RADIO / Brylcreem and toe-nails: Victor Lewis-Smith regrets the demise of Radio 4's Stop the Week

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The Independent Culture
WITH SO many changes taking place in Broadcasting House, this would be an appropriate time to replace the staid BBC motto 'Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation' with the more relevant 'If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It'. Tonight, one of radio's longest-running talk shows takes to the air for the last time. In spite of consistently high ratings and a remarkably loyal listenership, management has decreed that it is too middle-aged and middle-class for the youthful audience R 4 is now pursuing. And so the bathwater is thrown out, with a bonny bouncing 18-year-old Stop The Week baby still in it.

This salon de the of the airwaves undoubtedly polarises its audience. The clubbishness and apparently trifling preoccupations of the Raines Park literati (so called after Robert Robinson's old school) infuriate as many as they captivate. When I worked in the chat show department, Start The Week was referred to as 'Pluggers', Midweek as 'Nutters' and Stop The Week as 'Wankers'. While other programmes tackled worthy issues, and wore their learning as heavily as winter greatcoats, STW concentrated on trivia, its contributors skilfully carrying their knowledge as lightly as blazers in summer. Such capriciousness enraged many.

STW was created by ex-Hungarian goalkeeper Michael Ember, aka Robinson's 'friend from East Molesley'. Thirty years ago he left his native country and arrived here with a suitcaseful of Brylcreem, having been told that it was not available in the UK. Ember, like George Mikes before him, has an extraordinarily acute foreigner's eye for British idiosyncrasies. He also has an ear for new and talented talkers, assembling a small pool of reliable regulars from which he could draw. The fallacy which most chat shows adhere to is that, by changing the cast list each week, the programme will stay fresh and interesting. Under Ember's aegis, STW has run through its life cycle with mostly the same people, and the result has been consistently compelling and entertaining radio.

There have been hairy moments. A professor, whose speciality was drought, spent the entire programme offering long-drawn-out metaphors about water purification plants. In a broadcast from Guernsey, George Melly thanked the local radio service 'for their collaboration . . . of course they're very good at collaborating in these parts.' But the standard of discussion remains high and, in retrospect, are the topics really trivial? The weighty current affairs issues tackled in other programmes prove ephemeral, but STW has always concentrated on the profound, eternal concerns that few programmes dare tackle - should sandals be worn with socks, are men with moustaches to be trusted, where is the correct place to clip one's toenails? This is the stuff of universal angst, as Michael Ember points out: 'In a survey, where to cut your toenails came third in a list of major irritants causing serious stress within marriage.'

Milton Shulman, Nicholas Tucker, Laurie Taylor, Michael O'Donnell, Anne Lesley, Edward Blishen. And, at the centre, Bob Robinson, half fiddle-dee-deeing jovial uncle, half whip-cracking Cavaliere Cipolla, jousting with the regulars and puncturing any hint of intellectual posturing with a contemptuous 'that smacks of the midnight oil'. It is a black day. STW first convinced me of the power and importance of quality broadcast speech, and I lament its passing. As no doubt will the correspondent whose letter is displayed on Ember's wall: 'Dear Sir, I have been listening to your programme for six years. It is crap, Yours sincerely, . . .'

Slow fade on group laughter. Cue sig.