The Week in Radio: How the reverend's slice of real life restores the faith


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The Independent Culture

There are those, I am told, who believe Saturday Live represents all that is wrong with Radio 4. They say that it is staid and slow moving, a distillation of the station's Boden-loving, middle-aged and irretrievably middle-class values. Specifically, it's a weekend show for the terminally tragic.

To which I say, "Pffft! Off you go then, children, to the land of Saturday-morning youth entertainment, with its shouty presenters and their ghastly "banter" and guest spots from Rizzle Kicks". Me? I'm embracing middle age and indulging my desire to be subjected to only gentle murmuring from ex-pop-star vicars before midday.

It seems odd that Saturday Live, a show that is the very definition of weekend tranquillity, should have ruffled so many feathers in its relatively short life. It started out as a replacement for Home Truths, which had been floundering since the death of its presenter John Peel. The producers and presenters were immediately deluged with angry missives accusing them of desecrating Peel's memory.

But the world slowly became accustomed to the new show and to presenters Fi Glover and the reliably excellent Rev Richard Coles, and the show bagged a Sony Award. Until, of course, Glover left and the poisoned-pen litters began again as listeners struggled to accustom themselves to Glover's replacement, Sian Williams.

Despite further revamping and scheduling upsets (what would Radio 4's core listeners do with their lives were they not able to fire off cathartic emails to radio producers), the programme remains my ideal weekend listening. Saturday Live is gloriously strange. It is the spiritual home of the offbeat and aimless, a programme without portfolio. In a climate where format is king, there really aren't enough of these.

This week's show included conversation from Barb Jungr, the singer and peerless interpreter of Bob Dylan. Meanwhile, the roving contributor JP Devlin went to Rochdale, where Jungr grew up and where Gracie Fields and Lisa Stansfield were also reared, and talked to people about their lives.

He met a man who worked as an extra on Emmerdale, and another whose work as a nurse in an intensive care unit had literally driven him to drink, and a woman who had moved from Rochdale to Spain but had moved back when her husband died. "I'd rather be in Spain," she said bluntly. It was all exceedingly random.

Elsewhere, we heard from two survivors of a cruise ship that crashed into a container ship in Athens harbour and sunk in 40 minutes, and a member of rescue team in the Lake District who spent his time chiselling the frozen and distressed off the side of mountains. Coles also met a startlingly enthusiastic bat conservationist who explained how Britain's bats are dying out and how we can call turn our gardens into a bat haven to help plump up the numbers.

If anything united the interviewees it was the sense that they were ordinary people with extraordinary tales to tell, not least the mad bat lady whose whispery voice and exaggerated enunciation made her sound like she should be scaring the bejesus out of small children on Jackanory.

Saturday Live offers a glimpse into the worlds of our neighbours, allowing us to peer behind the net curtains without fear or judgement. For me it's the ideal accompaniment to toast and marmite in bed, to a honking hangover that lasts until teatime and a day without any objective beyond clearing a path between the kettle, the fridge and the sofa. It is the starting pistol for a period that is to be spent sitting on your arse safe in the knowledge that anything that needs to be done today can be done tomorrow. Long may it reign.