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Radio review: 15 Minute Drama, Heart and Soul, and The Essay

06 April 2018

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“THE most hated man in history.” Judas — as imagined by Lucy Gannon in Radio 4’s 15 Minute Drama: Judas (weekdays) — may have been a bit hard on himself, but perhaps that is the point. We have had all manner of Judases in the post-Christian era, misunderstood and misunderstanding.

Gannon adopted the traditional interpretation here: Judas as disappointed revolutionary, but, by the power of radio drama, had him as protagonist, witness, and commentator all rolled into one. Awkwardness inevitably arises from this approach, but those of us who care about such things should be thankful that Radio 4 is prepared to commission a drama that not only tells a Bible story unshackled by the requirement to translate to the contemporary, but that has a Jesus who can do proper pre-post-modern miracles.

Dangers abound in doing a Passion story set in first-century Judaea. Gannon was adept in steering round the Monty Python’s Life of Brian clichés, though the soundtrack of the exotic Middle-Eastern flute against drones sounded as if it came from well-used library stock.

The regional accents of the disciples are another familiar feature of this genre, together with occasional lapses into Mystery-play amateurism (for instance, the line “There’s your blood-money, scumbag! Now push off,” delivered with the over-enthusiasm of the newly promoted extra). But Gannon’s script has many compensatory moments of beauty and originality. Jesus, our anti-hero admits, is “too other for me”; and his description of Peter’s denial (an admissible piece of non-biblical creativity) is especially poignant.

Judas made as good a case as any for the ceaseless reinvention of the Passion story. I wish the same could be said of Heart and Soul: My life and faith in Jerusalem (World Service, Good Friday) in respect of the Holy Land travelogue. Worthy as it was, Lipika Pelham’s progress around Jerusalem did little more than offer another piece of radio tourism, peppered by interviews with the faithful from the city’s three main religious groups. Inevitably, she finds the company of moderate or secular Jews, Christians, and Muslims far more congenial than that of hard-liners, though I suppose it was important to be reminded that not everybody in the city is arguing about boundaries, taxes, and ladders.

Perhaps the disputatious peoples of Jerusalem should listen to more Bach; for, as Sir Roger Scruton argued in the first of last week’s series of The Essay (Radio 3, Monday), Bach speaks a “universal language”, whose interweaving melodic counterpoint provides “a model of law-governed dialogue”. Indeed, Scruton admitted — in a moment of Augustinian confession — how his own adolescent “ruffian nature” was becalmed by the music of Stravinsky.

Needless to say, Scruton does not go entirely unopposed when it comes to his views on Western Classical music; and this excellent series, on the theme of music’s civilising power, offered five vignettes of the state of current musicology.

In the opposite corner to Scruton stood Kofi Agawu, who, in Wednesday’s episode, told of the oppressive colonial nature of Western four-part harmony, as exercised in West Africa. But for an authentic insight into the civilising effect of music, you need merely visit an average household at that moment when parents are attempting to get their children to practise their scales. Civility is rarely in evidence.

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