THE CRITICS RADIO: The evil that men write books about

Wansell promises some of his royalties will go to the West children, which poses another dilemma
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Molly Wansell is not too happy about her father's job. She's proud to tell her friends that he is a writer, glad that he is likely to make enough money to pay her school fees and to give the family nice holidays, but she doesn't want to dwell on the subject of his latest book. Lately, he's been insisting that she must never trust strangers - not even couples. She knows why, and, now, so do we. Geoffrey Wansell is writing a biography of Frederick West.

Do you really need this book? Why should the Official Solicitor have commissioned it, and why choose Wansell? These were questions neither asked nor answered by Your Place or Mine? (R4). It will probably sell, though Wansell promises that some of his royalties will go into a trust for the surviving West children - which in itself, of course, poses another moral dilemma. But this programme had a narrower focus: it was about what happened to the author and his family during the writing.

Wansell is an experienced biographer. He knows that the moment comes when he has to identify with his subject. At the outset, he suggested that West was way beyond any ordinary reckoning of evil: we might all agree. But as he listened to the hours of police tapes, as he registered the fact that West butchered his first pig at the age of nine - most of all, as he read West's own fragment of autobiography, written just before his suicide and entitled "I was loved by an angel", he began, disturbingly, to enter the killer's mind.

He wants to use a line from Dante: "a man's evil love can make the crooked path seem straight". He even described West's behaviour as "perverted love, for want of a better word". Oh, but there are better words - like distorted ambition, or what could be called a craving for fame. Worryingly, similar words were used of her husband by Mrs Wansell, a woman who sounded sensible until she began drivelling about having visited a "psychic reader". Meanwhile, Geoffrey was admitting that he half-admired West: "After all, every man wants to be a great seducer." Whatever money the Wansells make from this book, the price they pay might well be too high.

This was a skilfully constructed piece of radio, in which the listener was left to interpret the evidence with minimal intervention from Philippa Budgen, the interviewer. It has been a good week for such ventures. Tuesday's Thirty Minute Theatre (R4) was an untitled play by a pseudonymous author. It took the form of the unedited, taped diary of Sam, who was visiting New York to tell Helen, his ex-wife, that their son had committed suicide. The son had suffered from Aids, Sam from another degenerative illness, and Helen was a Broadway star - all of which tilted the plot dangerously towards melodrama.

However, the slow unfolding of the story via the clunk and whirr of the tape-recorder, and the stilted, clumsy way in which Sam dutifully detailed the meals he had eaten restored verisimilitude (it was like those childhood diaries when life seemed so dull that every day began "Got up ..."). And the acting was simply superb, both from George Parsons as Sam and from Tessa Worsley as Helen (who commandeers the machine secretly, when Sam is in the bath). Within 10 minutes, it had become the most compelling listening of the week.

R4 eavesdropped on a real father and son in Relatively Speaking: Sir Terence and Jasper Conran, praising each other to the heavens. Jasper was a child when his father started Habitat, back in the Sixties. He would be taken to the store in the Fulham Road and given elegantly crafted wooden toys. Two things bothered him: one was that his father would put money in the till for these treasures, which struck him as silly; the other was that he yearned for plastic trash. Now the pair of them are the very best of friends, and Jasper has designed the uniforms for (sly plug) his father's new restaurant. Funny, but through all the mulled claret of their mutual adulation, we were somehow not quite convinced.

Right, let's get back to nature and the everyday stories of farming folk. Again eschewing a presenter, The Country Life, unusually for R2, even managed to do without much music - apart from a solo fiddle and an occasional quaint folk song. This series has collected the voices of old rustics, remembering the rural way of life as it was lived from Saxon times until this century. It wasn't much fun to be a Welsh housewife, apparently, when every spring the cleaning reached manic levels of carpet-beating and wall-washing, but on the land it was somewhat more leisurely.

Life progressed at the pace of a cart-horse in those days, when the word broadcasting simply meant sowing seed-corn by hand. A man could plough an acre a day, walking eleven miles, one foot in furrow, one on tilth. You could tell a ploughman, apparently, by his wobbly gait. Pheasant eggs, smuggled in commodious knicker-legs, might provide supper - unless you were lucky enough to ensnare the ingredients for a delicious rook-and- rabbit pie. I'm not sure I quite buy all this idyllic nostalgia, quite apart from not much fancying that kind of treat. In spite of all the flak that The Archers (R4) is attracting at the moment for its brusque, contemporary treatment of the martyred Saint Shula, you can bet that those old broadcasters did their share of bashing the woman, especially when she hadn't done the same to her Welsh carpets.

Finally, a tribute to Denis Norden. Always the best thing about the panel game My Word, it was a treat to hear him again on Quote, Unquote (R4). Asked for family words of advice, he said that his father had never stopped dishing it out, but, alas, all that the son could remember was the gnomic warning: Always Avoid the North Circular Road. I think it's probably the way he tells them.