Robert Hanks on Radio

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The Independent Culture
Much of last week's edition of Feedback was devoted to complaints about the kind of language used on Doon Your Way, a showcase for the comedian Doon McKichan that went out on Radio 4 on Thursday nights. A typical letter was the one from a woman who wrote that at this time of day her two-year-old was likely to be listening and picking up words like "dildo". Jonathan-James Moore, head of light entertainment at BBC Radio, defended the programme on the grounds that his department had been putting out slightly risque comedy at 6.30pm on a Thursday for the past four years, and had thereby established a context.

Personally, I'm agnostic on Doon Your Way and not particularly bothered by obscenity, even in the mouths of two-year-olds - to be frank, I'm always amused when people use rude words without knowing what they mean. In any case, why all this fuss about a dildo: is there really anything so distasteful about an extinct flightless bird from Mauritius?

What does disturb me is Mr Moore's idea that he can establish a discrete context within Radio 4 for 30 minutes one evening a week, sandwiched in between the Six O'Clock News and The Archers. As it happens, this sort of thing goes on quite a lot - I think I'm right in saying that, for instance, Radio 4 is more likely to transmit gritty contemporary dramas on a Wednesday afternoon than on a Thursday, something to bear in mind if you want to save your children from the creeping vices of swearing and socialism. But it ignores the way that most people listen to the radio most of the time - that is, continuously, not switching on and off for individual programmes. It's hard to think that Mr Moore really believes listeners are alert to such subtleties in scheduling ("I keep forgetting what day of the week it is, darling"; "I just heard somebody say 'twat' on Radio 4, dear, so it must be Thursday").

Even if listeners do spot what's going on, how does it justify anything? If we were to carp at the mediocrity and silliness of the new Whitehall spy series Colvil and Soames, which goes out on a Wednesday lunchtime, would Radio 4 answer by saying that they've been putting out mediocre and silly drama series in this slot for years, and felt listeners knew what to expect?

Of course, the real context that justifies Doon Your Way isn't its time slot, but the strong British tradition of clever comedy which combines mild surrealism with an urge to epater les bourgeois. McKichan's Brownie trying for her porn badge can trace her ancestry back through The Young Ones, Monty Python, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, Marty Feldman and Barry Took's scripts for Round the Horne and Beyond the Fringe all the way back to The Goon Show.

The tradition was neatly summed up in David Renwick's play Angry Old Men (Radio 4, Monday), which revolved around four comedians - and their attractive female sidekick - who in the Fifties and Sixties broke new ground with their madcap antics and use of words like "clitoris"; now, they are old and screwed up, and one of them has been murdered. What was most impressive here was the way Renwick managed to duplicate the sort of humour he was referring to - showing you in the process how formulaic anarchic comedy can be. It was a clever play; but I'm not sure that makes up for it being a bit of a killjoy.