Affairs of the heart

Taming husbands has never been so much fun.

A memorable edition of Woman's Hour (weekdays, 10am; Saturdays, 4pm) starred Jilly Cooper and Lucy Mangan from the Guardian. Ostensibly a discussion in response to Kirstie Allsop's repeated assertion that she only talks to a man after he's had his dinner, Cooper was down the line from Gloucestershire, where, behind her, the white spire of a village church dozed among apple trees. Mangan was very firmly jackbooted and in the studio.

“I just married a very, very, nice man. I was lucky," Cooper rambled. "Leo was brilliant. But at least when he got home at 5.30, I'd have tidied up and put my underwear away." Mangan countered, talking about the "outsourcing" of domestic chores and how one must "teach them [men] rules". (Not a woman one might catch in a naked love-stare at a humpy builder.)

Jilly rebutted with tremendous sympathy for mankind in general. "Leo always cooked. He was wonderful in that way." Then, "Sex is so lovely and it does cheer people up so . . ."; "I'd rather read," snorted Lucy. The interviewer Jenni Murray's mouth twitched upwards. This was going brilliantly. The producers must have felt like they'd done exactly what was required: delivered a cast in a sort of dead heat at just the moment of ripeness to precisely calibrated starting positions. Jilly then confessed that she'd had to remove bits of her recently reissued 1969 book How To Stay Married, specifically about always being available for sex. "I'm very old," she sighed. "That book was very pompous."

Très Jilly: queen of the inconsistency of selfhood and the sheer inappropriateness of most of our mental responses. Let it not be forgotten that Cooper is a comedy genius. Her 1970s novellas Harriet, Imogen and Octavia are some of the funniest books in the language, up there with Alan Bennett at his best. Then, Jenni did have to go and spoil it by mentioning Leo Cooper's much publicised 1990s affair. Silence from Gloucestershire. Or, rather, "total fucking silence" as they say in Fargo. As absences of any kind of sound goes, this one was non-negotiable. It would have been easier to get Serpico to have a shave. The listeners felt a pleasant kind of sorrow seeping through them. Murray and Mangan rubbed their hands . . .

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.

This article first appeared in the 21 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of the Fourth Reich