Radio: Laughter at lunchtime: intended but not delivered

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THERE was once an ongoing crisis at Radio 4 when they filled the afternoon slot with a witless blatherskite of a show called Anderson Country, which seemed to last all afternoon and drove the audience to despair. The Beeb caved in after a year-long struggle and now we have instead Laurie Taylor, who rambles along in the perfectly pleasant manner of a first- class mind operating at half-throttle. Which is precisely what you want from Radio 4, when you think about it. He said something on Wednesday which has stuck in the mind; apparently people who had worked in the Potteries and who had only 10 per cent of their lungs left were not bothering to see the doctor because they were - and here Taylor paused deftly to insert some invisible quotation marks - "coughing up the same old stuff".

I liked that, the idea that it is only a change in the texture of your sputum, and not the fact that you are producing buckets of the stuff, that alarms you. It was not intended as a metaphor but it will do as one nicely and it strikes me as an apt one for much radio programming. One particular gobbet of sputum that I will be glad to see the back of is The Board Game (R4), a ne plus ultra in aural garbage which purports to be an amusing quiz show based on financial matters. This goes out at 1.30pm on Wednesdays, i.e. starting at that phantom period, like an itchy amputated limb, where you still feel The World at One has another 10 minutes to go. What you get is an abject excuse for entertainment in which panellists' scores are measured in (ho ho!) stock market prices and which signs off by saying that the board will reconvene later. I hope it doesn't. The BBC has realised that these shows are as popular as anthrax and has whittled them down from five weekly appearances to three. So room for improvement.

The awful paradox is that while this is dumbness of a high order, it cannot necessarily be accused of leading to the dumbing-down of the nation, as those with even a small degree of movement in their fingers, and who have not been rendered catatonic with despair, can turn the dial just a tad to the left and pick up the last half hour of Radio 3's excellent lunchtime concert series. These are often live, invariably chamber music, of which I for one cannot get enough, and leave you cleverer and more serene by the end. (On the Wednesday in question you could have heard the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing Debussy, Ligeti, Bartk and Messiaen, and very superbly he did it too.) After a while the implications of what you have done sink in and you realize that you can also escape the news by tuning to it for the whole hour.

But the menace of the non-amusing quiz show has to be addressed. As it is impossible to imagine anyone voluntarily listening to it for more than a minute (the businessmen who might just constitute its target audience are hardly likely to be listening at 1.30 in the afternoon), you have to wonder about its place in the schedule. And those shows like it: quiz shows about antiques, quiz shows about music, quiz shows teamed by impressionists. It shouldn't be long before Radio 4 starts a quiz show about quiz shows. Their only possible purpose is to drive people away from the radio, but where are they being driven to? And why?

The truly frightening thing is that those Radio 4 listeners who fled to the hills in their hundreds of thousands when these wretched programmes started up have been slinking back, reluctantly and with an obscure sense of shame. There are still about 400,000 fewer pairs of ears glued to to Radio 4 than when James Boyle started tinkering about with the schedules, but this is apparently close enough to the original figure not to count as a shortfall in any meaningful sense of the word (this is important to him, as he said he would resign if he lost listeners). Richard Ingrams said that the only reason people returned was that they all had 'flu, which seems plausible, and it is possible too that they found commercial radio's output even more hackneyed. (I love Radio Liberty's slogan, gravid with internal contradictions: "More tunes! More chat! More fun!")

But there is something sinister going on here. One surely does not make such a sustained and successful attempt to alienate so many listeners without some deep purpose, but I am completely stumped as to what that purpose can be. It is a three-pipe problem, at the very least.

Meanwhile, in Borsetshire, the devil-child Daniel still lives. The foolish mortals who have not recognized the peril in their midst will live to regret their weakness. Alastair, in abject sexual thrall to Shula, will never discover either the sense of duty or the bottle to strangle him, and any opportunity the vicar had to exorcise him has long since passed. Instead we shall console ourselves with Sid Perks's impending doom. The Archers scriptwriters have performed the noteworthy feat of making this ignorant, bigoted homo- phobe even more irritating than he already was by turning him into an exercise freak. Even the show's other characters have noticed. He has just dropped a dumb-bell on his foot, but what we really wanted was a heart attack.