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Noel's house party gets two stars : Radio: THE CRITICS

Sue Gaisford
Sunday 05 February 1995 00:02 GMT

ELYOT and Amanda are celebrating the fact that they live in a marvellous age. "Take the radio, for instance," says he. "No darling," she replies, "don't let's take the radio." But last week that's just what they did. They'd have been better advised to follow Amanda's instincts.

The world of Noel Coward's Private Lives (R4) is remote, glamorous and leisurely. Nobody seems to have to work for a living, people meet at house-parties in flat Norfolk, the Duke of Westminster's yacht is always moored offshore and the only problem is whether or not to dine in the casino. On the radio, the Thirties atmosphere of slinky frocks, Marcel waves and cocktails on the balcony can only be conjured by the voices. When two honeymoon couples arrive in the same Deauville hotel, and one wife has previously been married to the other husband, the listener really needs to grasp who's talking. It was unwise to cast two actresses who speak in identical husky tones.

As for their husbands, neither quite passed muster. Simon Ward's Victor, briefly hitched to Imogen Stubbs's seductive Amanda, failed to produce the bellowing bluster required of a rampaging gasbag. No wonder she complained that she couldn't believe she was married to such rugged grandeur. Stephen Fry's Elyot was, at first, far more urbane than impassioned, but the play was somewhat redeemed by a tremendously noisy fight, with a reckless destruction of crockery that put your average Greek taverna in the shade.

Declaring itself to be In Love, Radio 4 sent us grateful journalists a delicious chocolate heart as a token of its "Romance Season" - at least, I presume all the rest of them got one too. It's a great idea, to while away the dull, nameless days before Valentine's with a feast of what keeps the publishing (and confectionery) industry buoyant, and they went at it with a will. We have been assailed with love - thwarted, star-crossed, tender, unconventional and nearly always requited - from dawn to close-down. Yesterday's play was adapted from a novel by Georgette Heyer and starred Sylvestra Le Touzel as Deb Grantham, alias Faro's Daughter. Though rather better than she ought to be, she is still a wench from the gaming house, where racy games of faro and piquet provide a suitably fiscal background to what becomes, in essence, an affair of the wallet.

For a heroine, Deb has to suffer a lot of abuse. But, though he calls her a doxy, a jade, a strumpet, a hussy, a harpy and a drab from the stews, she still manages to prove herself worthy of a rich man's love by virtue of her posh voice and awareness of the importance of appearances. "Calling me hard names will do you no good," she snaps prettily at the bold and offensive Ravenscar, before realising, appalled, that he cannot possibly go into the saloons with his ruffles singed. By dint of niftily de-ruffling her brother's cuffs, she rescues Ravenscar's dignity, saves the family fortunes and secures him as her husband. Supported by Anna Massey as a querulous aunt in the Wodehouse-Saki tradition and Sean Barrett as an absurd, superfluous Irishman, this was a real Regency romp: on fie, Abigail, cut my lace and loose my stays, I've a fit of the vapours on me.

From romance to nostalgia is a twist of the dial. A new series of Comedy Classics (R2) was introduced by the genial Ken Bruce (you don't have to be called Ken on Radio 2 but it clearly helps). In 1965, when this episode of Round the Horne was first broadcast, more than seven million people listened as the gang of nadgers and grunt-futtocks lowered their strobes and described the initiation of the Shuddering Brethren. Such ratings would be unbelievable these days. It was still very funny, and endearingly innocent, to hear the inimitable Kenneth Williams in the Bona Bouffant hair salon considering a new style for the suave, bald Kenneth Horne: "Best we can do with what you've got on top," he opined, knowingly, "is to huff on it and give it a quick once-over with a duster." They eventually settled for back-combing his eyebrows.

Things are very different on a desolate headland in Sunderland where Mickey Dorkin runs a pub. He is the world's worst footballer, sold by his team for Ten Pounds and a Box of Kippers (R4). His only customers are another gloomy player called Billy Pagan (who might be intending to exhume his wife) and a hopeless busker called Cactus Trollie whose dog drinks cherry brandy. So far, so odd. The plot thickens when a gang of bungling desperadoes called Biv, Cringe, Crate and Plinth smash up the pub one night on the orders of Roger Turner, a would-be magnate wanting to impress Councillor Crape, who rides a tandem with his beloved in the hope of winning green voters and becoming Mayor, in spite of the scorn of Turner's "daughterette" Shona.

That's just the background. It all takes place in broad Geordie, spiced with impenetrable slang. "Get the full S.P," I think they said, "then pull on yer bally, uv a gleek at the damage and take a bottle from the offy to the bus shelter". There are another five episodes coming. I found it easier to understand the complexities of the Defenestration of Prague, but I'll keep trying.

After all, as Coward's Amanda so profoundly observes, I don't believe in crying over my bridge before I've eaten it.

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