Magic for grown-ups

Superior storytelling brings some old favourites to life

<strong>More From the Magic Roundabout</s

"It was raining and everyone was at Dougal's place watching television." So began the first in a series of readings (26-30 March, 3.30pm) of Eric Thompson's children's stories. Well, not everyone, I thought. After a decade watching the box on your behalf, I'm now listening to the wireless. Various clichés crowded in on me. The pictures are better on radio. Radio is a more intimate medium than television, hot rather than cool, as Marshall McLuhan had it.

But above all, I thought, as I examined the schedules, how much promising stuff there is! Radios 3 and 4, not to mention Oneword, are full of cerebral one-off features or week-long series. Judging by previous encounters, they usually turn out to be labours of love: good ideas, painstakingly executed.

The madness is that no one I know listens to radio in this way. Most people have a breakfast poison of choice and catch little else during the day except in the car. Personally, my daily listening favours Today, what follows it (unless it is Midweek) and then 5 Live with a bit of Classic FM and, during final ablutions, Clive Bull's phone-in on London's LBC. Saturday mornings: Jonathan Ross on Radio 2. Sunday: Broadcasting House and The Archers. Like most, I relate to radio through sequence shows, most of them live. Viewers are often called couch potatoes, but there is nothing lazier than your average listener, and part of that is the intimacy: from their larynx to your ear. There's probably a statistic that says you are more likely to change your partner than your breakfast radio DJ.

As such, a hand-crafted BBC radio feature, play or comedy is a luxury that only a heavily subsidised medium financed by the customers of another (the TV licence-payers) could afford. They are part of the wonder of Britain, but they instil in me nostalgia: I am instantly returned to those long and easy illnesses of my youth, where radio listening was thought to help heal mumps and measles.

And so back to childhood and Dougal, Zebedee et al. The pictures here were not better than television; they were television. The Roundabout was a French puppet series that lasted a few minutes an episode and came on BBC1 just après the teatime news. Thompson took the French images and wove deadpan English nonsense around them. The result was surrealism in short trousers. Even at the time, I felt I was missing something, and these new stories, read by his widow and daughters (Phyllida Law, Emma and Sophie - all of whom sounded the same), confirmed that Thompson's true audience must have been adult news fans.

Dating from the late 1960s, they were dotted with references to trade unions and Marxist revolution. Part of the joke was making these Frenchies English marmalade-munchers. At one point they defeated the French rugby team. Dougal was a gloomy schemer. Ermintrude the cow was Peggy Mount with a tail. Zebedee's moustache was false. They lived in a garden where nobody did anything. Perhaps it was a metaphor for England. What Serge Danot's original series was about in French, I have no idea. I once heard Dougal was a satire on Charles de Gaulle. They look alike.

On Sunday, in Allan Little's fascinating The Road to Rome (25 March, 1.30pm), the general was revealed as the deus ex machina for that other great international venture, the Common Market. The sneaky federalist architects of the Treaty of Rome 50 years ago were so alarmed that he'd come to power to scupper the project that they knocked it together in six months. The printers did not even print it on time, and on 25 March 1957 the six heads of state signed wads of blank paper.

From the original hopes for a Euro-army to Euratom, a joint nuclear programme, there was plenty that was news to me. The mental pictures conjured were of ministers, lawyers and typists toiling on different floors of a brick chateau linked by a metal cylinder attached to a pulley with one telephone between them. Little's images were wonderfully vivid but, unlike television's, they never distracted from the storytelling. Perhaps I'm going to like this job.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Pick of the week

Dr Freud Will See You Now, Mr Hitler
31 March, 2.30pm, Radio 4
Fantasy - but bedwetting Adolf really did visit Siggy's clinic.

Archive Hour: Denis Healey at 90
31 March, 8pm, Radio 4
Or: "How I prevented a third world war" and other triumphs.

Shadowlands
6 April, 9.15pm, Radio 2
Ian Richardson reads the story of C S Lewis and his wife Joy.

Don't miss . . .
Soviet nonconformist art

This exhibition of art from the pre- and post-Soviet eras reflects the region's politically and artistically complex history. The cubist, impressionist and pop-art paintings on display often have subversive subtexts; Malik Alexei's Old Timers (1996, pictured right) depicts the Odessa port from which generations of dissidents departed. These works may seem innocent enough now, but a similar show in Moscow in 1967 was shut down by the authorities.

Runs until 3 May at the Chambers Gallery, London EC1. http://www.thechambersgallery.co.uk

By Andrew Billen

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom

2007-04-02