The Week in Radio: A better Today with bankers, spies and funny guys


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The Independent Culture

How best for the Today programme to fill the news vacuum between Christmas and New Year? Easy. Dispatch the boss via a last-minute deal to the Maldives and bring in some new faces to cheer the place up.

A whole 10 years after Today began its seasonal appointment of guest editors, there has been an outbreak of carping that the tradition – which, it should be pointed out, affects just one week out of 52 – has run its course. "Who cares what these celebrities think?" the complainers have mooed. "Where's the real news?"

These are the same people, one presumes, who get their morning jollies from monotone discussions about equity-release schemes and EU agricultural policy. That is all well and good when we're back at work and bloody miserable anyway. But in the afterglow of Christmas? Thanks but no. I'll take Michael Palin over a dissembling Tory politician.

It's rare, anyway, that the programme brings in a guest editor purely on the basis of their celebrity. For the most part, they are experts in their respective fields and this year those fields included singing, spying, travelling and banking.

There was a surfeit of rubbish gags from assorted presenters about how they were "under close surveillance" from the former MI5 director-general Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, which, from her perspective, was probably about as amusing as off-duty nurses being asked by passing wags to check their pulse.

Unsurprisingly, it turned out that Manningham-Buller's interests extended beyond the spying game in a show that moved between crushingly dull – Mishal Hussein's investigation into the origins of Christmas shrubbery at Cambridge University's Botanic Gardens was a particular low – and wonderful.

In the latter category was an interview with Judi Dench, of interest to Manningham-Buller because of her role as M in assorted Bond movies. Manningham-Buller wanted to compare the fictional job with the real thing, and said she envied Dench's role, which involved a lot more sex, great cars and the best possible technology. In the end, Dench had to concede that yes, her job was a lot more fun.

Under Michael Palin's stewardship the programme similarly moved between serious and light-hearted. At the serious end, Palin visited Ethiopia 22 years after his last trip to report on the battle against prosopis, or the "devil tree", the scourge of the Afar people. The plant was first introduced to stabilise sand dunes but has spread uncontrollably, ruining the livelihoods of farmers.

There was also a piece by Palin and fellow Monty Python star John Cleese on their televised 1979 debate with Malcolm Muggeridge on the iniquities of their film The Life of Brian. Listening back, Cleese was astonished at how boring the discussion was.

By far the most arresting part of the programme was Alan Bennett's reading of the Shipping Forecast. The writer brought his typically morose tones to the roll call of sea areas ("Dogger. Fisher. German Bight") and a keening desolation to the words "moderate or poor". It was with some feeling that, as Bennett finished, James Naughtie noted: "We've all wanted to do that, haven't we?"

The most controversial of the guest editors, Barclays CEO Antony Jenkins, did his best to appear humbled by criticism of the banking industry – it would, he said, take up to 10 years to regain the public's trust – while defending bankers' bonuses and effectively comparing his leadership style to that of a nun. If this was a PR exercise for Barclays, as the online carpers claimed, it wasn't a very successful one. But it was rarely less than fascinating.