“HEAVEN knows, I’m miserable now.” Morrissey’s famous lyric would have to come high up in a hit parade of melancholia. Other entrants might include Johnny Cash (“I see a darkness”) and John Dowland (“Flow my tears”) — as we heard in The New Anatomy of Melancholy (Radio 4, weekdays), in which Robert Burton’s compendious Anatomy of 1621 was revisited by the presenter, Amy Liptrot, and her guests.
It is testament to the range of Burton’s work that it required almost a dozen professors, deployed over five episodes, to offer their views on the author’s multiple perspectives. Heredity, trauma, inflammation of the brain, and poverty are all variously implicated by Burton.
Liptrot, herself a depressive and recovering alcoholic, deftly wove elements of science, anecdote, and therapy into each show, most adventurously by taking a bracing swim in Rydal Water to test the efficacy of the “cold-water buzz” in treating depression. According to a professor from the University of Portsmouth, there is something to be said for a good dousing, as it might reduce the body’s inflammatory response to other stresses. You may, nevertheless, want to take expert advice before making up that ice-bath.
At no point, so far as I know, does Burton advise that laughter is the best medicine. Comedy works best on those complicit in the relationship between entertainer and audience, and the true depressive will rarely comply. And yet I, for one, was determined that Michael Frayn’s Magic Mobile (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week) should be a hoot; but, despite boasting the likes of David Suchet, Joanna Lumley, and Martin Jarvis, this show averaged but one chortle every five minutes. Less an embarrassment of riches and more just an embarrassment.
In contrast, the resurrection of Down the Line (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) — the spoof phone-in show, back for a “lockdown special” — matched the high expectations established by the long-defunct series. Paul Whitehouse, Harry Enfield, and the like have made the English eccentric their speciality. In the hothouse of lockdown, these fictional but credible cartoons have grown wild and exotic.
In a crowded field, the highlight was surely the supervillain whose ambition for world domination, planned from his underwater lair, has been entirely frustrated by Covid-19: he now longs simply to find a plumber to fix the leaks.
If we needed reminding that people are still dying from other conditions, then Howard Jacobson’s touching contribution to A Point of View (Radio 4, Friday) did the job. His mother — a lady who never wished to make a fuss — managed to pass away while people were looking the other way. “The coast was clear, and she made a dash for it.”