The Critics: Radio - England without their pyjamas

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The Independent Culture
I have been thinking, this past week, about FM reception, digital radio, and sound quality. Largely because I have none. For the purposes of research, I have been listening to the radio in solitary confinement in the countryside, a rather affluent bit around Cirencester, but all the money in the world will not buy you decent radio reception if you live in a pocket hidden from the nearest FM aerial. (Well, all right, it will, but presumably you will have better things to spend it on.)

So this has been hard-core radio listening: mainly confined to medium and long wave, and if I want to hear something on FM, then that's fine as long as I don't mind climbing on to the roof and waving the radio around a bit. (Trying to find FM stations indoors makes you look like someone hunting for radiation, or ghosts, as you look for somewhere in the invisible space around you that freakishly allows the signal to get through.) As for distractions such as other people, or the TV - forget it.

In situations such as this - which I imagine are very common - you begin to appreciate the radio not so much as a means of disseminating news, comment and quiz shows whose teams are composed solely of lawyers (there is one, and it's rubbish, what a surprise) as another person in the room with you. Not, of course, a person whose company you always want. It is to my immense relief, if not outright pleasure, that editorial circumstances dictate that this column is delivered before I have a chance to listen to the new series of Veg Talk (R4, Fridays, 3pm). As described by Radio Times: "Greengrocers Gregg Wallace and Charlie Hicks answer questions on growing, buying and eating fruit and vegetables."

This programme, of a surreal awfulness so extraordinary, so unimaginable until you've heard it, must have been the result of a particularly cruel and degraded game of Truth or Dare in a BBC canteen. ("Can't I just moon the governors at their AGM instead?" "No, Lauretta, your forfeit is to commission and produce a series about vegetables. Using greengrocers.") And now it has gone to a second series. JBS Haldane was right: the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine. Then again, this second series might be a vast improvement on the first. They will be taking calls from the public about genetically modified tomatoes, although in my opinion it would be even more interesting if they took calls from GM tomatoes instead.

Still, with a bit of luck, I won't be able to hear it, and neither will anyone outside a metropolitan area, because long wave will have been occupied by the cricket (well, it will this week). The World Cup is steaming along better than people had thought it might, and there are two reasons why it's great on the radio at the moment: you don't have to look at England's blue pyjamas and, as Fred Trueman hates the one-day game and has, so to speak, boycotted it, you don't have to put up with his opinions on it, and how no one's a patch on Fred Trueman when he was in his prime. Instead you get Mike Selvey, who may not have been as good a bowler but is an infinitely more intelligent commentator (gloomy, too, like all fast bowlers, for some reason), and a woman unnamed in the Radio Times but who has just the right voice for this kind of thing: commanding and authoritative, but not too much so.

Otherwise, long wave operates for much of the time as an alternative Radio 4 - one which does not exist in our universe: it exists in the one that obtained about 30 years ago. It isn't just because of the cosy muffler that wraps itself round the radio when you're not on FM, making everything sound as though it should be preceded by the words "this is the Home Service of the BBC" - this anachronistic effect sometimes seems to work backwards as well, affecting people behind a microphone as much as those listening to a loudspeaker. So not only do you get church services (which themselves tacitly allude to the only other time, before the invention of radio, when all strata of society listened to exactly the same stuff at the exact same time), you get Yesterday in Parliament, in which all talk about modernisation is revealed as so much blather.

The opinions that surfaced in the immediate aftermath of the Dallaglio affair were golden nuggets for those who appreciate ignorant, antediluvian opinion - and people who don't listen to Yesterday in Parliament on LW are missing out on a programme of rare comedy. The laughs are never far away when Jack Cunningham's about. (Once, when I was hanging around the Today programme's studio in about 1991, I heard a researcher asking someone else to phone up Cunningham, as the MP was so rude and pompous he couldn't bring himself to talk to him.) Anyway, another MP asked him to reaffirm, ie, without the slightest expectation of contradiction, that "any illegal substance is both plainly wrong, addictive and dangerous". So illegally supplied cannabis for MS sufferers is wrong, addictive and dangerous. Cunningham then gravely informed us that the trade in soft drugs would never be allowed because it was "in the hands of criminals". That, Dr Cunningham, is because soft drugs are, at the moment, illegal. Or am I missing something?