Week on radio

PUBLISHING a book on tape and on radio but not in print may look gimmicky. But in the case of Tom Wolfe's Ambush at Fort Bragg - now available on the BBC Radio Collection, as well as being the current Late Book on Radio 4 - it seems like a rather good idea. Since its message is all about the way that television distorts modern society, it makes sense to try and put the message across to an audience less likely to sit down and read. And anyway, Wolfe's prose is perfect radio material - so lucid, bland and effortless that you can carry on with useful jobs like checking your bank statements and tackling those stubborn stains on the crockery without losing the thread.

The storyline is bulimic, so stuffed with issues that you expect it be violently sick as soon as it can sneak out to the lavatory: it revolves around a current affairs television programme that "ambushes" people into making damaging admissions in front of hidden cameras. In this case, the producers are trying to wangle a confession out of three redneck soldiers who have beaten to death a gay colleague.

As rather hurriedly read by Frank Muller, it has what in an ordinary book you might call page-turning quality - you are curious to know how it will turn out. What spoils it is the way Wolfe substitutes background research and lengthily detailed exposition of action for character and emotional engagement. The only character given any inner life at all is a paunchy, balding television producer who broods constantly on the fact that more attractive colleagues get all the fame and money. This is presumably meant as a comment on the society is obsessed with appearances; but it seems simplistic and predictable compared with the variety and subtlety of views expressed in The Face (Radio 4, Wednesday).

In this clever, occasionally eerie feature, Peter White went around asking various people (an artist, a mortician, a policeman, a plastic surgeon) about the relationship between face and character - the question gaining extra poignancy from the fact that White himself is blind. His starting point was the remark that we all get the face we deserve (White thought it was either Auden or Coco Chanel; in fact, it was the last entry George Orwell made in his notebooks before he died).

What gave the programme its strange, wistful quality was the way it turned life on its head: the first voice we heard was a mortician, explaining that you can read nothing, not intelligence, education, experience, into the face of a corpse. It finished at the other end of life, with babies who looked like old men, the experience of the ages engraved in their wrinkles. Surfaces, it seemed to argue, don't just mislead, they tell you cold-blooded and deliberate lies; and oddly, that came as a comforting thought.

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