It's time to go radio ga-ga

Miles Kington urges us all to tune in and turn on to the delights of radio
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The Independent Culture
A FRIEND of mine has been listening to Mastermind on Radio 4.

"It's very good," he said. "Much better than on television. I think it was a radio idea all along. It should never have been on television."

I can't pronounce on this, as I haven't heard Mastermind on radio and can't remember ever seeing it much on television, but I am sure the principle is true - that some things work better on radio, some on TV. For instance, the comedy/thriller In The Red, which has just been going out on BBC TV, has been receiving mixed reviews as a knockabout satirical look at the current scene in politics and the BBC. I can see why it has been receiving mixed reviews as it is a bit confusing, but when it first went out on Radio 4, I thought it was one of the funniest and least confusing things I had ever heard.

Of course, for television In The Red had to be given a starry cast, and updated, and had lots of money spent on it, but that doesn't make it as good as the radio version. It doesn't even make it as good as In The Red author Mark Tavener's new Radio 4 serial, In The Chair, going out right now, in which a serial murderer is at work again, but this time killing dentists. It's very funny about New Labour. It's bang up to date. It's sharp and it's better than what has been going out on TV under the name of In The Red. But because it is going out on radio, the only people who take notice are television people short of ideas to steal.

The idea that anything can be better on radio than television is, I suppose, a bit shocking to a world that has been brought up to believe that television is THE medium. But anyone who has followed Steve Coogan's career will know that Alan Partridge always worked best on radio. Anyone who listens regularly to The News Quiz on Radio 4 will know that it is streets ahead of Have I Got News For You? on television. The latter started out as a copy of The News Quiz, but developed a different personality along the way, in which the contestants started getting laughs by mildly insulting each other; on The News Quiz the sharp wits of Alan Coren, Jeremy Hardy etc, are content to say funny things.

Another example? I think it would be no exaggeration to say that the funniest show on either medium at the moment is I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, Radio 4's demolition job on panel games and quiz shows. The English have always been quite good at wonderfully pointless nonsense, from Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll down to Monty Python and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (has any other country ever produced anything like these?) and Humphrey Lyttelton's crew uphold the tradition wonderfully.

Television is all about pictures, we are told. I suppose that is why the news is so dreary on TV. They never have the right pictures. Of course, when the pictures are right, TV is wonderful. It is why television does natural history so well, and sport, and dancing, and ... . and ... well, that's about it, really. Apart from that - and cartoons and old movies - radio does most things better. Whenever I hear that a favourite radio programme of mine is about to be transferred to TV, my heart sinks. People Like `sS, the wonderful Radio 4 comedy with bumbling investigator Roy Mallard (Chris Langham), is apparently going to be given the TV treatment. God help us.

Other examples? There was a series recently called World of Pub, which I won't even try to describe, but which did things so fast that TV would be left gaping. There was a programme recently called Audio Diaries which told the story of an animal rights family who adopted a veal calf as their legitimate daughter. Hilarious, satirical stuff. (Both, incidentally, directed by Jane Berthoud. I don't know who she is, but bully for her.) On TV I can see this being pretty uneasy stuff. On radio, no problem.

Last example. My ten-year-old son heard a radio production of Arnold Ridley's The GhostTrain last year, which he loved, so he brainwashed us last week into taking him to see the current stage version at the Bristol Old Vic. He liked that too.

"But I preferred the radio version," he said. "More exciting. More scary. Funnier, too."

Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings ... ?