Arts: Nostalgia revisited

Forty years on, the `radio ballads' have become icons of a lost Golden Age at the BBC. They too harked back to simpler times in their vision of working-class life. But both views are wrong, says Robert Hanks
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There is a school of thought that sees history purely in terms of a series of accidents and contingencies (for want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, and so on all the way up to the loss of the kingdom). If you favour that approach, then you might trace back to a fracture in an automatic steam-brake pipe a shift in the whole way we listen to radio - perhaps even the way we listen to and imagine ourselves.

In 1957, John Axon was driving a steam-train from Buxton to Stockport when the incident happened: the fracture of the pipe filled the engine's cab with steam, and Axon and his fireman were forced to cling on to the outside of the engine. While the train moved fairly slowly, Axon told the fireman to jump for safety, but clung on himself to alert the signalman. Because of his action, another train was saved, but he was killed when his engine ploughed into an empty freight train at 80 miles an hour. He was posthumously awarded the George Cross.

From this incident was born "The Ballad of John Axon", the first of the eight classic "radio ballads" produced for the BBC between 1957 and 1964 by the team of Charles Parker, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. The ballads were unprecedented in British radio: never before had ordinary, working people been given such prominence, allowed to speak unaided and show their eloquence and power. Never before had radio blended music and recorded speech so intricately, playing them off against one another, with only single-track tape available.

Charles Parker had almost to reinvent the art of editing and critics and public reacted with rapture. The radio ballads became legendary. Their legacy is still audible in radio features, whenever you hear montaged voices, or music and speech woven together.

The most famous of the radio ballads, "Singing the Fishing", a Prix Italia- winning portrait of the herring fishing communities of East Anglia and north-east Scotland, has been repeated from time to time on Radio 4. The remainder faded into history, and became part of the legend of how much better the BBC used to be in the past. Now, for the first time in 20 years, the songs can be listened to on disc, thanks to the efforts of Laurence Aston and Topic Records.

The problem is, they turn out to be not nearly as good as they are cracked up to be. It is, I think, largely to do with history and how you view it. MacColl and Seeger, who wrote the music, both came out of a leftwing, folk-song milieu. For them, history was about the opposite of accident and contingency: it was about grand continuities and elemental struggles, between man and nature, and between worker and oppression. The working man strove to live with dignity.

Parker, a middle-class, Cambridge-educated, High Anglican, suffered an uneasy sense of inferiority when he went out to record the interviews that were the backbone of the programme; in the notes he wrote to accompany "The Travelling People", a lament for the Gypsy life, which was the last radio ballad, he described frankly how a young Gypsy woman's "indomitable humanity made me feel so inadequate".

Coupled with this idealisation of the working man (only occasionally the working woman; she usually gets a walk-on part as the sorrowing wife who stays home while her man risks his life) was the firm belief in a deep consonance between the modes and tropes of folk-song and ordinary people's lives. This idea was most blatantly expressed in Parker's notes to "On the Edge", a 1963 radio ballad about life as a teenager. He drew a contrast between the "honesty" of folk-song and its "solid foundations" and "the shifting sands of pop-song sycophancy"; so that, with Cliff Richard and the Beatles in the top 10, we get young people's aspirations charted to the sounds of banjo and nasal folk whine.

Throughout the eight ballads there is a faux-folk vocabulary and diction that in retrospect seems a little risible - as in "The Song of a Road", about the building of the M1, where MacColl can, with straight face, declare "With me whack, fol de doo, fol de diddle de dum a die".

A third view of history intrudes on this: the view that sees the past as just better than the present. That affects many modern reactions to the radio ballads, I think. The songs seem to present a time when the issues were clearer - working men worked with their hands, and bosses sat in offices, and you knew what side you were on. Yet the lines were already smudged when the radio ballads were being made. MacColl's songs imposed on the here-and-now a vision of a brighter, simpler time. So we're nostalgic for nostalgia.

The appeal of the radio ballads also lies in a vision of the BBC as we like to think it once was - creative, radical, free. But Parker had a bureaucratic fight to get the radio ballads made, and they were decreed too expensive and brought to a halt in 1964. Parker's career trailed on for another eight years, before he was forced into early retirement.

These layers of nostalgia obscure the fact that MacColl had strict limitations as a songwriter. Often he is banal: "The year was 1957, the morning bright and gay/ On the ninth of February John Axon drove away" - it isn't only the fact that it is about a rail disaster that makes it reminiscent of McGonagall. Sometimes, he lapses into pretension, as in "The Body Blow", brilliant interviews with five sufferers from polio that are spoiled by MacColl's tunes. The moving descriptions are undercut by his over- dramatic musical commentary: "The swimmer panics in the undertow, fingers lose their hold on the rockface, the runner stumbles on the rim of darkness" - look at the way the specifics of the first two collapse into the vague portentousness of "the rim of darkness".

But having said all that, two of the radio ballads still seem, after 40 years, magnificent. In "The Big Hewer", about coal-mining, and "The Fight Game", about boxing, the radio ballads find men Titanic enough, heroic enough to live up to their pretensions. Listening to these two, you really can believe that there were giants in those days.