Radio A Little of What You Fancy / Heartache Radio 4

Robert Hanks
Friday 16 February 1996 00:02

The author HE Bates was prompted to write A Little of What You Fancy by a heart attack; the late Mel Calman was prevented by one from finishing Heartache. Both wrote stories that revolved around a heart attack, and in both cases the attack delivers the same puritanical message: cut down on fatty foods, no more alcohol, no more excitement, no more sex. We all owe a debt to pleasure, and a heart attack is the final demand.

After that, the similarities stop. Bates's Larkin stories are very insular - Ma and Pop (Pam Ferris and David Jason, reunited from the television version) and their insufferable brood live in an improbable isolation from the modern world, although yesterday morning's opening episode of A Little of What You Fancy hinted that a motorway may be about to burst their bubble; but at least Bates's plots are about more than one person, and the people are usually nice to each other. By contrast, there's a deep, rather unlikeable introversion apparent in Calman's comedy, broadcast last night - there are a number of characters, it's true, but most of them are parts of one man's body, and they spend their time bickering among themselves about who's to blame for the body's current rocky condition.

The only other participants in the drama - a stereotypically fanciable nurse and an ogrish ex-wife - aren't really characters at all, just excuses for the Brain, the Heart and the Penis (you wonder how David de Keyser felt about being cast in that role) to squabble, while the Stomach grumbles about not getting enough sustenance.

Despite Calman's gloomy egotism, his comedy - completed by Deborah Moggach - is more palatable than Bates's dewy-eyed fantasy. There are clever things in the stories - Eric Pringle's serialisation shows just how far Ma and Pop are intended to be mythic characters, her a wide-hipped fertility goddess and him an ageing Bacchus or Pan (when a rumour spreads that he has died, one local screams "It's the end of the world," as though the old gods have passed away).

But I just don't buy this picture of countryfolk as wily sensualists; it's an understandable reaction against falsely sentimental pictures of simple peasants, but it's no less sentimental or false. In the end, the Larkins feel less like figures from myth than figures from a cartoon strip.

The cartoonist Calman, on the other hand, may have chosen a more overtly unrealistic form for his drama, but he uses it to work out a far more believable set of anxieties - a heart attack isn't the end of the world, but it is an introduction to a new vulnerability. And, as in much of his work as a cartoonist, there's a war-weariness you can sympathise with.

The horrible ex-wife is evidence not so much of misogyny as of his conviction that the battle of the sexes is intolerable and inevitable: he has the attitude of the soldier in a First World War movie who longs for the fighting to stop, but must go on killing to survive.

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