radio review

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The Independent Culture
A couple of weeks ago, "This Sceptr'd Isle", the chronicle of our island story which has been chugging along on Radio 4 Long Wave every weekday morning for the last year or so, finally steamed to a halt with the end of the Victorian era - after which, presumably, things didn't look quite so sceptr'd. Skipping over the next 40-some years, we arrive at 1946, and find that the same slot is now occupied by "On This Day", a history of post-war Britain.

Which is no to say that it's quite the same thing as "This Sceptr'd Isle". Where that programme bounded through the centuries, stopping off to point out the passing of a reform act here, the winning of a battle there, "On This Day" creeps along in real time, allowing history to unfold day by day, telling us what went on on this day 50 years ago - the news and weather for July 1946, together with old records and taped reminiscences: peace conferences, the H-bomb test on Bikini Atoll, terrorism in Palestine, murders in Bournemouth and west London, together with bread rationing, the return of dried egg to the shops, and showers in south-west Scotland.

In one way, "On This Day" makes a logical sequel to "This Sceptr'd Isle". That programme was based largely on Winston Churchill's "A History of the English-speaking Peoples" - it offered a view of history, and a view of Britishness, far more focused and certain than the ones we get today, so that like "On This Day", a large part of its appeal was nostalgic. The similarity is only skin-deep, though; because while "This Sceptr'd Isle" offers history as the lives of great men, "On This Day" is more interested in history on the domestic scale - memories of peeling the first bananas to arrive in Britain since before the war, for instance, or archive tapes of women describing how they got pregnant to move up the council house waiting-list (the irony is too painful to talk about it). Taken together, the two programmes demonstrate neatly how much more democratic society has become over the last 50 years.

And perhaps you can even see the new populism at work in that slow pacing: because this is history not as epic, but as soap opera - a combination of Grand Guignol and petty detail trotting along in parallel with the listener's own life. It's hard to say how well it comes off so early on in the experiment; right now, it looks as if the birth of rock 'n' roll isn't going to occur until well into the next millennium, and frankly, I'm getting kind of twitchy.

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