Broadcasting: Only a miniature of Chivas Regal?
Sunday 12 September 1999
But it did make me think fondly of the way journalists are wooed. We normally keep quiet about this as our judgements are meant to be beyond influence or favour, arf arf. The Controller of Radio 3 invited me to Pelleas et Melisande at the Albert Hall last week; many thanks, just treat me as a blank sheet of paper from now on, and sorry about having to climb over you during Act II to get to the khazi. It was my fault for drinking all your claret, I suppose. Classic FM, as I believe I mentioned a few weeks ago, has a different way of going about things, and sent me a plastic pot of Dolmio pasta sauce in order to induce me to listen to four-minute snatches of middlebrow Italian music. It didn't work. Last week, the station sent me a miniature of Chivas Regal. Much better, Classic FM, although I would have to add that while you are definitely on the right track there is still a little work to do in the quantity department.
The programme the whisky was meant to make me listen to was something called Masters of their Art with Susannah Simons, which I gather was about whisky blending. The same press pack contained details of Across the Threshold, in which - and now you really are going to need a drink, because the words you are about to read do not conjure up a pleasing image at all - David Mellor invites Bonnie Langford into his lounge and plays some of his CDs at her. The very helpful person at Classic FM swore blind that this was what was going to be broadcast, and wasn't some kind of joke.
It is true that if anyone has a face made for radio it is David Mellor, but it is also true that he has a voice that so conjures up his face that it is wisest not to have him on the radio, or indeed any medium, at all. Do programmers really think that when Mellor comes on the radio, the nation goes "Oh goody, it's David Mellor"? (The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to Pip Archer, or indeed any child on The Archers. Come to think of it, it applies to almost the entire cast of The Archers these days, with the solitary exception of Brian Aldridge.)
Amid such stupidity it was more than just nice, it was a lifeline, to have the week's evenings on Radio 3 devoted largely to Samuel Beckett. This meant finally hearing, as opposed to just reading, his radio plays, which are as haunting and innovative as anything else he did. Radio was an ideal medium for someone so ontologically perplexed, whose characters would wonder whether the voices in their heads were nothing more than that. Vexingly, R3 did not broadcast Beckett's first radio play, All That Fall, on the grounds that it had done so a couple of years ago.
The best of the programmes about him were the four entitled The Other Beckett, which went out from Monday to Thursday at 9.50pm. These were 20-minute-long examinations of Beckett's prose and poetry by Christopher Ricks. "Great luck to be alive," said Ricks, of his accidental discovery of Beckett's Watt, "when works of genius are being born, and to come upon them without benefit of a teacher; to be a contemporary, for a while at least, of T S Eliot, Bob Dylan, Samuel Beckett."
Great luck for us to be alive, too, when so lucid, penetrating and enriching a critic as Ricks is as well. Ricks is staggeringly good, generous in his desire to do right by art, and by us: he makes language sit up and play tricks, while at the same time telling us what kind of tricks it is playing on us. When he read out the opening sentence of Murphy - "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new" - Ricks said: "What impertinence, and what pertinence, to remind us, at the very beginning of a novel, of all things, that there is no new thing under the sun." For who would think to remind us, at such an appropriate moment, and with such elegant economy, as if we had just that moment thought of it ourselves, of the two meanings of the word "novel"?
Reading the ending of Beckett's first story, Dante and the Lobster, Ricks said: "Here was a writer, in his twenties, in entire possession of his art; he has a purpose, and his eyes are bright with it." If you know the story you will know what he means. If you don't, then remedy the situation. Or, if you'd rather not, see if you could persuade Ricks to read out Beckett's corpus for the BBC. He makes the work comprehensible, or as much as possible; and funny, and moving, too.
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