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It’s soul-destroying

WHEN Hans Christian Andersen was little, his grandmother used to make him cry with her tales of solitary forest gods eating up handsome princes.

He was a sensitive soul, bereaved of his father when still young, caring for an alcoholic mother, and teased by his peers for his public displays of enthusiastic singing and dancing. And his revenge? To commit his childhood terrors and fantasies to print so that they could be visited on countless future generations of children.

Despite Disney’s best efforts, the world of Hans Christian Andersen is one of cruelty, loneliness, and casual violence. Its terrain is mainly of forests and snow. Hattie Naylor’s splendid two-part biographical
play — The Afternoon Play: Hans Christian Andersen (Radio 4, Wednesday and Thursday of last week) — captured the fatalistic anxiety of Andersen’s imagination beautifully and cleverly.

The central conceit is that the soul of Andersen has been captured by the ice maiden, and he is watching his life unfold from the wicked queen’s ice palace. In Ms Naylor’s view, The Ice Maiden is Andersen’s nemesis, stalking his imagination throughout his life. The stories serve as commentaries and psychological glosses on life.

So The Tinder Box — about a soldier seeking his fortune — is recounted as Andersen leaves his home town to seek fame in Copenhagen, and The Ugly Duckling serves as a counterpoint to Andersen’s lack of social skills as an adolescent. We are invited to associate his dark vision with the cocktails of superstition and vengeful Christianity that he was regularly served as a child by various matriarchs.

At the end of The Ice Maiden, perhaps the most profoundly gloomy story ever to pose as entertainment for children, Andersen invokes the all-seeing God as some kind of justification for this fiction: “And God lets happen what is best for us, however painful that might be . . . we cannot see his larger plan.” But even if we can’t, somehow I doubt the plan could involve fantastical ice queens sucking out the souls of innocent passers-by.

The strike at the BBC on the Monday before last offered Radio 4 listeners a vision of what life might be like without Today and P.M.. One programme that did remain, to my delight, was Cashier Number Six, Please (Radio 4). This was one of those gems of radio scheduling — the one-off.

This was all about the disembodied voices that are increasingly managing our world, everything from queuing to ordering the milk. Yes, you can now get a fridge that tells you whether you are out of milk, and presumably orders it online for you.

But this wasn’t about technology, it was about voices. What kind of voice do you want giving you directions in your car around the streets of an unfamiliar city? Do you want a mother-in-law type of voice or a best-buddy voice? A survey reveals that we want a co-pilot voice: concise, knows its place, and, above all, male. 

At the conclusion of the programme, we met Phil Sayer — “the most hated man in Britain”, since he is responsible for announcing and apologising for delays on the trains. Phil is a trained actor. “It’s just a gig. . . I’m sorry,” he said.

 

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