The Week In Radio: From So Solid Crew to a star behind the mic

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The Independent Culture

We're in for weeks of it now. Weeks of MPs trading promises, lies and fake indignation. Wall-to-wall agonising about immigration and tax and the economy stupid. Of exhausted middle-aged men wearing make-up and arguing about the deficit. And it's all fabulous, uncut, 100 per cent proof for political junkies like me. And yet... the week leading up to Easter is traditionally a time for seeing things from a different perspective. For making time to consider the human end of politics. And for that, you need radio.

Take prison, for example. Listening to politicians squabble about crime, how often do you hear at length the voices of those who have actually been incarcerated? There are more young people locked up in England and Wales than any other country in Europe and Ashley Walters, once known as Asher D from So Solid Crew, did a valiant job on Radio 1's Jail Tales when he visited young offenders and got them to talk about the reality of prison. He is an impressive presenter and he chose Feltham Young Offenders Institute, where he was once banged up himself.

Given that most cells have a television and PlayStation, the usual complaint is that prison doesn't differ much from a normal existence, and Ashley didn't duck that idea. Indeed several inmates concurred. "I thought of going to prison just for a holiday. I've heard there's a gym with free membership." Others attested that the advantages outweigh the inconveniences. "When you go to prison the girls want you," said one offender. "That's how it is." Intercut with tracks by Ghetts, JME, Shola Ama and Durrty Goodz, this rather depressing programme offered no sententious conclusions, only moments of insight, as when one convict reflected, "The first time that door slams shut, that's when you notice there's no handle on the inside."

Asylum seekers, too, may feature in the upcoming election campaign, but there's unlikely to be a better chance to hear the voices of actual refugees as on Radio 4's Between Ourselves, where two musicians, Mohammed from Iran and Zirak from Kurdistan, told Olivia O'Leary what it is like to be among the 25,000 who apply for refugee status every year. Threatened with execution, Zirak paid $3,000 to be among 40 people smuggled in a lorry from Turkey with no clue where he was heading. There was a stifling three days standing up until English police opened the lorry, and as he said, "We are like rabbit coming down the hole."

He now lives in Birmingham, where there are 9,000 Kurds already and he loves it. He has been back to Kurdistan, where he is no longer in danger, but didn't feel he could live there. His house was different, even the school had changed, his friends had moved away, he explained. Who wouldn't sympathise with that? And yet behind her gentle probing you felt Olivia O'Leary was circling around a difficult question. If a refugee is no longer in danger, is he still entitled to refuge? But perhaps because this was not current affairs, or perhaps because she didn't have to, she left that one to the politicians.

The idea of listening to people telling a series of lies with the hope of spotting a concealed truth seems more like the Today programme than comedy right now, but it seemed as good a time as any to listen to The Unbelievable Truth. I've taken a while to get round to this panel game, and can hardly believe it has already embarked on its fifth series, yet it does seem curiously appropriate to our times. Whereas a format like Just a Minute relies on old-fashioned verbal fluency, the success of this show, developed by Graeme Garden, rests on the modern taste for factoids coupled with our newfound habit of subjecting everything we hear to a kind of plausibility pre-screening.

The likeable David Mitchell, who has managed in a very short time to step into Stephen Fry's commodious shoes, rules with a kind of brainy decency and surely has Radio 4 engraved on his heart. But the result is quirky rather than hilarious.

Up for discussion were beer, babies and spiders and among the diverting facts that emerged were that "most babies cry in the key of A", that Germany has a unique species of flea that is only found near beer-mats, and that Isaac Newton's only reported speech in the House of Commons as an MP was to ask someone to close the window.

Some of the alleged truths seemed a bit suspect to me, though. A spider is the only animal that sleeps on its back, for example. What about my cat, as I and a lot of other listeners protested? Then again, these truths are probably as reliable as anything else you'll hear this side of a general election.