RADIO / Just an old-fashioned dial: Robert Hanks on the Virgin flight of Britain's first nationwide commercial pop station

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The Independent Culture
WHEN you think about it, 'Virgin' is the wrong name for a station that leans so heavily on experience. The assumption that lies behind Britain's first nationwide commercial pop station is that you've heard it all before and they've done it all before. Still, human history - and Richard Branson's own track record - does suggest that 'Virgin' is a more attractive label than 'Mature Mother of Five', or 'Ageing Crone', or any of the other alternatives that might sit more comfortably with the playlist and the DJs (although we can categorically deny rumours that Emperor Rosko had to be thawed out of a tank of liquid nitrogen for his first appearance).

Virgin 1215 began its maiden run officially on Friday, just after noon: at 12.15pm, to be precise, with a promise to play 1,215 classic tracks over the bank holiday weekend (but who will be checking up on this one?). They have, the harping on their wavelength suggests, a strong sense of identity. They also have a strong sense of history: the first of the 'classic tracks' was the Beatles' 'A Day in the Life' - as Richard Skinner pointed out, the very song that closed down the pirate Radio London in 1967.

Richard Branson cut the ribbon with a small speech in which he said that this was the radio station he had always wanted; it wasn't clear if he was talking as a listener or as a proprietor. Whether, as he hoped, the listeners are going to find that it's the station they've always wanted is also hard to make out. Certainly, so far there's been little unfamiliar to frighten you off. That's because of the principles on which they've worked out their playlist: what's happened (at least, this is all you can deduce) is that they've got into the cupboard where you hid those records you're slightly ashamed to own, and they've nicked them. (It's true: go on, check the cupboard.) These are perfectly pleasant records - Hall and Oates, Supertramp - and chances are in a few years you would be digging them out and feeling quite good about them, as you have done recently with your old Abba records. But you could hear any of these records somewhere else. Virgin needs to offer something that other stations don't. At the moment, it's filling a gap snugly for the advertisers, but not so much for the listeners. The sound quality on medium wave is not brilliant and the DJs are mostly good old- fashioned jocks, offering precious little on top of the music.

The exception is Chris Evans, who does a mildly rollicking Saturday morning show. He's up against Dave Lee Travis on Radio 1, and the comparison does him all kinds of favours: the zaniness, the mental kinks and lateral thought that DLT is constantly announcing are his stock in trade are really there in Evans's show: the quiz called 'The Pregnant Pause', in which the most pregnant caller gets to answer the questions (special fanfare if she's overdue), the spanking request spot . . . Even when it doesn't come off, sheer geniality hauls it through.

All the same, television is Evans's natural medium: there his lapses of taste stand out all the brighter. The imaginative freedom of radio can obstruct your view, a point that you could feel in Sunday's production of The Ruling Class, one of the programmes that kicked off Radio 3's '1968' season. Much of Peter Barnes's play relies on incongruities that just don't seem so incongruous on the radio: such as the insistence of the 14th Earl of Gurney, a Messianic madman, that he has miraculously raised a table 10 feet off the floor when everybody can see perfectly well that it hasn't budged.

Other opportunities were just thrown away by Gerry Jones's production: when the Earl murders his aunt, her husband explodes over her corpse, 'Who's the impudent clown responsible for this?' But the explosion of bathetically misplaced indignation was absorbed into the flow here, and turned into pure bathos.

Still, Barnes's magnificent satire on British obsessions with class and authority ('The first thing an Englishman does, straight from his mother's womb, is touch his forelock') hasn't aged much in the 25 years since it was first produced, for all the loose talk that's being going around about classless societies. This version contained at least one judicious updating: when one character tells a feeble scion of the aristocracy, 'If you're going to be a successful Conservative politician you'll have to learn to make convincing excuses', she now adds '- and never take responsibility for anything.'

It's a pessimistic start to the 1968 season: a line that suggests that if politics has changed since those heady days, it hasn't been for the better.

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