Radio: Laugh? Well, no, actually

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The Independent Culture
The most exciting moment on radio last week came courtesy of Margaret Beckett. It's been that kind of week. She was interviewed about the Cabinet non-reshuffle on The World at One on Thursday, and she blamed journalists' speculative errors ("Cunningham/Prescott/Dobbo facing axe" etc) on "unprofessionalism". She was also accused of having taken a week's caravan holiday in June - when she hadn't. Now, I imagine my more political colleagues are busy sticking up for themselves in other parts of this paper, and indeed other papers, but let me nip round to their side of the barricades on this one. "Unprofessionalism" is a dirty slur, a word so indecent that even my word- processing programme refuses to recognise its existence, and needs rebuttal.

Ms Beckett reminded the programme - which, she said acidly, she normally admired - that journalists had been repeatedly told by Alastair Campbell that what they were writing about the forthcoming reshuffle was rubbish; but, as fools persist in their folly, wrote it anyway. The point is that Campbell always says that what journos write is rubbish. So what the hell can we do about it? Believe him for once? Give over. Besides "Cunningham to be sacked" makes a better headline, and conjures up a more pleasant image, than "Geoff Whothehell to become undersecretary at Ministry of Paper Clips." What the whole business needs, I thought, is a topical satirical radio programme.

And lo, there is one! It is called The Way It Is, which replaces the late and not very lamented Week Ending, which went out at, um, the end of the week. As is standard BBC policy in these matters, the idea is to get rid of a long-standing fixture of declining worth and popularity and replace it with something almost identical, only slightly worse. The Way It Is is broadcast at the same time as WE, 11pm, except - now this is a radical departure - it goes out on Wednesday.

Anyway, I tuned in. And then had to suffer one of those awful half-hours, quite common when exposed to much radio comedy, when you wonder whether the programme really is awful, or whether you are suffering from a freakishly localised brain tumour which has taken out your sense of humour. As anyone else who has suffered from this problem knows, thinking you have lost your sense of humour actually does make you lose it. Maybe, I thought at one point, this show isn't meant to be funny at all, and that I am making unfair demands on it. Then there followed a weak laugh, coming from I would guess about 10 to 15 larynxes. This was an important clue. It must be a comedy - for there is an audience trying to laugh out there. (It couldn't have been canned laughter, for the can would have had to say "weak laughter" on the label, and not even the BBC is foolish enough to buy such a thing. Is it?)

But, dear God, it was wretched. It's another bogus news show, but whereas On the Hour was sustained genius, and The Sunday Format almost as good, this almost makes me long for the days of Week Ending. A man speaks IN A FAST SHOUTY AND BAD-TEMPERED VOICE LIKE THIS THE WHOLE TIME, in the persona of a self-important news presenter. The idea is that if he speaks fast enough, he can cover up for the almost total lack of anything that makes anyone laugh. Here, for instance, is one of their better jokes about the Cabinet reshuffle. A woman with a Scottish accent outside No 10 or somewhere says: "I have just heard that the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be Kermit the Frog." "And that's from a reliable source, is it?" asks the man in the studio. "No." And you know what? It's funnier written down than delivered.

Apparently the show is recorded on Tuesday night in front of an audience. Afterwards an announcer announced the next venue and invited people to turn up. After that performance the show's only hope of an audience lies in the BBC reviving the ancient recruiting institution known as the press gang.

Meanwhile Radio 3 has been using its lunchtime concert slot to broadcast loads of Haydn string quartets. In doing so they make a number of fundamental mistakes, which go some way to show how the station has lost its way in the modern world. Permit me to give them some advice.

First, they play the quartets whole, without ad breaks. I know the BBC's charter forbids advertising, for the moment at least, but they could break them up with those amusing, appetite-whetting trails for other programmes which are such a popular feature on Radio 4, and are, in essence, advertisements anyway. But how do they expect us to listen to half an hour of uninterrupted chamber music? Has the world gone mad?

Secondly, the woman who introduces them quickly and informatively tells us about the circumstances of each quartet's composition, and alerts us to a few interesting musical features that crop up during them. This is not good enough. We want a musical critical vocabulary which consists almost completely of the words "bright", "charming", "divine" and, when none of these will do, "rousing". Oh, and they should be delivered by someone who doesn't even sound as if he (must be male, bogus "warm" Irish accent a bonus) knows what these few, exhausted words are doing there in the first place. Would they work on this, please?

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