Hitchens, Trotsky and a really good row

The Red Terror invades a sedate late-afternoon slot

I don't usually think much of Great Lives, the Radio 4 series in which a famous person goes on about - sorry, I mean profiles - a dead famous person. There's something weird about the hagiographic format. Why not just make a decent documentary about the dead person? The programme is presented by Matthew Parris, whose waspishness I much admire. In this job, however, he acts like he's presiding over a coffee morning. Bourbon, anyone?

But perhaps someone at Radio 4 agrees that the show needs to be more combative, because the first programme in the new series (8 August, 4.30pm) was great. I turned it on in the expectation that I would be able to multitask for its duration, and my plan to book a mini-break and file several hundred yellowing bits of paper went fine for 20 minutes or so. Then - boom! - I was gripped. I gave myself entirely to Parris and his guest, Christopher Hitchens, whose subject was Leon Trotsky. Mr P and Mr H weren't getting on at all: it was leatherette briefcases at dawn. Oh, I do like a good row. The other guest, a professor of Russian history, must have wondered where to put himself.

If you ask me, Hitchens had picked he of the small, round glasses and the absolute commitment to the use of state terror simply to be contrary. "I could have chosen someone furry like George Orwell," he said. "But I thought that would be cheating slightly. So I chose a total monster instead." (OK, I made the last sentence up.) He then praised Trotsky for his journalism ("a tremendous war correspondent") and for being an "exemplar of the non-fatalist Jew". Eh? Parris did not respond. Instead, he noted that Hitchens had made a success of his own journalistic career "despite being born in Portsmouth". He added that, in recent years, his guest had departed the shores of the left, but that it isn't yet clear "where he's departed to". Ooh, missus.

There followed a dull middle section in which Hitchens and the learned professor trotted through Trotsky's career. Apart from a joke about Bob Dylan, another Jew who changed his name (Trotsky's was really Lev Bronstein), Parris kept quiet during this bit. After all, the Hitch is scary: so big and hulking, so pompous and sanctimonious. Happily, Parris was not to be intimidated. Why, he wondered, had Hitchens chosen Trotsky? He was still none the wiser.

At this point, the script ran out like so much Andrex. "I'm sorry if you feel that it has been a waste of time," said Hitchens. Parris tried again: he just wanted an explanation. "You're a bleeding Tory," said Hitchens. Yes, said Parris, but at least he could explain why he was a Tory - unlike his guest, who could only ramble on about committees and what might have happened had the 1905 revolution succeeded. "I know why [you're a Tory]," spluttered Hitchens. "It doesn't take 45 minutes [to explain] and it isn't interesting." And then: "I think we're done." And then, finally, like a feeble Roman candle at the end of some damp municipal fireworks display: "I've got to be somewhere at one." If he'd shouted: "And you stink!" I would not have been surprised. Lordy. If Great Lives is going to be like this every week, I will be tuning in. Unfortunately, future programmes will feature Helena Kennedy on Eleanor Roosevelt and John Biffen on Stanley Baldwin, so I'd be lying if I said I was hopeful.

Pick of the week

Run TK! Skateboarding Duck!
12 August, 8pm, Radio 4
Archive Hour looks at Nationwide, home of Frank Bough and – yes – the skateboarding duck.

Inside Money: cold comfort
12 August, 12.04pm, Radio 4
The excellent money matters programme looks at the soaring costs of gas and electricity.

Don’t miss . . .

"Making Love to My Ego"

The concept of self is endlessly slippery - and fascinating. "Making Love to My Ego" takes navel-gazing to a new level as 14 up-and-coming artists explore everyone's favourite topic at the artist-run Castlefield Gallery in Manchester. By turns playful and macabre, the show centres on a collection of alter egos, including Janet Griffiths's spider-like creature and Dale Holmes's enigmatic "twitcher". Other artists spurning the conventional self-portrait are the video artist Deej Fabyc and Arthur Neve, aka "The Beast" (pictured right).

Castlefield Gallery, 2 Hewitt Street, Manchester M15, to 24 September. www.castlefieldgallery.co.uk

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 14 August 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Burma Special: A nation in waiting