RADIO/ Oh dear, a diary - Robert Hanks on The Benn Tapes and Labour in No 10

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The Independent Culture
Some old men forget. Others, more frustratingly, write it all down or like Tony Benn use tape-recorders, just to prevent argument. This is the right idea: listening to the second run of The Benn Tapes (Radio 4), which started yesterday morning, you soon realise that simply by accumulating seven garages-full of taped journals, Benn has lamed anybody else's account of his years in office. Reliability aside, the sheer bulk of documentation calls into question anything as frail as human memory, and gives him an almost unbeatable advantage in the history game.

You certainly felt this in yesterday's programme, in which Benn recalled his time as Industry Secretary in 1974, battling with the department's permanent secretary, Sir Antony Part. Sir Antony appeared in person only briefly, making jolly remarks about how he used to argue with loopy old Benn for his own good but of course would finally defer to his wishes. In the context of Benn's account, missing the jollity and less obviously polished for public consumption, this came across as confirmatory detail.

The way that they depart from orthodox history, and the way that Benn offers, without a trace of self- consciousness, his completely ego- based assessment of every situation, make The Benn Tapes a joy. But you sometimes harbour a suspicion that all those obstructive Sir Antonys - Benn's opponents in the Civil Service and in the Cabinet - may have had a point; it would be nice to hear their case put properly once in a while.

There was none of this sense of history unbalanced in Labour in No 10 (Radio 4, Monday). The idea was that ministers from Harold Wilson's first government, who came to power 30 years ago after '13 wasted years' under the Conservatives, would discuss the problems that faced them, and the parallel problems that will face young Blair if he wins the next election.

The next election got left behind, though, as the cast got back to their old battles - Denis Healey sniped at Barbara Castle, Barbara Castle shouted at Denis Healey, everybody shouted at Lord Longford. By the end, when they were quarrelling about who'd supported America in Vietnam, you felt you'd learnt something about political passions; and even more about the advisability of keeping a tape-recorder handy.

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