The Week In Radio: At least Auntie will never axe The Archers
Thursday 04 March 2010
While the BBC was hardly expecting a minute's silence to follow the suggestion that 6 Music should be sacrificed up to the gods of the licence fee, did it actually foresee the howls of pain? The message boards went beserk with bereaved listeners suggesting alternative candidates for chop. One said 6 Music's entire listenership should stump up a tenner, burst into Steve Wright's studio and wrest him from the controls. "How many people watch News 24?" said another. "Does anyone watch BBC3? It's just trash," added someone else. Many volunteered Radio 1Xtra for the axe. Weirdly, one fan wrote of "dreadful rumours like a trail of blood reaching back to David Cameron's Eton smile" presumably because Mark Thompson's review was authored by John Tate, who used to be head of the Conservative policy unit.
This miserable thrashing about is inevitable in a cash-strapped future, in broadcasting, as much as the public sector or anywhere else. Some suggest the proposed sacrifice of 6, saving £6 million a year, was a clever plot by the BBC to divert attention from the £100 million overspend on lavish offices that has just been condemned by the National Audit Office. It was a way of securing newspaper coverage about a low-cost service that people treasure. That certainly worked, given that David Bowie and almost the entire record industry added their voices to the protest. Whether or not 6 Music is saved, the only certainty is that the battle of the cuts is going to get more heated in the run-up to the next settlement.
Yet even when BBC radio is no more than a tiny island of quality bobbing around on a sea of mindless trash, the one programme I can imagine still tinkling over the airwaves is The Archers. Birth and death are big themes right now, represented by the demise of Phil and the demented determination of Helen to find a sperm donor. It's obvious that Helen, whom one always pictures with a mad gleam in her eye, should be kept well away from the syringe. "A baby's about new life, and joy and love. You're painting such a negative picture Dad," she whinged. "It's not all apple cheeks and miniature dungarees," said Tony, grimly. Here's a prime example of how this serial can ricochet between two poles of plausibility. While chatting with your dad about artificial insemination happens absolutely nowhere in Britain except The Archers, in other ways, especially with Phil's death, the facsimile of real life is impressively conveyed.
Mourning becomes The Archers. For a community whose favourite word is "coping" and where feelings always run high, a funeral provides a marvellous chance for arguments and tears. Phil's funeral was searingly real, with all the brave chat about the church flowers and quibbles about the order of service cut through with the dreadful resonance of the word "coffin". It happened that June Spencer, who plays Peggy, appeared on Desert Island Discs this week making slightly patronising remarks about her radio character, and what was curious was just how irrelevant those comments felt. Yes, Peggy may be fiction, whereas June Spencer is flesh and blood. But at its best The Archers attains a meta-reality. Its reality resides in the imaginations of its millions of listeners, its characters imprinted on their own lives. It's the reason why good radio, be it The Archers or 6 Music, can be so fiercely cherished.
When looking into the future is too awful, there's always the past. It's 25 years this week since the miners' strike ended and Radio 2 commemorated the event most movingly in ballad form. It was plainer than ever, hearing from miners on both sides of the picket line, how the strike split parts of England like a civil war. One said the Orgreave conflict reminded him of a medieval battlefield. "Two groups of people with sticks and shields and to cap it all here come the knights on the horses, and I thought this is 1984. Is this the best we can do?"
Yet in other ways, the sound of angry people staring unemployment in the face felt fiercely contemporary. Mothers made do on next to nothing. Children were told there would be no Christmas because "Santa won't cross picket lines". And what lifted this programme beyond documentary and made it such a stunning slice of recent history, was the elegiac voices of the balladeers interwoven with the interviews and actuality. The folk element of these specially commissioned ballads fit perfectly the feeling of a legendary time, with the hurt still sharp before it recedes into the mists of the past. One song called "Here We Go" was unbearably poignant. Radio 2, also under scrutiny from the BBC Trust, has been told to increase its distinctive content and move away from light music and chat. On the evidence of this, it's already succeeding.
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