Friends reunited

A treasure house of witty editing and gentle questioning makes its return

The Reunion is back, and with a breathtaking surge of sweetness (Sundays, 11.15am, Radio 4; repeated Fridays, 9am). As usual Sue MacGregor presents, each week bringing together a group of people intimately involved in a notable project. At the weekend, she raided the memories of the cast of the radio soap The Navy Lark, a hit set among the incompetent personnel of HMS Troutbridge, starring various actors skimmed from The Mousetrap and Leslie Phillips, then red hot from the set of Carry on Nurse, where he'd played a Lothario who allows Kenneth Williams to operate on his bunion.

The life of an actor was boulevardierishly conjured. Heather Chasen always wore dark glasses, even in performance. Why? "I was hungover, dear, usually. One of my favourite characters was Lady Todhunter Brown. She was always pissed and looking for her luggage."

By the end, the team had re-bonded over the image of Jon Pertwee's frisson-inducing Messerschmitt in which he used to take them for a spin - long lost now to devouring time. Of his particular part as Troutbridge's chief navigation officer, Phillips gloomed: "I think it'll be on my gravestone."

"Oh, not too soon, darling!" comforted Chasen. "No, no . . ." - a patter that threatened to turn bullshitty, tactfully silenced only by MacGregor wrapping things up and thanking everyone for coming on. "No, thank you, darling," insisted Phillips.

The previous week - a stone-cold radio classic, a treasure house of witty editing and gentle questioning - brought together the members of the 1979 Transglobe Expedition, the only vertical circumnavigation of the planet to involve a Jack Russell destined to bite Arthur Scargill on a chat show.

The expedition leader, Ranulph Fiennes, had placed an ad in the paper promising "hard work, great danger, no pay, and no guarantee of success or glory". Several public school boys and a rear admiral replied. At a subsequent meeting in a pub, Fiennes said to them: "No money - and you do what I say"; after which they immediately made an attempt on the North Pole ("for training") and ran up and down Snowdonia.

Recordings that the men had made at the time were looped into the conversation with MacGregor, theatrically giving the impression that we were listening to scenes in The Bridge on the River Kwai. The men's tenacity was beyond description. For three years, they lived on half a ton of frozen mackerel which proceeded to rot in the tropics. How they laughed at the memory.

Hunkered down for 36 months on an ice floe, Fiennes anticipated death by polar bear. When one actually pitched up he shot it in the toe with his pistol and it swam orf. But in the end they all made it back to London, including the Jack Russell, which found fame on Blue Peter and was daily whisked to television studios in cabs, leaving Fiennes and his wife at home to contact their sponsor Prince Charles via semaphore to ask for more wonga. Fiennes sounded happy. Or rather, he sounded like a man who'd worked out that happiness is not a birthright, but an occasional sojourn that you inevitably find ways to screw up. And this trip had been his hottest moment in the sun. On ice.

Pick of the week

Big Bang Day
0 September, Radio 4
An explosion of programmes about the cosmic event, featuring interviews with engineers and nuclear physicists, plus a reconstruction of the moment using gigantic magnets. All this, and an afternoon play starring the cast of Torchwood. Goddit?

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.