Tune in for a spot of blood-letting

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The Independent Culture
SIMON GARFIELD'S previous book, The Wrestling, corralled the surviving representatives of a dying breed in a well-appointed paddock and allowed them to have their say about what they did. Those who once trod the boards of gladiatorial endeavour on ITV's Saturday grappling showcase emerged from the shadows of history with a brawny and endearing swagger. The value and pertinence of their testimony was not diminished by its occasionally rather tangential relationship to the truth.

That sense of lumbering behemoths awakened is felt again in The Nation's Favourite. This time the ancien regime of Radio 1 emerges from the bin- liner of history - former heavyweights such as Dave Lee Travis and Simon Bates, so callously swept aside by new broom Matthew Bannister in the brutal mid-Nineties purge which is the book's starting point. The challenge for Garfield was that, whereas there was great novelty value in encouraging his wrestlers to speak for themselves, most leading characters in this serpentine saga of BBC bloodletting rarely do anything but.

His book's real achievement is to make an asset out of what should have been its biggest problem: the fact that its highlights have already undergone endless public rehearsal. The format - all direct speech, like a screenplay without stage directions - takes a bit of getting used to. The sudden cuts between edited interviews, radio transcripts and overheard meetings are hard to keep pace with, but gradually the reader learns to stop trying. A compelling momentum begins to build up as different streams of language - the calculated outrageousness of self-aggrandising broadcasters, the anodyne cruelty of the official memo, the fatal innocence of focus-group judgements - come together in a single river.

In the journalist's phrase book, the words "I think it would work really well as a question-and-answer" are usually shorthand for "I can't be bothered to write it properly", but Garfield's seemingly random method encodes considerable amounts of work. First, in gaining privileged access to those - such as Chris Evans and the new BBC radio overlord, Matthew Bannister - who like to control the ground they fight on. He puts them in the ring without their habitual protective armoury, to see how their different versions of events measure up. Second, he refines a potentially confusing mix of voices. The book forsakes the casual chaos of a turning radio dial for the well-choreographed order of an imaginary round-table discussion.

What emerges is a strange and intriguing parallel universe, a place where tabloid showbiz editors talk intelligently and in sentences, and the wisdom of the ages comes from the mouth of Simon Bates. But the most gripping moments in The Nation's Favourite come when its miasma of conflicting egos is suddenly shot through with the real stink of fear. Who could fail to feel a twinge of sympathy for the head of Radio 1 publicity on discovering that the Gallagher brothers were swearing up a storm in a live interview with Steve Lamacq? "My first question was `Have they said cunt'? He said "About three times... and now they're saying Paul McCartney is surrounded by a bunch of fucking lesbians'."

Any book which contains three pages of transcript from Dave Lee Travis's infamous snooker-on-the-radio game, aptly named Give Us A Break (if memory is fading, the words "quack quack oops" may reactivate it), is assured of its place in history. Beyond its entertainment value, The Nation's Favourite not only weaves a fascinating tapestry from its threads of public and private utterance, but supplies many insights into the way power is wielded in the media. The endlessly mutating cabals and spheres of influence, the cruel slights and shameless sucking up, have rarely been better dissected.

But Garfield's work has significance beyond the world of pluggers and playlist meetings. It would not be overly fanciful to view Bannister's modernisation of Radio 1 - in its weird blend of openness and paranoia, of the popular and the elitist, in its bizarre conviction that what matters is not what you actually do but what The Sun says you have done - as a dry run for Blairite government. There is much cause for optimism in the station's transformation from an environment in which (in John Peel's memorable phrase) "you did have to keep your interest in music very much to yourself", to one in which it was essential at least to fake familiarity with the young idea. But there is also plenty to fret about in the new rulers' ruthlessness and fondness for cloaking naked expediency in a shell- suit of bogus morality.

Ben Thompson