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Radio review: The Sage of Cricklewood – Alan Coren on 4 Extra; Portraying Real Lives

Being funny is a serious business. How many times have I heard actors say that playing comedy is a lot harder than playing drama? Listening to the late, great Alan Coren in BBC Radio 4 Extra’s three-hour tribute really brought home the erudition, observation and focus that informed his extraordinary comic imagination.

The presenter Christopher Matthew, a friend for many years, spoke of Coren’s “fantastic curiosity” in the world around him, and there was a good example in a clip from The News Quiz – the perfect vehicle for Coren’s humorous flights of imagination – when he talked of the Bayeux Tapestry being “full of people with erections, stealing geese”.

What made him so uniquely funny as a broadcaster, and so well suited to the medium of radio, was his perfectly modulated delivery of these elaborate comic excursions that just seemed to pop into his brain, things that might take the rest of us a couple of days to fashion into studied prose, always assuming we’d had anything resembling Coren’s brilliant idea in the first place.

[pullquote]“My dad was not interested in what anybody thought about anything, and nor am I,” stated Giles Coren, proudly[/pullquote]

In an interview with Libby Purves, another friend, Coren modestly described himself as “the Tommy Trinder of the printed page”, referring to the fact that his humour, while sometimes convoluted, was invariably rooted in the everyday, the matter-of-fact, and indeed the radio variety shows of his childhood. Yes, he was damned clever, but seldom clever for its own sake.

Both his children, Giles and Victoria, now media stars in their own right, were on hand to give intimate glimpses of Coren behind locked doors as well as their own professional appraisals. He was never, they insisted, a purveyor of opinion or satire. There was no ideological edge. “My dad was not interested in what anybody thought about anything, and nor am I,” stated Giles, proudly.

Maxine Peake is full of surprises. The once-plump comedy actress from Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies has morphed into one of our most versatile and sought-after actresses, as well as a formidable dramatist. In Portraying Real Lives, she added interviewer-presenter to her CV, delving into the challenges facing actors who take on real-life characters.

Among others, she spoke to Michael Sheen, Sally Hawkins, Monica Dolan and Patricia Hodge, all of whom have experience of playing living people. Dolan and Peake played convicted killers Rosemary West and Myra Hindley, respectively, in different TV dramas, and they compared notes about the toll it took on them and their families.

Even playing Kenneth Williams in Fantabulosa did Michael Sheen’s head in, the actor admitted. “After we’d finished filming, I used to have to sort of still be him. You end up becoming this obsessive nut job,” he said.

The next stage role Peake will play is Hamlet in a gender-bending “reimagining” of the play at the Royal Exchange in the autumn. No doubt she has already clocked the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest take on The Taming of the Shrew, currently touring UK primary schools, in which Petruchio is played by a woman, Katherine by a man. The idea is to blur the gender stereotypes in what is, to modern eyes and ears, a deeply un-PC play.

This radical reworking was featured on Woman’s Hour along with comments by the director, some of the young spectators – “after a while you didn’t notice they’d swapped genders” – and the literary historian Lisa Jardine, who found the play’s rampant male chauvinism irredeemable. Still, as even she admitted, at least it got the kids talking.

The Sage of Cricklewood – Alan Coren on 4 Extra, R4 Extra, Saturday, March 15
Portraying Real Lives, R4, Saturday, March 29
Woman’s Hour, R4, Wednesday, March 19

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