The Week in Radio: Early-bird David Attenborough goes down a tweet


Did I awake at two minutes to six on Monday morning – a Bank Holiday, no less – to hear David Attenborough's inaugural Tweet of the Day on Radio 4, so as to bring you a wholly authentic report of the listening experience? Did I heck.

It's on days like this that I give thanks for the miracle that is the iPlayer, which allowed your put-upon reviewer the full eight hours' kip plus a late breakfast, a leisurely lunch, a saunter around a gallery and a couple of Breaking Bad episodes before turning my attention to what I had missed on the radio. This, I am fairly certain, isn't what the BBC's Natural History Unit envisioned when they brainstormed their latest big wheeze: a series of shorts about British birds based on their songs. It's a terrific idea and, I have to admit, when I finally listened it was clear that I'd done it all wrong.

There was, of course, a palpable thrill to be had from hearing the springtime song of the cuckoo, famously the douche bag of the avian species due to its habit of squatting other bird's nests. But this was nothing next to hearing the mellifluous murmurings of Attenborough who, in quoting Wordsworth on cuckoos – "Shall I call thee Bird, Or but a wandering Voice?" – and reflecting on the bird's migration south to the dense equatorial forests of central Africa, offered instant balm to the ears and to the soul.

As ever, Attenborough spoke with the experience and authority that comes from having spent an inordinate amount of time standing on ice caps and surveying the slow disintegration of our planet with BBC film crews swirling around his head like wasps. Thus, I will listen to more of this birdsong-for-beginners course as early as I can muster, though perhaps not for the reasons that the producers intended. Living on the coast, from spring to late autumn, I wake up to the sound of seagulls on my roof that sound like two old ladies shrieking insults while walloping one another with handbags. So sod the birds. It's the voice of Attenborough I want to wake up to in the morning.

Where Tweet of the Day was determinedly minimalist, focusing on a single performer per broadcast, Radio 4's Living World went maximalist, capturing the whole damn orchestra. Here, the presenters were required to be ready – kagoules on, binoculars poised – at 3.30am though the programme was aired at a comparatively civilised 6.35am.

This week's episode came in the middle a wood in Coombes Valley in Staffordshire where presenter Trai Anfield and a man from the RSPB sat in anticipation of the dawn chorus. We heard from a tawny owl, a woodcock, wood pigeons, song thrushes, wrens, great tits, warblers and blackbirds. We also heard about the meaning of calls, notably that there's a whole vocabulary at work, from the contact call and the alarm call to the intensive set of notes, complete with baroque flourish at the end, that are essentially a big, loud "Hello, ladies" to anyone within tweeting distance.

"It's a little bit like freeform jazz," noted Anfield, whose sense of awe was infectious. "Everyone's just chipping in and getting warmed up." Twenty minutes later, as the birds were fully awake and giving it the full-throated vocal work-out, the presenter revised her description more aptly as a "a woodland opera. Every note seems to be loaded with meaning. There's drama in every song. They're struggling to find a safe home. They're competing to find and to keep a mate.... These are defining moments in these birds' lives. It's drama, it's life."

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