little book"; and the daft exuberance of the youth - "I hate news. Love to the Dey. To Hell wi th the Pope. A man's a man for a' that."

The centenary of Stevenson's death has provoked a feast of fine radio drama. There were several short stories, a repeat of the magnificently spooky production of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and a powerful dramatisation of The Master of Ballantrae. This contained an unforgettable moment when the raffish, attractive villain refuses to die, though run through in a forest clearing, on a still, frosty night: "I felt the hilt of my sword strike his breastbone," his appalled brother shudders.

Not to be outdone, Radio 2 sent Hunter Davies off to Samoa In Search of Robert Louis Stevenson, while Radio 3's contribution was a whimsical little series called Songs of Travel. Rod Paterson sang a haunting air inspired by Kidnapped, and Mike Moran recalled the great man's appealing self-knowledge. He feared, we were told, that he was more like David Balfour than Alan Breck, for "an unconscious, easy, selfish person shocks less and is more easily loved than one who is laboriously and egotistically unselfish". It's good, that: you know exactly what he meant.

Radio 1 eschewed all this and went back to its roots with The Art of Noise. One Sunday in 1956, on Two-Way Family Favourites, George Martin first heard "Heartbreak Hotel". It astounded the young BBC producer: how did Elvis make that sound? Cliff Richard was intrigued too, and sent off for an American guitar. Bruce Welch of The Shadows recalled the sacred moment of its arrival. It sounded like opening Tutankhamun's tomb. There was this gleaming, pink Stratocaster, with walnut neck and gold-plated hardware, nestling in tissue-paper.

Pausing only to gasp, on we strummed to Pete Townsend, who wanted to be the loudest man in Britain. And now, the secret of his guitar-smashing was at last revealed in its pitiful banality. Townsend did it by accident, on the low ceiling of a provincial Railway Hotel: the audience shrieked, so the wretched instrument was glued together, day after day, only to be bashed up again every night.

This was a nostalgic programme, celebrating the make-do-and-mend quality of old pop classics. Paul McCartney made the first tape loop, just messing around; Paul Jones amplified his voice by plugging a microphone into an old Dansette record-player - sorry, gramophone; John Lennon, already way ahead of the others, demanded that his voice should sound like the Dalai Lama on a misty mountain-top. Somehow, Martin obliged, but we felt that scissors, string and Sellotape were vital. These days, of cours e, it's easy and electronic, but the drama's gone. As Welch said: "What we've lost is four guys sitting looking at each other, waiting for the red light to go on."

A different nostalgia was evoked by Frances Donnelly in Pony Tales (R4). She sought out the three Pullein-Thompson sisters, now in their sixties, whose horsey stories delighted her as a child. They collaborated on their first book in their early teens and then, Bronte-like, branched out. They are characters, out to prove that girls can have adventures too, once up in the saddle and able to see over a hedge. A chap brought them an unrideable brute one Friday, one of them said, and by Monday it won Best-Mannered Pony: "Just gave it a thump."

Nobody thumped a redundant pit-pony who wandered into a Nottingham front parlour on Prayer for the Day (R4). Canon Walter Beasley, voice like an old Hovis advert, has been celebrating cuddly equines this week. I'm not sure why - he's on very early - but three times now I've heard him sigh, "Ee, I do love donkeys." If he can't make a book out of it, may his right hand lose cunning.

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