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Unsung poets

We might actually be glad of the time difference over in Australia this Christmas, so that we can switch on to Aggers and co.

18 December 2010

12:00 AM

18 December 2010

12:00 AM

We might actually be glad of the time difference over in Australia this Christmas, so that we can switch on to Aggers and co. and listen in peace long after Aunt Maud has been safely tucked up with her mug of Horlicks and hot-water bottle. The Fourth Test in Melbourne promises to be the best present of the season, cheering up the nation and turning us all into Yes We Can people after decades of No Can Do. Who can remember a time when cricket has been so incredibly exciting, with England’s batters whacking the ball into triple figures, and wickets falling ball-on-ball not to the terrifying speed of the West Indians or the crafty spinning of those turncoat Aussies but to our own Broad, Swann and Anderson? It’s enough to turn me into an ardent member of the Barmy Army.

Don’t bother with the TV highlights, though; they’ll give you nothing of the real flavour of the game, with its graceful pacing and carefully plotted psychological drama. For that you need the real-time locus of radio — and the linguistic skills of Jonathan Agnew, Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Henry Blofeld. Cricket is probably the only sport that can work on radio, because you really don’t need to see what’s happening on the field — not usually anyway, it’s all so slow, and deliberate, like moving pieces on a chessboard. No, what you need to understand is that it’s one man’s skill against another’s wit, ball against bat, true spin against the survival spirit. And who better to describe this than those unsung poets on Test Match Special (Radio 4 or Radio 5 Live).

‘It’s just really fun,’ says Pamela Stephenson about the experience of appearing on Strictly Come Dancing as a 61-year-old grandmother with no ballroom training. She is talking to Michael Berkeley for Private Passions on Boxing Day, and I can reveal that she tells us an astonishing fact about her childhood, which you’d never guess from those dexterous performances in the Charleston. Judging by her new-found flair for dance, and her unbelievable energy, her psychologist’s training must have included lessons on how to magic up the elixir of life, but unfortunately an hour on Radio 3 is not enough to pass it on to us ordinary mortals. Stephenson’s choice of music, though, is as elegant and thoughtful as those dances she’s achieved on Saturday nights, from Bellini to Richard Strauss via Scottish fiddlers and a bit of Balinese gamelan.

Victoria Wood is, if anything, a better writer than a performer, so listen out for Pat and Margaret, a radio version of her TV drama. Unfortunately, it’s being broadcast bang in the middle of Christmas Day afternoon, which is very appropriate for the subject matter — the bittersweet reunion of two sisters who’ve not seen each other for 27 years — but probably means most of us will have to listen to it on our laptops once the day is over.

Don’t miss it, though, as it’s Wood at her best, with some vicious lines relieved by moments of tenderness. Pat leaves home at 15 and becomes a huge star in Hollywood, while her younger sister Margaret is abandoned by their abusive mother and ends up as a waitress in a motorway service station. Their reunion is engineered by a reality-TV show called after that treacly Perry Como song, ‘Magic Moments’. The play was originally written in the 1990s and needs a bit of updating for 2010 (I never thought I’d say that, but times do change so quickly now). But I loved lines like ‘She’s an overweight northern waitress with all the sophisticated allure of an airline salad,’ and ‘The dress was so tight you could see me changing my mind.’ You don’t get it? Oh, never mind. They really worked when Tracy-Ann Oberman snapped them out like a whippet on a diet.

The cast (directed by Marion Nancarrow) is superb, with Imelda Staunton as an over-the-top TV presenter, Sarah Lancashire, Claire Skinner and Thelma Barlow as the blue-rinsed mother-from-hell. Perfect for tuning in to after one too many glasses of sherry and an overdose of family.

I’ll be making my mince pies in tune with the carols from King’s, the last batch coming out of the oven just as the last verse of ‘Hark the Herald Angels’ is over. It’s the only Christmas tradition that I’ve stuck with through thick and literally thin. I’ll also try to catch most of Sunday’s Christmas around Europe on Radio 3. If the festive season is about being brought together in joy and in hope, then this day of live music broadcast from different stations on the Continent via the European Broadcasting Union seems to sum it up. This year we’ll find ourselves one moment in the Teatro Monumental in Madrid and the next in Reykjavik at the Hateigs Church listening to traditional Icelandic carols via Prague, Knightsbridge and Helsinki. Who needs to spend money on travelling when you can do it for free on the radio?

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