Another little mouthful

At the radio world's answer to Cannes, Martin Kelner found himself in competition with a Norwegian cod party and the gentle 'ladies' of Hamburg; Representatives of this least glamorous medium do not belong in Monte Carlo; a Prix de Stoke-on-Trent would ...
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In a small town in northern Norway, four friends meet to eat cod. They cook the fish, talk about it, eat it, then talk about it some more. The ensuing eight-hour conversation, recorded and cut down to one for the radio, might strike you as a touch piscocentric for light entertainment, but not in Norway apparently.

The programme, El Skrei, a reference to the Spanish method of cooking cod without removing the head or liver (10 minutes' discussion on this), was an entry in this year's Prix Monte Carlo, a festival designed to showcase the cream of European "entertainment" radio.

The BBC normally leaves it to Radio 2 to fly the flag at Monte Carlo with a modest little entertainment - we won the trophy two years ago with a report from the Eastbourne international whistling contest - and so it was that Let It Be - Please, a bit of fun I had at the expense of bizarre Beatles' cover versions, was picked for this year's contest. Here, contestants are also judges, and so it was up to me to listen to seven hours of simultaneously translated European radio by day, and eat Les Petites Noisettes d'Agneau by night on behalf of British public service broadcasting.

This turned out to be tougher than I had imagined. How do you weigh the merits of Norway's cod against a Slovenian satirical cabaret? As the Polish delegate complained: "We are being asked to compare a chair with a house." Or it might have been a horse.

The air of unreality was firmly established by the setting, in the shadow of the artist formerly known as Prince Rainier. Representatives of this least glamorous, most cash-strapped medium do not belong in Monte Carlo, a town of health-threatening suntans and ostentatious wealth. The Prix de Stoke-on-Trent would be more fitting.

It being a European shindig, we met in what appeared to be a comically scaled-down version of the European parliament, complete with headphones, name-plates, translators in booths (the English one had a Jack Lemmon- style staccato chuckle) and a voting system that allowed you to vote for your own programme in the first round, and subsequently to exclude from the reckoning anyone who had particularly irritated you. This may work perfectly well in fixing fish quotas, but is less appropriate for judging whether Italy's Opera Olympics has more merit than the Dutch Jazz Orchestra playing Duke Ellington.

Some eccentric translation proved less than helpful, too. A programme from Belgian radio following the progress of a book on a container ship across the Atlantic, managed the following on the ship's arrival in Hamburg: "A gentle impression is coming from old-time music - simple good-heartedness, yet you can not neglect that shops nearby the Reeperbahn are selling knives, safety catches, war clubs and self-defence sprays. Yes! The gentle 'ladies' of Hamburg have another little mouthful to some clients."

So was there any point to any of this? As licence-payers, you will be relieved to learn the answer may be yes.

One entry was an almost impossibly difficult phone-in quiz from Norway, for which the prize was a thermos flask done out in the station's colours. The commercial competitors, on the other hand, were giving away cars, holidays, and thousands of pounds. "I go out and buy the thermos flasks myself," announced Finn Dag Steiro, the head of Norway's NRK 1, an experience familiar to almost everyone in the room.

Like most of his colleagues, Finn Dag was trying to compete with growing numbers of commercial rivals using, for the most part, nothing more powerful than programmes. If we could borrow - or steal - from each other maybe it would help in the battle.

As a shameless asset-stripper, I found the cod show the most interesting in terms of technique. Each of the four friends had a microphone strapped to his head, and was recorded on a separate track, overcoming that Loose Ends syndrome where everyone talks at once, and the choicest bon mots are submerged in the babble. The finished product, mixed with a reading of a Kipling poem and an Eagles track, was rather like Thirtysomething, except with more fish. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. It scored a traditional and predictable nul points.

My rather more conventional Beatles show won third prize, and orders from six radio stations for tapes free of charge. "It's nice," said the Italian, "that unlike our TV colleagues we can share without worrying about crass commercial considerations." In that respect, at least, European radio speaks with one voice. Mine was the only order for the cod, though, which seemed truly and sadly to passeth all understanding.

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