radio review

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The Independent Culture
What you mustn't do is confuse What If...? with The 'What If?' Show. What If...? is, on the surface, a serious-minded programme on Radio 4 in which the Cambridge academic Christopher Andrew talks to fellow academics, politicians, journalists or whoever else might have an interest in how things might have been if a particular event or set of events had turned out differently.

Last weekend, the subject was the Gulf War: Tom King, Sir Alan Munro, our man in Saudi at the time, and Air Chief Marshall Sir Patrick Hine, joint commander of the British forces, considered what might have happened if Saddam had used chemical weapons; well, they said, that would probably have meant continuing the land war, and possibly pressing on to Baghdad. In this case, the feeling seemed to be, the western powers would now be cleaning up an almighty mess.

The problem was that nobody seemed prepared to give too much away - Tom King wasn't prepared, for instance, to say what sort of action might have been taken - or admit mistakes. The general conclusion seemed to be that things are better off as they are - or, as Pope might have said, whatever is, is right.

The 'What If? Show, on the other hand, is a comedy programme on Radio 2 in which Ken Bruce introduces a series of hypothetical situations which are then acted out. The quality of the jokes is variable, descending too often to the feeble. The best hypotheses don't require much illustration (what if Delia Smith was a satanist?), while many of the others aren't strong enough ideas to sustain a sketch. Some of last night's gags did have a rather pleasingly surreal quality (what if Paddington Bear had been been around in the Middle Ages?). The weakness is Bruce's over-twinkly delivery. For this idea to work, it needs somebody more sceptical, more suspicious of reality. You have to wonder: what if BBC radio light entertainment actually made funny programmes?