The Week in Radio: Firecrackers, fur coats and some good news at last


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The Independent Culture

"Are you looking for a job?" James Naughtie asked Dame Ann Leslie on Radio 4's Today, a note of panic in his voice. Now there's an idea. As one of the programme's guest editors, Leslie, the veteran foreign correspondent who famously went to war in a fur coat, arrived like a blast of cold air in a sticky sauna. You can imagine plenty of previous guests proffering feature ideas cobbled together by their agents, but not Leslie. She was first in the office, her sleeves rolled up and ready to kick some serious butt.

I've always liked it when Today brings in guest editors. It blows away the cobwebs, offers new perspectives and brings audible relief to the regular editors who, on the slowest news week of the year, would otherwise pass the time drawing doodles of John Humphrys with devil's horns and casually cruising the BBC's jobs noticeboard.

That said, this year's guests have been a little patchy. Sir Paul Nurse, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist and president of the Royal Society, invited presenter Evan Davis and physicist Brian Cox to watch the stars on his central London balcony, though they ended up with their heads in a rain cloud. We were left listening to Davis wrestling with a door latch and reflecting on the prospect of never owning a central London pad with a huge balcony and views of Westminster. Elsewhere, Nurse commissioned stories on the problem of scientific funding, the future of fossil fuels and the media's simplistic reporting on scientific breakthroughs. Essentially, he used the programme to get stuff off his chest, which is probably what most of us would do but then again isn't entirely the point.

Under Melinda Gates's stewardship the American zillionaire Warren Buffett talked about America's fiscal cliff and how to give away money responsibly, while Gates herself talked to Sarah Montague about stepping out of the shadows of her family, her efforts to give every woman in developing countries access to contraception and why she would never give her kids iPods for Christmas. Gates's programme was never less than absorbing but like Nurse's, trod a slightly predictable path.

After features on teenage poets, death in police custody and regional accents, Benjamin Zephaniah attempted to cheer us all up with a good news bulletin. John Humphrys was skeptical – "Good news is boring," he sulked – but on this occasion it worked a treat. We learned about the success of a UN peace-keeping mission in East Timor, how astronomers expect to find thousands of new galaxies in the next 12 months and how an earthquake in Cuzco, Peru didn't kill anyone. For a moment, in the purgatory that is the period between Christmas and New Year, our hearts were lifted.

But it was Leslie who loaded her show with the most firecrackers. She went highbrow, lowbrow and everywhere in between. She took on political corruption, the history of celebrity, the psychology of religious belief, the Olympic afterglow and British attitude to Americans and did so with wit and panache. She put John Humphrys and Edward Stourton on the spot and asked them about their faith, which led to an electrifying tussle over the concept of free will. Some have said that Leslie overstepped her role as editor, elbowing regular reporters out the way in order to do the spots herself, but who cares? If you want a job done...

She also did something that seems to elude regular editors during the rest of the year. She managed to give a voice to women from all races, backgrounds and professions. What's more, she did it without fuss or fury. Her real achievement was in making it seem like the most natural thing in the world.