Arts: The Week In Radio

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The Independent Culture
RADIO 4 went loony last Tuesday - no, it hasn't yet introduced Veg Talk Extra - but loony in the original sense of the word. Much of the day's programming was themed to mark the 30th anniversary of Neil Armstrong stepping on to the moon. On Front Row, the arts and media strand, there was a specially commissioned poem. Minty-cool presenter Francine Stock went for "a moonwalk" around an exhibition of lunar photographs at the Hayward Gallery with astrophysics PhD, Brian May. (That the guitarist with Queen didn't make a career of his qualification is a great pity. Particularly for music fans.)

Peter White opened In Touch in exasperation: "We can put a man on the Moon," he said, "but we can't put a braille book in a public library." Even The Afternoon Play - Man in the Moon - was swept along by the anniversary of the greatest of human endeavours, bringing us a Radio 4 drama that did not, for once, consist of a lot of people screaming at each other in the 18th century.

The centrepiece of Moon Day was The Apollo Factor, presented by Anthony Howard and independently produced by Nick Utechin (who left the BBC last year when he was invited to re-apply for his own job). In this we learned that the Saturn 5 rocket's main propellant was Cold War paranoia and that the spacecraft was really an intercontinental ballistic missile fitted with a bench seat for its crewman.

And the guy who wrote President Kennedy's 1961 speech, which committed the United States to putting a man on the Moon before the end of the decade and returning him safely to Earth, revealed that it was an impulsive decision, made because Time magazine, immediately after Yuri Gagarin's first space flight, needed a strong morale-boosting story.

"I need it when the Moon is bright/ I need it when you hold me tight..." Not the first line of Front Row's moon-landing poem, but the lyrics of the Drifters' number one hit, "Honey Love", produced by Jerry Wexler. The Atlantic Records producer, who knob-twiddled on some of the finest R&B and soul records ever made, was celebrated in the first of three one- hour profiles: Jerry Wexler: Soul Man (Radio 2, Wednesdays 9pm).

The series is presented by another soul man, John Peel, whose enthusiasm for insolent records matches that of his subject. This moon-related lyric had caused uproar in the US. In 1954 it was deemed to be dangerously suggestive and hazardous to teenage glands. Peel read the provocative lines in the flat tones of an instruction manual. It was his most collectable performance since his reading of the translation of "La Bamba" some years ago.

As Armstrong and Aldrin pranced on the Moon surface Peel, then the young prince of hippiedom, was also on another planet. In his column in the alternative newspaper International Times, he was urging his followers to "walk far from the towns. Touch the bark of a thousand trees, shoeless. There are a million flowers that have grown just for you. Please go and find them and let them know your peace."

Now approaching his own sixties, but no more inclined to slip on a Geoff Love album than he was back then, Peel is still making a splendid din (John Peel, Tuesday to Thursday on Radio 1, 10.10pm-midnight). And he is currently working his way through a century of music with his nightly Peelennium feature. At roughly 11pm he plays four records from the year under consideration. We have reached 1931.

Peel, with his producer Anita Kamath and Lynn McCarthy, "the office junior", snuck the Peelennium into the show without consulting Radio 1's management. If they had done so, it's unlikely this illuminating and fascinating sequence would have got on the air. Vesta Victoria's poptastic "Look What Percy's Picked Up In The Park" (her follow-up to "Riding On A Motor Car") and the Parlophone Quartet's "Our Lodger's Such A Nice Young Man", all on crackly 78s, do not slip readily into Radio 1's self-proclaimed schedule for 15-24 year olds.

Yet Peel's production team has been amazed by the positive response to the Peelennium from that age group. This makes a mockery of narrowcasting and points up Peel's maverick genius for broadcasting.

Similarly, Jerry Wexler knows it is better to over-estimate the mentality of the public than to underestimate it. Some producers, such as Phil Spector, he said in last Wednesday's Soul Man, create a confection. All that's remembered is "a sound, a record". The Wexler approach is about "serving the artist... putting him in the right musical setting. This generates great artists".

Our Greatest Radio Artist shambles on to Radio 4 again next Tuesday with the first in a four-part series called The History of Pop. We won't be hearing in it any more of the Wexler wisdom, for this is "the definitive history of carbonated water". As it's Peel at the mike, it will no doubt be a thigh-slapper for listeners of all ages. But it's only a matter of time, you feel, before Radio 4 commissions a six-part series on The History of Sellotape.

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