The Week In Radio

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THERE HAS been a disturbing outbreak of revisionism about the First World War in recent years, a tendency to suggest that Butcher Haig was a highly competent general, and not such a bad stick after all. The latest and strangest version has been Niall Ferguson's notion that soldiers quite enjoyed the war really; how else do you explain the time it lasted?

One good thing about the torrent of war programmes on radio this last couple of weeks is that that sort of idiocy has been swamped: the loathsome futility of the whole business, and the disregard for the common soldier that fuelled the slaughter, have been re-established in the popular consciousness.

All the same, I can't help wishing that there had been a little less of it all. There are only so many afternoon plays about Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon you can listen to in a lifetime; Strange Meeting (Radio 4, Wednesday) - an entirely reasonable play for the 15 minutes I could bear to listen to it - took me well over the limit.

But one or two programmes managed to make the terrible facts seem fresh, particularly Ruth Prince's feature The Unknown Soldier (Radio 2, Tuesday). Superficially, this was a stereotypical Great War compilation: old soldier's anecdotes, scratchy period songs and readings from Wilfred Owen, strung together with a narrative about the awfulness of it all. But Prince also tried to make sense of the culture and politics the war left behind, the way Versailles led neatly on to Munich and Dunkirk. And Tony Robinson brought to the narration a lightness and a pleasing sense of irony, simply observed rather than strained for - noting how a pair of graves near Mons (for Private J Parr, one of the first soldiers killed in August 1914, and Private GE Ellison, the very last British soldier to die on 11 November) bookended four and a half years of slaughter.

Meanwhile, The World Tonight (Radio 4, Wednesday) devoted some time to discussing the consequences of the war. Lisa Jardine and Will Hutton were asked for their views - despite the fact that neither, as far as I could make out, had any insights to offer beyond what an intelligent listener could pick up from a couple of paperbacks and the odd edition of Timewatch. We moved on to an item about the Metropolitan Opera in New York. For this, they'd called on Norman Lebrecht to be his controversial self. This cliched approach to experts is getting me down. Yesterday morning, the Today programme tackled the relationship between monarchy and government: lo and behold, "constitutional expert" Vernon Bogdanor and the Queen's biographer, Ben Pimlott. Don't get me started on Jonathan Glancey.

I don't want to put down any of these individuals (except Lisa Jardine, whose attempt to argue, in the Radio 4 programme Lion's Den, that the British novel is too parochial and bound up with love affairs in Hampstead, was one of this year's intellectual low points - largely because of her inability to name a novel published in the past 20 years that fitted the category she was attacking). What I want to put down is the laziness involved in asking them - the people making these programmes can't even be bothered to have a quick flick through the Rolodex. And then they wonder why Radio 4 loses listeners.

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