Radio: The day `Today' went down the plughole

NICHOLAS LEZARD ON RADIO
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The Independent Culture
Last week I made an allusion to the section of the BBC charter that forbids advertising (except for the BBC itself). Well, on Monday morning they seemed to have got round that. We should salute this entrepreneurial can-do spirit, this marriage of public and private initiative, which is, as our Prime Minister keeps reminding us, the way the world works these days.

It happened on the Today programme; the sports bulletin, to be precise, in which we were treated to a live, exclusive interview with Alex Ferguson, the hugely popular manager of Manchester United Business Club. Well, not live as such, more like "a few days beforehand" and over an extended period of time. That is, edited. The peg on which this interview hung was what one of the presenters, Edward Stourton, called "a bit of a scoop", ie, the revelation that Ferguson was once offered a bung and turned it down. Big, fat, hairy deal, you might think.

At the end of the interview it was announced that Ferguson's autobiography was just out. Notions of integrity, impartiality and calling Sellotape "sticky-backed plastic" have flown so far out the window nowadays that this is itself par for the course and nothing you need get too worked up about, however much it stinks; but what really did surprise me was the interviewer's announcement that Ferguson's autobiography was, starting that day, being serialised in a couple of Murdoch-owned newspapers.

How, you wonder, did this get through? Has the BBC become an institution so craven, so pathetic, that it is happy for plugs to be given to a man who regards it as something to be wiped out? (Do not doubt this: it is his mission, even if he is careful only to let it be hinted at through the mouths of his stooges.) The interviewer who committed this disquieting breach of protocol, ethics and taste is one Garry Richardson (who presumably only heard about this pounds 40,000 non-bung because it was in Ferguson's book in the first place). To sum up: a non-interview, a plug for a book and two dodgy newspapers, all tied to a man whom many football fans regard as bad news for the game's future.

I tried to cheer myself up by not looking for any comedy on Radio 4 for a while. But I was intrigued by the title Man of Soup. Who wouldn't be? It goes out on Tuesday evenings, the "difficult" 6.30pm slot. (Incidentally, has anyone else noticed that Just a Minute has suddenly stopped being funny, just like that? It really is quite worrying.) Applying the Law of Comedy Numbers, which states explicitly that the amount of laughter a programme generates is in inverse proportion to the number of credited writers, this looked promising, as it has only one - David Stafford.

Of course, the best thing about it is the title, but that's because the title is so good. It is explained, sort of, in the title song (obviously), in which a man with a Balkan accent sings, cheesily, "In you I find the love divine I seek/I turn to liquid every time you speak/a man of soup who hopes his clothes won't leak/in our cafe of love/there's even rooms to rent above/in our sweet cafe of love."

The mise-en-scene is a newly-autonomous ex-communist country, Slumslovakia. The comedy lies largely in the way that everyone speaks with this silly neo-Russian accent. "The Berlin Wall came down in nineteen-hundred and eighty-nine, the Soviet Union broke up in nineteen-hundred and ninety, and we found out about it last Tuesday." Other jokes rest on names such as Klepki and Ignatz, the shortage of material resources and/or money (they boast of being a "two-toilet country"), the sexual frustration of deep-voiced Eastern European women, the lack of any kind of food except aubergines, and the desire to fleece "sophisticated" Western tourists. ("Do you take Deutschmarks?" "We take blazer buttons as long as they're shiny.") It makes Lawrence Durrell's "Antrobus" stories look complex but it's not bad and, yes, you do laugh. A little bit of tinkering as it gets into its stride, a stern lookout for complacent xenophobia (uncomplacent xenophobia is another matter entirely) and it should be fine.

As for complacency, I have just about had it with The Archers. This show is now reaching summits of tweeness, implausibility and naked audience- contempt that cannot be explained by its being the summer. (If Ruth's dad, Solly, with the most irritating Geordie accent ever conceived, does not disappear soon, then I will not consider myself responsible for my actions.)

Things reached their nadir last week when it sounded, for one glorious moment ("Aarg! Huuk! Aak!") as though Jack Woolley was dying of a heart attack. Millions of listeners have been waiting for this old fool to drop off the twig for a decade or so now and to be cheated at the last minute - it was only a pathetic angina attack - is too much. I shall continue to listen to this useless, once-great programme, but only from grim professional duty and not from anything like pleasure.

No non-BBC programmes this week. If Classic FM think they are going to get me to listen to a season of middlebrow Italian music by sending me a jar of Dolmio pasta sauce, and getting my name wrong on the press release, they have another think coming.

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