The problem with saying nice things about the BBC

THEY'VE HAD quite a good idea on Radio 4 this week. At 9.45 every morning, they have dug up a column or essay from a half-remembered American writer, or American-based writer, and got someone to read it out. That's it. Five different American essays, just simply read out.

One was on the flu epidemic of 1919, and it was very good, too. The one two mornings ago was all about going fishing in the north-west mountains of the USA, and trying to catch steelhead salmon. I find it hard to get interested in fishing but I really enjoyed this piece, especially as it was full of such nice ideas as: "the ripples spread outwards in the water, like a hub cap sinking." Nice image. The piece was written by Jonathan Raban, or, as the Radio Times called him, Jonathan Rabin...

A touchy reader writes: Dear Mr Kington, Ah ha! I see what you're up to! Is this going to be one of those articles of yours where you store up a few misprints in the `Radio Times' and then use them as a basis for saying that the BBC is rotten to the core?

Certainly not. I was going to say some nice things about the BBC, as a matter of fact.

A suspicious reader writes: Is this some kind of a trick?

Not at all. I only wanted to say how much I had enjoyed seeing a return to something as old-fashioned as a radio talk. Some of the best radio ever has been provided by one man reading out a script. Dylan Thomas did it now and then. Rene Cutforth did it often. James Cameron did it, too. But nobody seems to do it any more. Except Alistair Cooke.

A mistrustful reader writes: I hope you've spelt THAT name correctly.

Well, it's the way they spell it in the Radio Times. Of course, that doesn't mean it's correct, does it ?

A terse reader writes: Yeah, yeah. Get on with it.

I just wanted to say that there have been some very good things on BBC radio recently. Did you catch a thing before Christmas called Kailyard Blues?

A startled reader writes: Who, me?

Yes, you.

No. What was it about?

It was a serial about a travelling jazz band in Scotland, who have just welcomed their accordionist, Homesick Ferguson, played by Bill Paterson, back from prison, where he's been inside on a drugs charge. Another member of the band is a Scottish nationalist terrorist. It was very funny, quite dark, mostly comprehensible.

Sounds weird to me. Who was it by?

A poet called Don Paterson.

Is that spelt correctly?

I think so.

They've got POETS writing sitcoms now?

Well, apparently the Edinburgh producer Dave Batchelor saw a one -page poem about a drunken jazz accordionist by Mr Paterson and liked it so much that he thought it would make a six-part drama serial. So he talked him into it.

How do you know all this?

Research. Gossip. Listening at doors and windows.

Hmm... Look, I've got a poem I've written somewhere. Do you think if I sent it to Mr Batchelor...?


Right... Do they actually have jazz accordionists in Scotland?

Sure. They even have jazz bagpipers.

You're joking! Name one...

Hamish Moore.

Who's he?

He's a jazz bagpiper named Hamish Moore. From Dunkeld.

I see. Right...

In fact, jazz has done pretty well out of the BBC recently. The weekday 11.30 slot on Radio 3 called Jazz Notes has become a damned good programme, with the newly appointed Alan Shipton in the chair. They've also got a wonderful history of jazz going out in 52 weekly parts, called Jazz Century, written and narrated by Russell Davies, who is one of those broadcasters who sounds very wise and yet down-to-earth, a bit like James Cameron and Rene Cutforth...

I thought you said there wasn't any of that stuff on BBC radio any more.

Well, not much.

Wasn't Russell Davies recently dropped from the Radio 4 programme about films, `Talking Pictures'?



I don't know. Maybe he's too good for Radio 4.

Ooh - now we're getting acerbic again! I thought you were going to be nice about the BBC?

Well, I was being nice about them...

Then let's stop before we get nasty again, shall we?

OK. Suits me.