Media: Are you being served?

A show that mixes hard news, satire and comedy is the latest innovation in Radio 5 Live's Sunday morning slot. But not everyone is convinced. By Richard Cook
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The Independent Culture
Imagine a world in which The Big Breakfast, notNewsnight, is the principal arbiter of the news agenda. Then imagine a Big Breakfast whose raison d'etre is to free the falsely imprisoned, to tackle the bitter social issues facing the unemployed in Liverpool, and to provide detailed analysis of the political situations in Kosovo and Northern Ireland.

Oh yes, and also to resuscitate Jim Bowen's career, promote a 40-year- old mother of three from a run-down Canning Town council estate as a stock market guru, and prove the salvation of British radio satire.

Imagine no longer. This unlikely creature has arrived in the shape of Sunday Service, a seamless two-hour mixture of serious news analysis, satire and humour that made its debut on Radio 5 Live on the morning of Easter Sunday.

"I certainly don't think everyone's news agenda is dictated by Newsnight. The fact is that you can have a laugh at something one minute, and then move on to something serious, because that's just the way people think," explains the show's producer and the head of Planet 24 Radio, Alex Connock. He is also the man who helped revive the fortunes of The Big Breakfast. "A lot of papers put funny stories on the same pages as important news stuff because that's just the way people, and especially young people, think about these things. It's only surprising because broadcasters haven't tended to think this way."

The Sunday morning show is presented by former GLR favourite turned TV presenter, Fi Glover. Nothing too surprising there. But she forms merely one part of an unlikely triumvirate of talent. She is joined by Gordon Brown's former spin doctor Charlie Whelan and by the political journalist Andrew Pierce, of The Times, and a good friend of Whelan. Both are on hand to add their expertise in, for example, tough interviews on the developing Kosovo crisis. Nothing too surprising there either.

The surprise really starts as the show - 60 per cent of which is recorded live, and 40 per cent of which is made up of elaborate pre-recorded segments - is suddenly taken over by young comics and Eighties television icons. The tone can switch straight from thoughts about Kosovo, for instance, to the thoughts of Jim Bowen, who presents a Jerry Springer-style segment mediating between warring posh folk. On the one hand, then, we have the former military attache to Belgrade explaining how the choice for land war lies between a push through Hungary or across the Montenegran borde; on the other, we get the former Bullseye host chatting to two frightfully well-spoken pals, one of whom has just simply trashed Mummy's Swiss chalet. It's at this point that Whelan and Pierce are expected to spring straight from making earnest pundit comments into all-action heckling.

"My brief is simply to have a bit of fun," Whelan confirms. "We might have to tone it down a little at first, because of the events in Kosovo, but we are certainly not going to get too serious on the show. I'm actually a bit nervous about it, because I've only ever been on the radio twice, to talk about the budget and as a punter on [the fans' football phone- in] Six-O-Six, but people know you can talk about Kosovo and football in the same breath because they do it themselves all the time."

Certainly the pre-recorded features seem miles from the traditional news and discussion model. As well as Bowen, they include the quiz show Who Wants to be an MP?, which tests prospective parliamentary candidates on arcane trivia about their chosen constituencies. Comedy comes courtesy of Iain Lee, with a series of inspired rants about the miseries of modern life.

The other regular is Emma Kennedy, who uses her slot in the first programme to test whether loan companies really will sanction a loan "for absolutely any purpose" at all. In her case, that meant impersonating a Welsh mother who needed cash to test a roulette system she had developed on the plastic set in her son's bedroom, a Madame Whiplash looking to invest in new stock and a would-be counterfeiter of bank notes. Needless to say, all received the provisional go-ahead.

Sunday Service beat off 30 rival bids from some of the radio production industry's biggest names for the high-profile, year-long contract. But even before it launched, it was raising a few hackles among R5's top brass. The whisper was that the show would lower the station's slightly too earnest tone.

"What we wanted when we put the show out to tender were new ideas," explains 5 Live commissioning editor, Steve Kite. "It's very hard to come up with something new in current affairs shows, but Planet 24 managed it. The idea of a combination of proper news and comedy was intriguing, even if I do realise that we will have to be extremely careful about how we push it. We dropped a segment containing an `All you can eat' food review from the first show because of the refugee problem, for instance, and I suspect that while Kosovo is going on, we will continue to err on the side of caution."

It's going to be a tricky balancing act because what is significant about Sunday Service is that this is not a show relegated to midnight on a Tuesday evening. It's a vital part of R5's programming line-up. In radio terms, Sunday mornings represent an important opportunity for selling the station. On weekdays, listeners must desert their radios in droves during the breakfast show as they rush from home to work. On Sunday morning, however, they have more time to listen and, importantly, more time to decide on where they will leave their radio dial. Accordingly, it's when the stations traditionally wheel out their biggest names - Steve Wright, for instance, followed by Michael Parkinson on Radio 2, Danny Baker on Virgin, and the comedian Sean Hughes on GLR.

Sunday Service represents a bold gambit for R5, not least because topical satire is in a pretty parlous state in the late 1990s. The weakest part of Drop the Dead Donkey was its attempt to make gags about the week's news. The Friday Night Armistice meant well, but never really delivered. But, even with the shadow of Kosovo, Sunday Service started brightly. When it's good, as in a segment asking so-called Manchester United fans about fictional Juventus players with names culled from porn films, it's very good indeed. And let's face it, anything that worries the top brass at Radio 5 that the station is letting its hair down a little too much, has to be worth a listen.