The Critics: The reason Miss America came on earth

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Four women today, none quite what she seems. First on the catwalk is Miss America 1958: let's hear it for her! Eighty million people watch, awestruck, as this blue-eyed blonde is crowned. From now on, the compere proclaims, her address will be Main Street USA. But this girl, Marilyn Van Derbur, is Not Just a Pretty Face (R4); oh no, she has a beauty that makes all the other girls seem drab - so let's see the rest of her wholesome family. On come her three lovely sisters, her proud momma gushing about this coronation being every mother's dream, her father saying she's bin a lovely gal all her life ...

And then suddenly it's 1991 and Marilyn is giving a public lecture (besides being the most popular Miss America of all time and gaining straight As throughout college, she has also become a TV presenter and the most successful female lecturer ever, in the entire history of the continent), and she is telling the world that she was routinely and regularly raped by her father between the ages of five and 18.

It is a shocking moment - indeed it is a shocking story - and it ought to leave us brimming over with grief and sympathy. Somehow it doesn't. It may be something to do with all those superlatives, or the many, detailed descriptions of the sobs that eventually accompanied her acknowledgement of the trauma (heaving, terrible, gut-wrenching); or the therapies she tried In Recovery (dance-therapy, art-therapy, um, self-defence-therapy?); or the unswerving adulation of her husband, her devoted "youth-leader" and her profoundly understanding daughter. But I think the moment she lost me was when she said "For this reason I came on earth," ie that other incest-survivors might see her, touch her, gain strength from her ... is this auto-apotheosis?

Which takes us to La Divina, an R2 Arts Programme about Maria Callas. It took a few chuckling minutes to get used to the idea of Simon Callow's rich coloratura baritone describing, in every colour and shade of the vocal spectrum, "the woman who searched for love, lived for her art and died, alone and lonely, 20 years ago, almost a recluse, in her Paris apartment". But soon script, announcer and audience settled down to an interesting and honest account of Callas, whose voice was the most thrilling ever recorded and whose temperament was far less troublesome than her mischievous contemporaries suggested.

Alan Sievewright, who seems to have made a living as a gossipy Callas expert, contributed little useful information but Lord Harewood, who met her at the very beginning, was far more convincing. He said firmly that there was no element of truth in her reputation for being difficult, that she was committed and professional, seeing no division between acting and singing, that she found being a celebrity rather fun. He admired her, of course, but he also liked her very much. The hero and villain of her life was Aristotle Onassis, who collected her if she had been a thoroughbred racehorse or an Impressionist painting, refused to marry her and dropped her as soon as Jackie Kennedy, a more collectable item, hove into view - though he could never quite let her go (there was only a veiled hint at the story that he had insisted on her having an abortion if she wanted to stay with him). Dame Joan Sutherland, herself dubbed La Stupenda, spoke of La Divina's myopia, her tireless insistence on thorough rehearsal, her brave decisions to sing the notes as written, however high and risky, and of her generosity to younger singers. Apart from the irresistible "Vissi d'arte", the examples chosen to illustrate that glorious sound were unusual - and stupendous, if not literally divine.

The last two women are fictional, creations of the writer Stewart Permutt. He has bravely marched into Alan Bennett country and staked out his own impressive territory, producing subtle and touching monologues describing Singular Women (R4). The first was the story of Bea, the mistress of a minor comic called Harry Kitchener whose suicide has made her fleetingly interesting to a prurient world. If Callas-Onassis was 100 per cent rich and glitzy romance, Harry-Bea's would scarcely register on the scale, but it is the same in essence.

Bea defends Harry against charges of whimsical, cruel neglect - he broke her jaw by accident, she says, and sent her flowers in hospital "and he would have come to see me, but he hated hospitals". No, no, she didn't regret not having children and Harry was even talking about divorcing his wife the night before he threw himself off Archway viaduct in north London. Ah, poor Bea, poor Maria.

The next night we heard Celia Imrie as Frances, a lonely Exeter schoolteacher who once hoped that life was going to be heavenly and romantic, like a production she saw of The Sleeping Beauty when she was nine. Of course it isn't. Her only friends are a pair of lesbians living miles away and she is in terrible trouble over the death of a child in her class whom she had actively disliked. This was, if anything, even better than the first - and, hooray, there are two more to come next week.

Finally, let's abandon these sad women and rejoice in Mark Twain, a character who represents the magnificent antithesis of all that is tacky about the Miss America Pageant - and a man who really knew how to enjoy himself. Duncan Minshull abridged and directed five of his stories for Book at Bedtime (R4). Read by a splendidly deadpan Kelsey Grammer, they were the very opposite of soporific and had me desperately trying not to laugh for fear of missing the next sentence - and failing noisily.