RADIO Nostalgia isn't what it was

The Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise Radio Show / R2 Listen to Les / R2; New Spies for Old? / R4
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The Independent Culture
On Feedback (Radio 4, Friday), Chris Dunkley pointed out that while Radio 4 attracts a continuous stream of abuse from his listeners, Radio 2 gets nothing but praise. A listener had suggested why this is: for the first time in 40 years, society has grown tired of novelty and looking towards the future; now people are turning to the past, and Radio 2 satisfies this backward urge.

This is surprising, both as social analysis and as a reading of Radio 2; after all, the essence of nostalgia, you would think, is the way that you edit the past, leaving just the best bits; while one of the irritating things about Radio 2 is the way it dredges up all kinds of things you would rather forget.

This is particularly true in the field of comedy, where they have recently dredged up The Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise Radio Show (Radio 2, Saturday). Here we have this country's most brilliant comedy double-act, recorded in the 1970s when they were at the height of their powers and popularity, and sounding positively average.

In this week's edition there were a few shafts of brilliance (Eric asks Ernie if he's writing anything. Ernie: "I've got a rough synopsis." Eric: "Oh, do you want another cushion?"), but it's feeble next to Eric and Ernie on television - the Des O'Connor jokes are forced, sketches meander towards comedy musical links instead of storming straight at a good punchline, and the rhythm is spoiled by an audience that cackles hideously at inappropriate moments. This isn't how you want to remember them.

With Listen to Les (Radio 2, Saturday), a Les Dawson vehicle recorded around the same time, the documentation doesn't contradict memory quite so boldly - there was always a sense that he wasn't living up to his talents, at least before Blankety Blank. All the same, it's hard to believe that he was really this bad. Again, there are good bits ("I'm an expert at karate. I once broke a 10-inch plank with me head, and I had no cuts, no bruises - just a straightforward concussion"), but swamped by flabby material and a poor supporting cast. You have to ask, if this is the kind of past that Radio 2 has on offer, who wants to turn back to it?

Radio 2 listeners aren't the only people preoccupied with the past: in the first part of New Spies for Old? (Radio 4, Tuesday), a series examining the state of espionage after the Cold War, Christopher Andrew suggested that tradition has a worryingly strong hold on the FSK, the KGB's successor agency.

As portrayed by the urbane ex-KGB officers Andrew met, this clinging on to the past was purely a matter of professional pride. One former KGB officer described his colleagues' anger when, following the coup of August 1991, crowds wrecked the statue of Dzerzhinsky, founder of the NKVD, outside the Lubianka. The KGB were upset, he said, not for ideological reasons, but because they respected Dzerzhinsky "as a professional".

Other Russians, unsurprisingly, were blas about KGB traditions. There is, it seems, evidence that people who were forced to turn informer under the old regime are having trouble making their former KGB handlers understand that times have changed.

There was some fascinating material in here, especially on the KGB's behaviour in its last days, when they are supposed to have pumped Boris Yeltsin full of drugs to make him appear feeble and weak-minded. The only weakness in the programme was Andrew's perky manner, his need to conjure up jokey links and weak punchlines - an academic trying too hard to be a journalist, perhaps. You can sympathise with his motives, maybe; but honestly, a couple of musical links and some canned laughs and he could be turning up on Radio 2.

Robert Hanks