Radio: Forty years of life and death

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The Independent Culture
ANDY KERSHAW stood on a bridge, looking down at the river. He was counting bodies. In 10 minutes, nine had floated past, bound and swollen. His incongruously cheery voice, more often heard getting excited about world folk music, was now pressed into service to describe the civil war in Rwanda. He was soon to come even closer to it. The patrol he was travelling with stopped suddenly as the truck in front of him exploded and flipped over, like a beer-mat, while hoots of delighted laughter echoed across the hills. His dispatch ended as he set off into the night on foot, over six miles of mined tracks, towards the dubious safety of a Rwandan Patriotic Front outpost.

Being a BBC correspondent can be hideously dangerous. This week saw the 40th anniversary of the programme that allows these heroes of the airwaves a little space to reflect on their surroundings. From Our Own Correspondent (R4/WS), affection- ately known as Fooc, is one of the longest-running radio programmes in the world, and surely one of the best. Heard everywhere, translated into local languages, it is sometimes the only way that people can learn what is happening in their own countries. It gives a graphic sense of place. In Sarajevo, Allan Little chanced upon Braco, a young man whose three best friends had run away to avoid being drafted into the Bosnian Serb army. This one, the only child of a widowed mother, had decided to stay with her and found himself fighting against them. Little had met the other three and offered Braco his microphone to record a message to them: it ended, "I still love you. All of you. That's it." What an illustration of the terrible random oppositions of war.

But Fooc is never entirely grim. Another item described Stephen Jessel's acquisition of a dog in Paris. The animal was ugly, its parentage a matter of fantastic conjecture. "It is not even clear," he opined, "whether its forebears were natives of this planet. Overheard in the Bois de Vincennes: 'No, cheri, it isn't a monkey'." Jessel recommended a simpler, less expensive pastime than owning a Parisian dog, such as running a Formula One motor- racing team, or collecting Rembrandts.

In an unpredictable, irrational world, Fooc is a beacon of humanity and wisdom. Though telephone lines be chewed by sacred goats, though makeshift studios boast no equipment beyond a bidet, the correspondents manage to get through - and we, too, are wiser for hearing them. May it last another 40 years, and then another.

Richard III (R3) has lasted 400 years, and is still going strong. Even stronger this week, with a harsh, compelling production by Northern Broadsides, starring Barrie Rutter. It took time to accept the rough Yorkshire voice of the usurper king, planning the murders of Booknum and Airstings - we associate such vowels with the bluff honesty of a decent man, always ready to call a sped a sped - but the effect was to increase his wily plausibility. Only Richmond, the goody, sounded even slightly posh. The production was punctuated by sounds of oak on iron, with occasional echoing, cracked gongs: when Lady Anne spat at Richard, we heard a crab-apple land in an empty galvanised bucket - sorry, what I mean is that Conrad Nelson's music was vigorously emphatic. If the little princes had sounded just slightly younger than 35, it would have been the best production I've heard.

It was a far cry from the sort of thing required of George Lazenby when they asked him to be James Bond. His one film made him Famous for 15 Minutes (R4), but he'd have done better to stay as the hunk on the Big Fry chocolate ad, or even the hunk selling cars in Queensland. Jenni Mills draws the best from her subjects, but the very nature of her programme means that they are often sad cases. After personal and professional disasters, the frank but wretched Lazenby, whose performance was once compared, unfavourably, to that of an Easter Island statue, is back at night school, studying acting.

Meanwhile, down on the farm, it's autumn, and time to bring the Harvest Home (R2). Georgina Boyes compiled this montage of songs and readings, which proved less corny (oops) than you might imagine. In the days before the combine-harvester depopulated the farms, everyone joined in and everyone drank. Though miserly farmers tried to get away with watered-down beer, the usual tipple was cider, in 80-gallon casks. Usually, parsimonious parsons turned their parsonages into pothouses; gavellers gavelled with flail and swingel, and the hearty women of Fife hurled yeomen to the ground and sat on them until they turned out their pockets. This quaint custom was called kippering. A winsome winnower found another way to get her kicks. She wailed to a passing horseman that she was sure he would take advantage of her. When he protested that he had no such intention, and besides, he had his hands full with his fretful horse, she was ready with her answer: "Why don't you tie him to that gate?" Down in our valley the sun is golden and the hops are ripe: time for revelry.