RADIO / Reithed in smiles: Robert Hanks on Marina Warner's Reith Lectures and Radio 2's But Seriously Folks

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The Independent Culture
One reason why the Reith Lectures are treated as such an important event must be that they sound so old-fashioned. The lone voice murmuring into a microphone is itself a throwback to the Reith era, a reminder of the high, far-off times when radio was both a more popular medium and a more respected one. Then, according to the tales of our ancestors, the leading intellects of the day would discourse at length upon weighty issues, while a grateful populace would cluster round their wireless sets to lap up the wisdom dispensed.

We can get back to the intellectual content of Marina Warner's Reith Lectures (Radio 4, Wednesday, and Radio 3, Saturday) in a couple of weeks, when she has had some time to get warmed up. For the moment it's worth noting that she has broken away from tradition, restoring some listenability to the format by leavening it with readings and film-clips. It's not intrusive - I doubt that I'd have noticed if it hadn't been pointed out - but the variation in timbre and pace does make it much easier on the ear. Given the dullness of most Reith lectures, even when the content thrills you to the marrow, this is worth celebrating.

Elsewhere, though, the purity of the lone voice might make a nice change. The theory behind But Seriously Folks (Radio 2, Tuesday), a two-part study of the protest song, seems to be that sentences are easier to follow if they're subdivided into smaller semantic units, which can then be alternated between two presenters. You get a hint of this from the Two Ronnies-style intro ('Hi, I'm Julie Covington . . . ' '- And I'm Mel Hill'), but it doesn't prepare you for the rigorous atomisation that's going to follow.

The whole programme, in fact, puts on a rather mushy facade that seems designed to sucker you in; but lurking underneath is a surprisingly sharp look at the way that social tensions break out into song. Again, the opening provides you with some clues about what's to come: after the first number, an illustration of what the programme isn't about, Julie Covington announces 'Paul McCartney asking what's wrong with silly love songs - and I've got to say, absolutely nothing. The stuff of our dreams. We'd all be much the poorer without those.' 'Well,' says Mel Hill, 'Paul McCartney certainly would, pounds 400m the poorer.' Granted, this isn't the kind of socialist invective that's going to bring down the state; but when you consider that the programme has to cater for an audience that's largely waiting for Derek and Ellen Jameson with Tuesday's regular 'What's That Noise?' quiz, it's not a bad effort.

Some of the songs were fairly obvious - 'Give Ireland Back to the Irish', 'Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime', say - but what was especially pleasing last week was the glee Hill and Covington took in the less obvious examples, teasing out the discomforting subtext from a song like 'Private Dancer' - searing critique of the sex industry - or giving a disturbing spin to other songs, placing 'Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town' in its post-Vietnam context. Easy listening is sometimes more difficult than it looks.

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