Radio 4's Lunch was a wise and witty feast for the senses

Stephen Mangan and Claire Skinner star in Lunch
Stephen Mangan and Claire Skinner star in Lunch Credit: BBC

Is there a Bill in your life, or a Bella? Marcy Kahan’s couple in Lunch, this week’s daily Drama on Radio 4, are friends who know each other so well they can reveal (and sometimes face) unexpected truths over lunch. Bill is played by Stephen Mangan, Bella by Claire Skinner and I love their company.

Not just for the wit of the scripts or the crisp way they time the lines, but for the growing suspicion every time I meet them (and this is their third series) that they sound like two sides of my mind when one half is trying not to admit the whole truth to the other.

Bill and Bella are not lovers although they might have been, once. They know each other well enough to pepper each lunchtime discussion with allusions, quotations, references, the wrappings of long-time friendship.

He is rightish wing, an economist, an author, married with a teenaged son. She is leftish wing, teaches Proust and yoga, single, newly in love with Guy. Kahan’s great gift to them both is a script that sings with insight, laughter and a precise pinch of wisdom. 

The series, produced and directed by Sally Avens, is a joy. There’s nothing like it on TV and there couldn’t be because, on radio, we feel so close to Bill and Bella that we think we know what they’re going to say next. Then comes the surprise of hearing it perfectly done, of getting the same kind of joyous kick from seeing on TV the hole in one, the goal scored, the wicket taken.

Dave Podmore’s Big Bake-Off Bash (Radio 4, Sunday) was timed for after the Test Match, being the further fictional adventures of a former county cricketer in Last Chance Land. Podmore is the creation of Christopher Douglas, Andrew Nickolds and Nick Newman, a satire on cricket which also takes a sly look at its social context.

I love Pod, disgusting, shameless creature that he is

Pod will do anything to grab a greasy bag of cash – endorsements, stunts, shop openings – but the days when he could take his pick are over. He’s down to hanging around cut-price shops where you can buy three litres of bleach for a pound, trying to get ingredients to make a cake that will get him back on Test Match Special. In this he is assisted by a faithful Boswell, Andy Hamer of Radio One County where the cuts have hit so hard they’re down to repeating weather forecasts from 1977.

I love Pod, disgusting, shameless creature that he is, because I’ve met his shadow so often on the air, in the street, down the pub, a cross between Swift’s Gulliver and Reg Smythe’s Andy Capp. I know Pod embodies the spirit of the hour as, the minute he left the airwaves, everything that followed in real life for the next half-hour on Sunday night seemed Podified.

Primo Levi Credit: Getty

Radio 4’s regular Monday morning Book of the Week slot was taken over at short notice last week by five philosophers and historians each talking, from various points of view, about Brexit. This was daily discourse of which the BBC has every right to be proud, not that its director-general ever seems to notice how his radio service regularly refreshes those segments of the audience his television networks seldom address.

Now Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table (Radio 4) is another departure from the usual Book of the Week, the dramatisation of a classic, running this week and next. On Monday Janet Suzman presented an introduction, explained how Levi, an Italian scientist, imprisoned and put to work in a Nazi concentration camp in the Second World War, survived to write a masterpiece; autobiographical stories that link history and reflection.

The first story yesterday was of Levi, post-war, working in Turin in the Sixties, having problems with an imported varnish that would not dry. He writes to the manufacturer. The head chemist replies, suggesting a possible remedy. Further scientific correspondence ensues. Levi, played by Henry Goodman, picks up a strange clue to the possible identity of his correspondent and writes personally to him.

Henry Goodman played Primo Levi in The Periodic Table Credit: Martin Pope

Was he the Dr Müller of Auschwitz in whose lab three prisoners worked? He hopes Dr Müller will pardon the intrusion. One survived. His number was 174517. We will know what Dr Müller wrote back in the final episode on Sunday night.

In this masterly adaptation by Graham White, produced by Emma Harding and Marc Beeby, hangs many an irony. Levi’s revelation, for instance, coming from a technical query about a varnish that wouldn’t dry. Like, the listener adds softly, memory.