The Critics: Hear all about it and save a rainforest

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Ah, well done, you've reached the critics' pages. Having surrounded yourself with a litter of news, sport, features, cookery and advertisements, you're settling down to reading the good stuff. Heavens, is it really all worth it? You could have just sat back and listened to the radio instead and saved yourself the trouble. The Sunday Format (R4) provided a grand opportunity to avoid hacking through the acres of rain forest that make up a Sunday paper by broadcasting the best bits for nothing, free on the airwaves.

It was all there: the new art craze - Marmite Buttocks at the Tate; lush pages of recipes celebrating a hitherto unfashionable fat, viz lard; the fashion-spread rejoicing in the eternal, interminable appeal of black (jacket by Big Black Jacket Co, pounds 440, wet-look trousers by accident); travel, and the Alliterative Train-Journey from Kidderminster to Kiev (next week, the Assonant Train-Journey, from Cumbria to Umbria).

There was the mandatory browse through regular features, like My First Shoes (this week, Vikram Seth), An Airing Cupboard of My Own and Measured Opinion - in which people of roughly the same height discuss the Sixties. There was the ad for dating agencies, claiming success with pairs of hideous psychopaths, and one for improving your English - "it is the facilitation of words which distinguishes the distinguished man from indistinct". There was the gloomy, disillusioned, famous columnist, stuck in Waitrose with no money and nothing to say but oh, such metaphors to say it in. As someone remarked at the beginning, The Sunday Format did what all good journalism should do, which is - um - which is nice.

Its author, John Morton, is the wittiest parodist of the year, and his splendid spoof, even if a little near the particular knuckle bashing my keyboard, was superb. Dear Beeb, please give him more work, at once, at once.

Nearly as good is Lynne Truss's series Tales From the Rockpool (R4). This week, Geoffrey Palmer, an actor who has made the sulky male menopause his own, starred as the hermit crab. Plagued by a painful, parasitic barnacle, his home is a borrowed none-up, one-down arrangement, his domestic help a ragworm who never cleans the corners and his life-companion a maddening, flighty anemone. His one comfort is snapping up the odd stray shellfish, and, luckily, there's one prawn every minute.

Some bright spark hit on the sea- side as a good subject for a summer season, so we are to be lost in "The Deep" for a few weeks. Thursday's offering was Whale Songs and Deep Sea Blues (R4), a strange piece about the hump-backed whale, which breeds in the Caribbean and then swims north to guzzle herrings, braving harpooners, killer whales, trading-ships and fishermen's nets on the way. We became fond of the mother and her calf making this perilous trip, partly because of the eerie, bent blues of their siren-song, more because of Shelagh Stevenson's dreamy, anthropomorphic writing.

Stevenson also wrote the week's most powerful play, Five Kinds of Silence (R4). Rightly postponed from the week of Dunblane, it was based on the true story of two Barnsley sisters who shot their father. Tom Courtenay played the father. "I'm Billy," he began, in a wheedling, little-boy voice that sent memory darting back to his eponymous role in the film of Billy Liar - and there were more parallels. Both Billys inhabit a world of their own imagining; both distress their families by lies and subterfuge. But, while Waterhouse's Billy is a comic dreamer, Stevenson's is a violent, incestuous tyrant.

Sue Johnston as his wife and Julia Ford and Lesley Sharp as their daughters matched Courtenay in the controlled intensity of their performances: these were women used to a state of such terrified submission that a remand centre seemed like very heaven to them. But the really remarkable thing about the play was that it persuaded you to believe the incredible, that for 30-odd years Billy could terrorise his family, shooting at their feet and violently beating them for buttering his bread in the wrong direction - and that nobody knew, nobody told and nobody asked. For an hour, politely and calmly, they recounted their terrible stories and their audience listened transfixed, while the angry ghost of Billy ranged, threatening and unquiet, through their minds.

Now just a mention of another arresting play by a new playwright. Bridget Lawless's The Beauty of Bone (R4) told a complicated story about a cynical old woman running a whimsical bookshop, where the stock is categorised by her opinion of the authors: bullies, bullshitters, defectors, impostors, plagiarists, sycophants, etc. She once wrote a best-seller and is visited by a brash lesbian researcher from Ohio who wants her to declare her allegiance to the gay community. Ambitious in plot and scope, tantalising in the subtlety of its production, this play grabbed your elbow and forced you to listen: I was glad that I did.

Less successful was What if ... (R4), a series in which historians rewrite history. This week they imagined the consequences of a Jacobite victory in 1745. If that Bonnie Prince Charlie, filthy drunken villain that he was, had become king, our contemporary Charlie would presumably be a harmless, eccentric princeling in Hanover, and the ex-queen of his heart might long since have settled for a gallant Norfolk squire. But such frivolous speculation did not concern our earnest specialists, who got bogged down in a series of hypotheses that left us with nothing more interesting than the absurd notion that France would have become the dominant power in Europe. Jamais!

Married for exactly twice as long as the Waleses are the couples who picked a really bad day for a wedding, the day England beat Germany at football. I Was a World Cup Bride (R2) gave a dozen women the chance to get their own back on the grooms who chose to squeeze into tiny hotel bedrooms with 70 men, in front of a blurry telly, instead of rejoicing in the delights of their nubile brides - who were left morosely drinking with their mothers and bridesmaids. Astoundingly, most of them are still married.

Finally, Farming Today (R4) provided another of those surreal dawn moments a radio critic cannot believe really happened. At 6.20 am on Tuesday, an English aeronautical engineer unveiled his master-plan. He is to bomb bald hillsides with sharpened, pre-packaged saplings and re-afforest the world. Hooray for British ingenuity - or was I still asleep and dreaming?

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