Book review: Hello Again…, By Simon Elmes

Remembering stars with a good face, and voice, for radio
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The Independent Culture

This engaging if uncritical history of British radio starts conventionally with Marconi and Reith. It reminds us how the new medium became a central feature of British life.

Astonishingly, the Brains Trust, where listeners' questions were debated by "a ferociously intelligent trio", attracted up to a third of the population in the Forties. However, the book earns its sub-title, "Nine decades of radio voices", when Simon Elmes, radio documentary supremo at the BBC, applies his expert ear to the great names of the medium.

Roy Plomley, inventor of Desert Island Discs, utilised "a knowing chuckle [that] sometimes could be lightly critical", while Richard Dimbleby "comes over as matter of fact, unemotional or perhaps wry". John Arlott's delivery had "a rolling, long-legged style, with sentences and clauses so long and involved that he could be left, literally, gasping for breath". Kirsty Young, current custodian of the Desert Island, has "a wonderful radio voice, dark, dancing, playful and smiling."

Unfortunately, Elmes's choice of quotes does not always match his analysis. Tackling the camp innuendo of Julian and Sandy in Round the Horne, Elmes chooses an oddly lacklustre example. At Bona Books, Julian asks Kenneth Horne, "Would you be interested in Spenser's Fairy Queen?" "Oh, no. He's not interested in mine."

Occasionally, the dedicated radio listener may feel that Elmes toes the party line too assiduously. He maintains that John Peel "knew what made compelling, stylish and timelessly hip radio". In fact, the jarring stuff Peel put out on Radio 1 for his last decade or more was unlistenable for all but a tiny minority. Elmes describes Peel's Radio 4 programme Home Truths as "an unbeatable double whammy" of warmth and family, but some of us found it sentimental and hackneyed. Elmes notes that the lack of a young audience is "being vigorously tackled" at Radio 4 but not what this means: a series of dire comedies at 6.30pm that has the core audience dashing for the "off" button.