The week in radio: The beginner's guide to death

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Last Sunday, R1 crossed The Final Frontier and boldly went into death. The programme followed a dance-music show and they forgot to turn down the music, so it wasn't always clear what people were saying. However, some lines were frequently repeated, like mantras. These included: "I couldn't say what death will be like. It'll probably be ... relaxing". That was plumbing the shallows, all right.

What is the purpose of this kind of broadcasting? It has long been considered advisable to meditate on the Four Last Things, viz, Death, Judgement, Hell and Heaven, but this compilation strenuously avoided the middle two. Perhaps that was in the interests of a para- religious optimism - the show came, after all, from the BBC's religious unit. But if so, why choose to distort the voice of the girl reading poetry and scripture until it sounded as if she was phoning from a storm-lashed schooner in the southern ocean (with a band playing)?

Perhaps they merely wanted to open up the subject, to offer a chance to hear and consider many views. If so, they could have done without a lugubrious disaster of an undertaker, offering a pay-now-die-later funeral deal - and the unnamed American who described the process of putrefaction in revolting, virtually necrophiliac detail. And it was odd to hear a woman talking about her tremendous near-death experience, yet being vague about when it happened: she was, she said, "about 12 or 13".

But it had its great moments. The teenager still reeling after the death of his friend from sniffing gas was juxtaposed - chastened and sad - with a magnificent hospice nurse and a very useful Cruse counsellor. And there was a blissfully irreverent outburst from Basil Fawlty: "I just took in a tray. If a guest isn't singing `Oh, what a beautiful morning', I don't immediately say `Ah, there's another one snuffed it in the night'. This is a hotel, not the Burma Railway."

When it ended, the phone-in began, handled with remarkable sensitivity by Zoe Ball. Though several callers wanted to discuss personal bereavement, the main topic was The Anniversary. A surprising number of people began "I was never a fan of Diana's, but ..." and then described neurotically obsessive behaviour. Many more expressed a terror of dying, born in the princess's wake. Perhaps such wide-open discussion is useful. Or perhaps Francis Bacon was right when he wrote, in 1625, "Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased with tales, so is the other."

Talk Radio's Bank Holiday special was Matthew Boyden's Rough Guide to Classical Music. Rough was the right adjective. Coarse, crude or cursory would have done as well, but wouldn't have pleased the sponsor. Rather than consider the mysterious appeal of great music, Boyden dwelt in loving detail on the sexual peculiarities of musicians; next, he asked the hapless George Martin whether Beethoven stood a chance against the Beatles - a fatuous question which Martin tackled manfully.

Then he spent ages trying to persuade a bright little pianist's parents that they were driving her to suicide and madness, when the child was clearly happy and normal. When he used the word exploitation to her mother, she answered with dignity that she hoped her daughter's talent would eventually allow her to support herself. And no, she did not suppose that would include wet t-shirts.

The current season of Desert Island Discs (R4) ended with a particularly touching castaway. Lucy Gannon created Soldier, Soldier, Peak Practice and much more after she had won a playwriting prize and been helped tremendously by Sally Burton. She'd lost her mother when she was seven and endured cruelty from relations and violence from her first husband. Her second marriage was very happy, but her husband died just after her writing career began. All this means that death holds no terror for her: she's intrigued by it and will welcome it as "a going-home". She chose the Bach as music to die to.

If she'd waited a week, she might have arrived In the Psychiatrist's Chair and been questioned more closely about this. As it was, she came across as wise, gentle and extremely nice - and she bagged a great luxury.

Her choice:

"My Prayer" by the Platters

"Skylark" by Maxine Sullivan

"E lucevan le stelle" (Puccini) by Placido Domingo

"Under Milk Wood" (Thomas) read by Richard Burton

"The Best" by Tina Turner

"Seduced" by Leon Redbone

"Right By Your Side" by the Eurythmics

"St John Passion" (Bach) by Peter Pears and Gwynne Howell

Book: The Faber Book of Reportage

Luxury: "A top-of-the-range Jaguar XK8"


Your mum irons your shirt ... she doesn't want you standing on a stage in 100% cotton which is 90% creases, showing her up.


All Points North, R4

Is it true you come in here sometimes without a single thought in your head?

Not sometimes. Always.

Questioner to Nick Abbott, Talk Radio

The Mayor of Boston, on first seeing a telephone, was very excited. One day, he said, there will be one of these in every American city.

Saturday Night Fry, R4

Alcohol is a great aid to writers: it offers a kind of Johnny Walker logic.


Crimescapes, R4

Have you ever, like me, sat down to dinner with friends, unaware that your three-year-old has sprinkled pencil-sharpenings in the starters?

Trailer, R4

Can you pay your income tax in chocolate cakes and babysitting?

Shop Talk, R4

I expect that's brought back the smell of lilies and the fear of butterflies.


In Tune, R3

Those people who have sex very often outside marriage are invariably men.

American expert, Talk Radio

When pressure exceeds the ability to cope, you're in the stress arena.

You and Yours, R4