Radio 4 achieves near-perfection with a selection of new short stories

Alan Howard Reads: BBC Radio 4

The actor Alan Howard turned 70 in August. He'd probably prefer to be known as one of the theatre's great Shakespeareans, but I suspect Radio 4 listeners will know him as one of the station's most reliable readers of stories and poems. Poetry Please and With Great Pleasure rely on performers like him. His voice now is more gravel than silk, but is still full of subtlety and wit and particularly good at relaying bewildered cynicism. I remember one year in Edinburgh marvelling at his interpretation of Christopher Logue's Iliad. Even Logue's lamest plagiarisms - "How do you make the gods smile? Tell them your plans" - sounded fresh.

Anyhow, Radio 4 honoured him this past week by commissioning five writers - four distinguished and one decidedly up-and-coming - to compose stories for him to read (15-19 October). Each was in its own way wonderful, but they were complex and I got more out of each the second time I listened. If Howard were not such a master at extracting meaning from every clause, I would have been lost more than once - and that, I assume, was why Tom Stoppard, Julian Barnes, Helen Simpson, Marina Warner and Nina Raine jumped at the chance to write for him.

Stoppard's On Dover Beach (Monday 15 October) was, as you would expect, the cleverest tale. In fact, I listened to it three times before I realised that it was not a Socratic dialogue, but a demolition job on Matthew Arnold and his most famous poem (you know, the one that disarms the chromosome retard at the end of Ian McEwan's Saturday). Howard was required to voice two parts: the poet, enduring some kind of purgatorial posterity, and his most ruthless critic, who called him "Matt" just to annoy him. With a little help from female grunting in the background, Stoppard established the reason Arnold was so gloomy when he wrote Dover Beach - it was inspired less by a dread of the departure of religion and the coming of anarchy than by a bad night's sex with his inexperienced wife. The "confused alarms of struggle and flight" of the poem's final couplet were Mrs Arnold getting out from under the still young bore.

The critic also pointed out that Arnold's poem's central metaphor was a turkey: tides go in as well as out, suggesting that religion would soon be making a comeback. As for Sophocles long ago hearing it on the Aegean, the Aegean is not tidal. "This isn't criticism; it's oceanography," Matt protested. Julian Barnes's Marriage Lines the next day was much more heartfelt, an account of a recently widowed man's return to the remote Scottish island he and his wife had visited each summer for 20 years. The widower turned out to be as cloth-eared to the demands of his own grief as he was to the sensibilities of Cullum, owner of his bed and breakfast. It was a piece acute enough to make all of us widows for 15 minutes. Adopting a soft Hebridean lilt, Howard half-acted and half-spoke Cullum's dialogue. In Wednesday's The Tipping Point he had to go further and speak German, and that was no trouble to him either. Howard played an academic whose speciality was German Romanticism. It was a typically sly and naughty piece by Helen Simpson, who reduced the Sturm und Drang of climate change to reasons for the narrator's mistress to drop him. She was a female Al Gore; he was addicted to overseas conferences and easyJet.

Thursday's story, Marina Warner's The Family Friend, took as its starting point a fox hunt organised by some boorish English officers in Egypt in 1902. This was the only one not told in the first person, which meant Howard had to work even harder to grip us and tease out the theme of infidelity. Its punchline was a cracker. The week ended with the playwright Nina Raine, writing, I believe, her radio debut. Like her stage play Rabbit, The Sentence was an examination of the damage dads do. The narrator was a high court judge more exacting about English sentences than judicial ones. Its story within the story, of how as a boy he had run away from boarding school, was funny, detailed and touching.

Howard only once, at the start of Barnes's story, delivered a sentence in a way I could quibble with. This event, produced by Jill Waters, was as near perfection as radio gets.

Andrew Billen

New Statesman, 18.10.07.