Anal fissures, man boobs and domestic violence - it's Men's Hour on Radio 5 Live

Reviewed: Men's Hour.

Men’s Hour
Radio 5 Live

The first edition of a new series of Men’s Hour (Sundays, 9pm) promised “a Brighton man on his third jaw implant and a cosmetic surgeon who outlines just what steps presenter Tim Samuels needs to take to improve his looks”.

Possibly the third jaw implant was still too accentuated by rows of pus-yellow stitches to make it into the studio, because on the day of the programme Samuels was joined instead by Tristan, who solemnly admitted to having the soundly less exciting Botox and fillers but was opposed to the whole boiled egg look in general. “I’m not a wax candle. That’s key.”

The cosmetic surgery segment was pointedly non-judgemental. There can be absolutely no place for scorn or incredulity on Men’s Hour. No Jenni Murray shading her voice with bottomless pity or helping herself to calves liver and fried sage while the latest dolled-up sharpie of a TV chef frantically paws for answers.

(I once, years ago, saw Nigella sitting outside the Woman’s Hour studio patiently waiting to be interviewed on air, holding an enormous, seething baking tray packed with chicken legs and wings emitting clouds of crisp BBQ smoke. This was 10am. But what Jenni wants, Jenni – quite rightly – gets.)

Samuels is too keen to be liked and lets his guests get away with murder. “I did feel I just wanted to have the injections because I just wanted to have the look,” concluded one guy, after zero thought.

Samuels nodded at this pearl and let it pass, in that slow-blooded way of his, as though he left home for a short walk once and just lost track of time, which is, I guess, how many of us feel about life, but now and again one wishes Samuels might get excited about something.

Anal fissures, man boobs, domestic violence – it was all discussed in the underpowered tones of a hairdresser who’s letting you sit with a post-shampoo towel on your head while they distractedly gather their tools. I’m not saying that presenters continually need to sound like inmates of the gulag stunned by the goings on in the remote libertarian hinterlands (you injected your face with a mixture of your own blood and a numbing agent? Tell me again!) but give it some welly, Tim. Give it some Jenni.

Filler night. Photo: Getty Images.

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.

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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution