Comic relief

3 June 2017

9:00 AM

3 June 2017

9:00 AM

In such times as these, enough to try a man’s soul, a dose of John Finnemore is advisable. His brand of comedy, as fans of Cabin Pressure will know, makes you laugh out loud (unlike, I fear, a lot of the programmes in that 6.30 p.m. slot on Radio 4). His quirky stabs at the absurdity of human nature are guaranteed to cheer even the most awful of days because they’re so simply drawn, etched in clear, sharp lines, and because they celebrate rather than bewail our frailties; life’s tendency to make you fall flat on your face just as you thought you were about to make it big time. In his latest series of John Finnemore’s Double Acts for Radio 4 (Friday, produced by David Tyler), he puts together two most unlikely characters and spends half an hour constructing a fantasy that’s just like those absurd dreams you can have on almost waking, when people you know behave in ways they never would in reality but you’ve always suspected they might want to.

In this week’s episode Queen Victoria, brilliantly conjured up by the lustrous voice of Stephanie Cole, is staying in Osborne House, in retreat from that ‘dreadful man’ Gladstone who keeps pestering her about the poor and needy. Her peaceful reveries on her beloved Albert are interrupted by the arrival of Mabel (a cheeky Kerry Godliman), who disappoints the Royal We by failing to amuse with what she was supposed to bring with her — a mechanical parrot. Victoria, after all, is desperate for something, anything, to entertain her and wile away the dreadful tedium of being Queen of all she surveys.

To spell out on paper what Mabel says to the Queen would not do justice to Finnemore’s teasing tone, his puncturing of the Royal We, or to the comic skill with which Cole and Godliman negotiate the sparky dialogue. Go listen and be charmed.

Another great radio voice, sultry, intriguing, could be heard on Saturday evening when the American actress Kathleen Turner, star of Body Heat and Romancing the Stone, introduced Femmes Fatales on Radio 4 (produced by Victoria Ferran), which tried to explain the allure of these dangerous women. Why did they emerge in the films of the 1940s, only to disappear in the late 1950s and then reappear in the 1980s? And what makes them so compelling? Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner and co. are celebrated as icons of female power. But should they really be celebrated by the feminist brigade? Are these complex, clever, dangerous women more often seen as deadly illustrations of what goes wrong when women are given the freedom, or rather feel confident enough, to be themselves?

In Body Heat Turner’s character doesn’t pay the price for her crime. She gets away with it. You could say that this shows how dangerous it is for women to be denied what they want, to refuse to grant them proper equality. They will in the end turn against you (as Helen Archer infamously did in Ambridge last year, although right-on Helen could never be labelled a femme fatale). But we’re not really meant to like, or admire her. That’s what she loses by behaving as she pleases.

In the end, it’s not the women who run the show when it comes to film noir (where the femme fatale is given free rein to exercise her ability to manipulate and get what she wants purely through her own talents). They’re usually not directing the films or writing the scripts. ‘I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way,’ says Turner’s character in that strange amalgam of reality and animated cartoon, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which, sadly, says it all. The femme fatale is as much a male fantasy as the Mona Lisa.

Another way of escaping the present is to be taken into another person’s life as in the World Service’s In the Studio, which this week took us to Iceland and to the fisherman’s cabin on the south coast of that great block of granite in the north Atlantic where the bestselling novelist Sjón writes his books. I confess I’ve never heard of him, but now want to find a copy of his The Blue Fox after hearing just a short verse from one of his poems: ‘Evening has fallen on the shortest day of the year and dear God the longest night lies ahead.’ Such economy of expression.

In his conversation with Andrea Kidd, Sjón (who also writes lyrics for Björk) took us right inside the process of creating his latest novel, about the neo-Nazi movement in 1950s Iceland. He lives in Reykjavik where he researches his novels, and when at last he’s ready to write he asks his long-suffering wife to motor him down to the coast. Once there he takes a nap on the sofa for about an hour, has a cup of tea, and then begins to write. Not a bad working life.

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