‘Bait by Cartier,’ she growls as her priceless diamond bracelet is strapped to a piece of rope and dropped overboard in the hope it might lure a fish on to the line. She’s stuck on a boat with a group of survivors after the freighter she was aboard was hit by a German U-boat during the second world war. She was Tallulah Bankhead, playing Connie, heroine of John Steinbeck’s novel-cum-film Lifeboat, for Mystery Theater, the American radio drama series, first broadcast in 1950 and now replayed on Radio 4 Extra (Sunday).
They just don’t make voices like that anymore. It had star quality streaked right through it. That deep husky tone, the raucous laugh, the harsh put-down veering almost at once into a sensual come-on. I was hooked from the first word, even though the dialogue was pretty terrible (‘Some of my best friends are in concentration camps’). The film from which the radio script was taken was made right in the middle of the war and when a survivor from the submarine is brought on to the boat, the anti-German propaganda just gets embarrassing.
But it was so vivid. No question. I could have been sitting on an itchy red velour cinema seat in an old-fashioned double-aisle cinema, watching Bankhead and co tossing on an alien sea. The sound effects were dreadful — great sploshes of water, whirling wind, flapping sails — yet the image of Bankhead, draped in a mink coat, tapping out her latest report for her newspaper, was so immediate, so compelling.
It was vintage, in both senses. Incredibly old-school yet at the same time a classic example of radio theatre, the drama all conveyed in the voice, the interaction between the characters, and in this case the sweeping strings of the soundtrack. It was intriguing, though, how every 15 minutes or so the voices were allowed simply to fade away as the next advert break became necessary. I couldn’t help thinking this might be the future for Radio 4, if the government has its way and the licence fee is replaced by some other form of funding. Plays broken up, tension interrupted, by ads for dentures and health insurance.
It would also be unlikely in such a brave new radio world to hear programmes like Inside the Ethics Committee (Radio 4, Saturday night). The title itself is hardly gripping, yet it never fails to engage, as Joan Bakewell and her expert guests explore some of the most testing ethical questions faced by the medical profession. Not, though, in isolation from everyday life. Each programme takes a case study and delves into the questions it raises. Not at all the Moral Maze, because it’s never combative, although often full of troubling contradictions. This is life-and-death, as could be faced by any one of us and the medics trying to treat us.
This week their topic was suicide: how far should a medical team go to prevent a young woman from killing herself. Their case study was 22-year-old Samantha, who has tried to kill herself several times, on one occasion causing so many injuries she had to relearn how to walk. She’s become obsessed by internet suicide forums, spending every waking moment ‘chatting’ to others about their wish to die. Every day is a challenge to keep her alive, for her distraught family and the mental-health team. Yet she always appears calm, clear and articulate. She had, as the medical team determined, ‘capacity’ to think for herself, to make decisions. Confusingly, though, she has been repeatedly sectioned by them to keep her safe. As Professor Deborah Bowman explained, ‘I want to understand her “capacity” much more… Have all the available treatment options been considered?’
This was as gripping as any drama because, although on the surface it was a discussion between medical and legal experts, at the heart of it was Samantha’s plight. Would she, could she, be helped? In the end it was family therapy that allowed a chink of light to enter her desperate situation. ‘I’m very lucky to get out of it alive,’ she said. ‘They did everything they could to protect me.’ (The producer was Beth Eastwood.)
On the World Service on Tuesday, The Documentary took us to New Zealand and the tiny libraries that are found in even the smallest communities, established for decades and now just as much social centres as homes for books. Julie Shapiro first came across them in 1998 when she hitched through the country taking odd jobs on farms in return for bed and board. In Waipiata she read Herman Hesse, proof of which still survives in an old notebook from that time.
The libraries tell a mini-history of New Zealand itself, says Shapiro and her co-presenter Miyuki Jokiranta. Isolated and sometimes very small, with no more than 35 members, they are far-ranging in content and imagination. At Waipiata the keys to the library are kept behind the bar of the local pub. But will they still be there in 20 years’ time?
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