Arts & Edinburgh: The Week In Radio

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The Independent Culture
DESPITE THE ravages across the Radio 4 schedules of a syndrome, identified in this column as The History of Sellotape, there are still stashes of brain-food buried under the piles of populist piffle. Sunday nights remain particularly strong. Laurie Taylor's stimulating Room For Improvement is taking a summer break and has been replaced by Pillories of the State (Sundays, 7.15pm, BBC Radio 4), a six-part series examining common perceptions of British institutions. Tomorrow's topic is the Secret Service. Expect a spook to be lurking somewhere among the guests.

Feedback follows at 8pm, now longer though not necessarily stronger. Too much time is wasted on the phoney democratisation device of inviting listeners to do their own reports. These can take five or six minutes to raise matters that could be better put in a short, sharp letter. Perhaps someone will write in to ask how, if there's so little money available to make radio programmes, the BBC has managed to find pounds 22m of licence- payers' fees every year to blow on paying consultants? The image of a feeble-minded lottery winner surrounding himself with dodgy Nigerian financial advisers comes to mind. And why does the BBC have a Director General who does not, apparently, trust his own judgement but rather that of these overpaid corporate spivs?

What happened to instinct? Where is the vision? In a Sunday evening schedule still happily untainted by "consumer affairs", - just what, exactly, was You and Yours doing at the solar eclipse? Word of Mouth (Sundays, 8.30pm, BBC Radio 4), the programme about the English language and its dynamics, ridiculed recently the post-Thatcherite use of the word "customer". Michael Rosen - one of those presenters who has the gift of being able to sound as though he is addressing each listener individually - might like to make "consultant" his next word of the week.

The consultants say listeners are not interested in foreign affairs. But being repeated, by genuine popular demand, is Alan Little's exemplary series, Kosovo: The Seeds of Conflict (Sundays, 9pm, BBC Radio 4). Let's hope Alan's recent shifts on the Today programme do not mean one of our finest foreign correspondents is grounded. Alan is good on the intrigues of Westminster but I'd prefer to hear him in West Africa, a region for which the "international community" seems to care little because, as Mark Doyle said bravely in a recent From Our Own Correspondent essay from Sierra Leone, the people who live and die there happen to be black.

Alan Little may become, in the fullness of time, as venerable as Michael Charlton. The veteran reporter brought his wisdom, perspective and experience to bear, gloriously, in a series of four talks (probably a word that the Birtists and their consultants would sneer at) tucked away at the end of the Westminster Hour (Sundays, 10pm, BBC Radio 4). These Allegories for the Present Day were a reminder of Charlton's forgotten broadcasting talent - his beautifully written scripts delivered in that rich baritone voice dripping with erudition - and the immense depth of his knowledge. As an eyewitness to many of the world-shaping events of the last 40 years he was, more often than not, on speaking terms with the protagonists. His talks have taken us into a secret and gripping meeting, at the height of the Cold War, with Soviet dissident, Andrei Sakharov, ("They'll know that you've been here," warned Sakharov as Charlton was leaving) and into a seat at a cricket match alongside India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

In his final essay last Sunday, Charlton recalled his audience, in 1964, with President Ismet Inonu of Turkey, only minutes after an assassination attempt on the leader who steered his conservative and religious country down a secular, more westernised path. Inonu was selectively deaf and didn't hear the shot. "Today," said Charlton, "tourist photographs of bikini-clad Turkish girls hang gliding round the minarets of Istanbul confirm the boast that women in Turkey won legal equality before their western counterparts." And he reminded us of Turkey's wider significance: "In the unending, unsettled aftermath of the Ottoman empire's 400-year- long occupation, there is a sense in which all Balkan wars in the modern era, including this one, are really about Turkey."

You wouldn't hear that on PM.

Until last year's "modernisation" of BBC World Service schedules, Michael Charlton also wrote and presented Seven Days, a superb and seamless analysis of the week's main international news stories. But in the anti-intellectual, history-is-dead climate of Birt's BBC, which scorns experience and authority while preferring chattiness on news-lite programmes, Seven Days was scrapped. It can only be hoped that the incoming regime reverses this trend, brings us more of Michael Charlton and broadcasters of his calibre and tells the consultants to fuck off.