Time to kill or be killed

the week on radio
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The Independent Online
Time was, time was a public commodity: most people would know what time it was by the firing of a noonday gun, or by looking at a clock on a church or a town hall or a jeweller's shop, or by hearing the nightwatchman explain that it was two o'clock and all was well, if they ever did say that, which frankly I doubt. But with the mass-ownership of watches, time has been broken up, individualised: just as we all keep our own consciences now, instead of relying on the Church to distinguish good and evil for us, so we all keep our own time of day.

Of course, just as we need some common core of morality for society to function, so we need some shared notion of time, or we'd spend our lives missing appointments and finding that we hadn't videoed the last five minutes of favourite television programmes; so most people check their watches against public time-keeping every now and then to make sure they're roughly in line with everybody else. But public time-keeping is no longer our primary source of chronological information: instead, we look at our wrists.

One place where time is still publicly announced is on the radio. Time- checks are such a familiar part of the background that we don't stop to think about the point of them. In the mornings, it seems obvious enough: they're to let you know how close your deadlines are, at a time of day when most people are in a hurry. Even here, there's room for speculation as to how far we rely on timechecks to tell us the time, and how far we appreciate them as adding to the general breakfast-time sense of bustle.

At other times of day, the time-check takes on a different role - it's there to impart a sense of immediacy. Hence, on Radio 4, you get time- checks during news programmes such as PM and The World at One, but not during other live programmes, such as Kaleidoscope. (I'm not sure if The Afternoon Shift bothers with them; then again, the fact that I haven't noticed is significant in itself.)

Time is not always an issue: not on Radio 3, with its long tradition - now, sadly, being stamped out - of refusing to take any notice of the clock. Not in plays and stories, either; blunting the flow of real time is one of the purposes of fiction.

An exception to that rule was Thirty Minutes to Kill (Radio 4, Tuesday), a brief comedy in real time by Lynne Truss. Michael Maloney and Haydn Gwynne played a couple about to set out on holiday who suddenly find they have half an hour to spare. Truss used the time to examine contrasting attitudes to the clock: she is a compulsive worrier, insanely superstitious and fanatically punctual; he is seemingly more laid-back and unhurried, although it turns out that his apparent relaxation is at least partly a pose to torment her. Their battle of wills lasts a neat 30 minutes, as he runs baths, lets the cat out, goes down to the shops to buy milk - anything to delay the evil hour of departure; she, meanwhile, is rapidly losing her grip on sanity.

As the minutes ticked by, and roles were (a little implausibly) reversed, you worried that the title might hold some sinister double meaning: a countdown to murder, perhaps. All in all, interesting as a play which negated its own raison d'etre - how could it matter that it was set in real time when you were too busy listening to check your watch?