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Radio comedy still misses Kenneth Williams

Plus: was Erica Jong guilty of TMI in Fear of Flying? And Julia Hobsbawm finds out whether we really are separated by six degrees and a drama not to miss

27 February 2016

9:00 AM

27 February 2016

9:00 AM

It’s tempting to believe that somewhere in the bowels of Broadcasting House in London the voice of Kenneth Williams is still roaming, rich, ribald and ever-so-fruity, ready to jump out and surprise us. He was just so unmistakable on air, both fantastically intimate with the microphone and very aloof, but never better than playing someone totally off-the-wall. The wireless was tailor-made to suit his temperament, which could be flamboyant and out-of-control and yet was also intensely private and controlled. Without him and his zany characters (he died in 1988, aged 62) radio comedy especially has never been quite the same, with no one to take on his mantle of absurdity. There have been others as risqué, or as tongue-in-cheek, but no one quite matches his daring because everyone now cares too much. Williams was intensely proud (and often thought the material he was given nowhere near matched his intellectual gifts), but he was also always prepared to go right to the edge, or even over it.

Radio 4 Extra’s tribute evening on Saturday (to mark what would have been his 90th birthday) gave us clips from some of his most well-known appearances on Hancock’s Half Hour, Round the Horne, Just a Minute), compèred by Robin Sebastian, who does a mean impersonation of the man himself. But we also heard a newly edited version of Diary of A Mad Man, which Williams made in 1963, based on a Gogol short story about a man who descends into schizoid paranoia. Williams is quite terrifying as he steadily grows madder and madder in his fantasies, wrapped up in his own world, totally alone, just some strange electronic sounds as an accompaniment. No one else could have said, ‘The caliph of Baghdad has a wart right on the end of his nose’ with quite as much menace. In fact Williams found the experience of making it so terrifying he ran out of the studio in the middle of the afternoon and on to Portland Place and had to be coaxed back inside by the producer to finish the recording.


Were you very shocked to hear excerpts from Erica Jong’s controversial bestseller Fear of Flying dramatised on what was once rather primly known as the Home Service in the middle of the morning? No, I thought not. Jong’s ‘zipless fuck’ and libidinous heroine Isadora may have appeared revolutionary in 1973 when they first hit the bookshelves but her prose comes across as rather tame these days, in spite of being billed as part of the ‘Riot Girls’ season on Radio 4. Isadora, an American journalist, has grown bored with her marriage to Bennett and soon falls for Adrian Goodlove at a conference of psychiatrists in Vienna.

What made the book so shocking at the time was that it read so strongly like autobiography. Was this Jong’s fantasy or her lived experience? No one could be sure. Were we meant to admire Isadora or be repelled by her brazen commandeering of the male gaze? I still think Jong is guilty of giving us TMI, and her heroine strikes me as a woman who lacks emotional connection, rather than being a true original. Isadora’s world-view, after all, is totally circumscribed by men and how she relates to them, which sounds very dated now.

On Friday morning on Radio 4, Julia Hobsbawm investigated whether in this age of connection the idea that just six degrees, or six links, separates strangers from each other is more or less true. The theory became commonplace in the 1960s after research by the social psychologist Stanley Milgram (also responsible for some scary tests on obedience and conscience) showed that it takes only six steps for a message to be passed between strangers in America. The key to why this is so lies in the weak ties of a network, Hobsbawm explained, or in those friends who are somewhat peripheral, not fully connected into your circle and only occasionally part of it. In Six Degrees of Connection (produced by Jolyon Jenkins), Hobsbawm tried to prove its efficacy by randomly picking out the name of someone who lives on the island of Coll, off the west coast of Scotland. Could she find her purely through a series of contacts beginning with a friend who works at the Groucho Club in London?

Finally, a drama not to miss, just 45 minutes of such pointed and powerful dialogue it passes in a flash while also telling you all you might need to know about FGM and why more should be being done to see that it no longer goes on here. In Charlene James’s Cuttin’ It (Radio 4, Thursday, directed by Jessica Brown) two Somali teenagers, Muna (Susan Wokoma) and Iqra (Nahel Tzegai), become friends without realising that they also share a secret, embedded in their culture, and brought here from their home country. James’s drama has already won two playwriting awards and now just last month won a BBC Audio Award for best single play (it was first broadcast last year). It’s a fiercely political play yet told not through message but meaning as the two teenagers come to an understanding of each other.


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