Radio review: The light fantastic terror

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The Independent Online
Radio addicts often recall a road to Damascus, a broadcast that opened the inner eye through which all future listening would be seen. Mine was Patrick Hamilton's Edwardian thriller, Gaslight, which I heard one afternoon in my teens, ill in bed and cosseted by an indulgent mother. I've wondered since whether it was the flu that made it so utterly terrifying. Now I know it wasn't. You don't need a fever to be freaked out by this play.

Mysteriously, yesterday's was billed as the first radio production of Gaslight (R4), so I may be having a deja entendu. It's the story of Bella Manningham, whose smoothly cruel husband tries to convince her that she is losing her marbles. When he goes out, every foggy, yellow evening, the gaslights in her room become dim: as he returns, they flare up again, brightly (this is when you start biting your nails). In fact, he's busy in the locked rooms upstairs, hunting for some rubies hidden by an old lady whom he had, 20 years ago - in this very room - murdered.

One night, an elderly detective calls on Bella and begins to unravel this dastardly plot. But the lights flare up: the husband's coming back, and Bella must face him alone while Inspector Rough goes for reinforcements and a warrant (this is when your nails reach the painful quick). He begins to threaten her and for a moment you stop everything (or pull into a lay- by because your driving has become unreliable). But the Inspector returns in the nick, and you breathe again.

And then, oh heavens, she asks to be alone with him - and you wonder desperately whether you might have to retune to something safely roadworthy, like R2. But you stay with her and, joyously, you realise that she is playing him at his own game, pretending that she is too mad to help him; a sweet and perfect revenge.

Annie Castledene's exquisite production was tautened to snapping point by Hitchcockian strings. Roger Allam made a cold and sinister Manningham, the great Juliet Stevenson was a desperate Bella, nervous anxiety quivering in her young, frightened voice, and Corin Redgrave gave Inspector Rough so reassuring a presence that you could take comfort from the touch of his tweeds and his burly physique. Tremendous stuff.

Next Friday sees the 75th anniversary of the first experimental radio play (scenes from Cyrano de Bergerac, produced by Captain PP Eckersley at Writtle). Drama is still one of the best uses of the medium, as was well demonstrated this week.

Radio is the perfect vehicle for drama and Monday night took us to the west of Ireland for Peter Kavanagh's fine adaptation of JM Synge's The Playboy of the Western World (R4). The heroine is Pegeen Mike, engaged to the weedy Sean Keogh, a soft lad who (says Pegeen) wouldn't slit the windpipe of a screeching sow. Into her small shebeen stumbles Christy Mahon, claiming to have split his father's skull with a loy. Pegeen is captivated.

The great moment arrives with the father, damaged but unmurdered, who enters in pursuit of his miscreant son. The only weakness in this production was that Michael Elphick (as old Mahon) had definitely not been born in Ireland. Still, Aisling O'Sullivan made a feisty Pegeen and Dillie Keane a Widow Quinn fruity enough to steal the show, if not Christy himself.

To other things. Paul McCartney has been discussing his new work, Standing Stone, to be premiered on Tuesday on Classic FM, where Susannah Simons talked to him for Masters of Their Art. She was careful not to be too respectful, and succeeded in sounding slightly bored. Endearingly, he claimed not to be nervous about Tuesday - but he might pack the audience with his family. Edward Seckerson was more enthusiastic on a Kaleidoscope Feature (R4), asking him to describe his composing method. It is, said Sir Paul, as if he reaches into a black hole and pulls out the tunes: I remembered that he had awakened with "Yesterday" fully formed in his head, and spent weeks playing it to other people before he could believe that he had written it. Could this possibly be - dare we suggest - inspiration?

So ubiquitous was he that you might wonder why they didn't have him on Start The Week (R4) - for a moment. Then you hear Gore Vidal and everything is clear. McCartney is too innocently low-brow, too straightforward.

Vidal's conversation is airy, arch, seductive, well-informed, articulate, glittering - and slippery. He described a giant plot in which America was striving to take the whole world into an "imperium", and expressed stern isolationist views. Then he said, chillingly: "I have no interest at all in what happens to people in Bosnia and Croatia - though I go a little soft on Herzegovina."

That's when Bragg should have stepped in. Does he really care about Herzegovina? Or is he being (unforgivably) frivolous about a pretty name? And then you think well, this is not just a distinguished biographer and historian. This man also gave us Myra Breckinridge.

Finally, this week sees the 10th anniversary of the Hurricane. In After the Storm (R4) a tug-boat captain described his efforts to rescue a ship's crew in screaming seas; people remembered their terror as houses and forests were destroyed, and a woman in labour spoke of abandoning a useless car on the way to hospital in Tunbridge Wells, the roar of the wind so loud that huge trees crashed down around her, unheard. Yet sailors were saved; where a single almond-tree died, now 30 bloom in its place, and little Andrea, safely delivered, is celebrating her 10th birthday. Batten down the hatches - the wind is getting up.