Radio: Heard the one about deaf people?

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The Independent Culture
Every so often - not very often - you hear someone banging on about the golden days of radio, although the word they come up with in this context is "romance". It's even in the title of one of Garrison Keillor's novels, Radio Romance, about a station called WLT (what do those acronyms for American radio stations stand for? Why do they have so many Ws and Ks in them?) in Minneapolis. Not that Keillor doesn't strip some of the romance off the medium. He has the proprietor of WLT moaning to himself: "Over thousands of years, man had won a measure of privacy, graduating from tent to hut to a home with a lock, and now, with the purchase of a radio, man could return to cave-dwelling days when you were easy prey to every bore in the tribe, every toothless jojo who wanted to deposit his life story all over you."

How different from the home life of our own dear BBC. Stephen Poliakoff's play, The Talk of the City, deals with the fledgling days of the Corporation. As this was originally written for the stage, hearing a play about the radio on the radio made one feel dizzy and privileged at the same time. This, you felt, is what the medium is for: protecting a large audience from all the horror of the theatre experience. (Half-way through listening to the tape, I jumped up and jostled against myself for 15 minutes, trying to catch my eye so I could serve myself an overpriced G & T with two slivers of watery ice in it, but it wasn't really the same.)

Poliakoff's play is set pre-war, when the BBC had Talks Producers and announcers had to wear a DJ; there were other restrictions, too, with the sound of kissing absolutely forbidden, and the very idea of live radio annulled by never, never deviating from the script. The idea, as one character observed, was that the BBC acted with such stuffy propriety in order to deflect attention from the fact that the medium it worked in was in its infancy, and capable of Lord knew what. Typical entertainment comes in the form of Friday Night at Eight, a cosy variety show hosted by one Robbie Pennacourt (all spellings of characters' names are guesswork). An almost sinisterly charismatic Talks Producer, Clive Lynn-Thomas, notices that Pennacourt, while low-brow, has an instinctive feel for the medium, and tries to get him to contribute to a documentary he is preparing on Jews' daily lives in Nazi Germany: to mix entertainment with fact and create something groundbreaking. Naturally enough the Powers That Be Get Wind of Things and Try to Put a Stop to it, but....

As a plea against isolationism, the play is both effective and spookily on the ball (everything keeps reminding us of the Balkans at the moment); but I kept wondering what precisely Poliakoff's point was. Poliakoff is one of the country's best scriptwriters - in the way he uses Big Historical Ideas for his own dramatic purposes, while at the same time allowing his characters to speak plausibly and forcefully, he reminds me of Tom Stoppard with a sense of shame (ie, a vast improvement). But accusing the BBC of having been too hidebound in the past comes dangerously close to patting ourselves on the back for being much more enlightened these days.

So now we have our first comedy programme for the disabled: Yes Sir, I can Boogie! (R4). This made jokes about blindness, quadraplegia, depression, wheelchair access, and even one quick joke about deafness - a line delivered by someone with the distinctive voice of the profoundly deaf. The attitude of the producers is that the jokes should be good enough to be funny outside the intended constituency - cf, Goodness Gracious Me - and everything is excused on the grounds that it's OK to make jokes about a certain minority if one is from that minority oneself.

It's no worse than many other R4 comedy programmes, and you can imagine how difficult script conferences must be: how to give your jokes enough bite while still remaining audience-friendly. The joke about wheelchair access - a nice inversion of the status quo where access for the able- bodied is insultingly rudimentary - went down particularly well with the studio audience while making this relatively able-bodied listener feel a little uncomfortable. Which is, I think, as it should be. The Scottish doctor who advises parents on the character defects he detects in pre- natal scans ("I'm afraid your son's going to be a bit of a tosser") has the best lines, but on the whole the show suffers from a dismayingly old- fashioned sketch-punctuated-by-big-band-fills format, and Week Ending's Law, which stipulates that the comedy content of a radio show is in inverse proportion to the number of its credited writers. There are 16 writers on Yes Sir....

Andy Hamilton's Old Harry's Game on R4 is written only by Andy Hamilton - and that show just gets better and better, although in the repeats he had to replace his Jill Dando joke with one about Gaby Roslin, which wasn't quite as good. Funnily enough, there was a quick Dando joke in the original Yes Sir... (obviously pre-assassination, and quite benign really) which was removed before broadcast. I wonder, though: who would have dared to accuse the makers of tastelessness if they had left it in?