The Week In Radio: If only Her Majesty had Radio 4 ears

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The Independent Culture

Iswear there is no ear so acute in the world of broadcasting than that of the Radio 4 listener. It can tell at a hundred paces the difference between Charlotte Green and Corrie Corfield. It winces when a new continuity announcer mispronounces Shula, because he is plainly not a follower of The Archers. It mourns when the magisterial Peter Jefferson is sacked from the Shipping Forecast after issuing an expletive because who cares about a curse, when a secular prayer is at stake? The most recent issue to anguish listeners is an alleged lightening in the tone of the current affairs programmes, Today and PM. Some have detected an increase in whimsy from Eddie Mair, and an outbreak of giggling by Sarah Montague. Does this betray a hidden agenda to make the network more "relevant"? Has the hated cult of youth returned?

If it has, no-one told Start the Week, whose line-up, including two knights, a baroness and a dame, felt a lot like gatecrashing the House of Lords' tea room. Yet while they may now be pillars of the establishment, there is no denying that Peter Maxwell Davies, Harold Evans, Stella Rimington and PD James have come a long way. Both Evans and PD James discussed the disastrous effects of their having failed the 11 plus. According to Harry Evans, succeeding as a journalist from his Manchester background was hugely against the odds. "The idea that someone from my background actually could make a sentence with a verb and a subject in it was astonishing." The queen of detective fiction was banned from university and obliged to go out to work at 16.

As co-ordinated as Arsenal's midfield, as civilised as a high-class cocktail party, these veteran guests cross-referenced and connected with a synergy that Start The Week dreams of. As a young trainspotter, Maxwell Davies followed the trains that Harry Evans's father drove. The Insight team, which Evans founded, "did a number" on Stella Rimington, who in turn compared being an MI5 case officer with writing a novel. Even Peter Maxwell Davies discovered parallels between composing his Naxos quartets and the way PD James constructs detective fiction.

Politicians, incidentally, should be aware that detective fiction is a potent economic indicator. According to PD James, it first flourished in the gloom between the wars, and is resurgent now because everyone is depressed. "At a time of great anxiety, people like something reassuring and it's essentially a very reassuring form of popular fiction," she explained. "If you live in an age when problems like yobbery are literally insoluble, here is a puzzle that is going to be solved." At times the mutual admiration was so intense you craved a bit of bad-tempered debate. Andrew Marr, fresh from baiting party leaders about drug habits and house prices, was almost horizontal. "Does the Queen like music?" he enquired of Her Majesty's Master of Music. "Let's face it," admitted Maxwell Davis, "Music is not her first interest, but she has come along and I think she's a wonderful sport."

Good old Queen, said Marr.

Compared to these vibrant oldies, Beauty Of Britain offers a different take on the ageing process. Cognitive decline in the elderly has not traditionally been regarded as a ripe subject for humour, but there's plainly a lot of potential there, and Christopher Douglas is the right man to milk it. Douglas, whose genius fictional creation Ed Reardon, a Pooterish writer from Berkhamsted, has been away from the airwaves for far too long, has now turned his attention to the world of geriatric care. His new heroine, Beauty Olonga, is a big-hearted African girl hoping to live the dream in Britain but meanwhile providing respite care for old men given to groping. Beauty's true ambition is life coaching or running a chain of boutique hotels but instead she works for Featherdown Residential, grappling with troublesome geriatrics in overheated bungalows in windswept seaside towns.

Though slower to hit the spot, this series is still, like Ed Reardon's Week, brilliant at spearing the mundane horrors of English life – like Cash in the Attic, playing on buses and the smell of cauliflower cheese in old people's homes. Beauty is bewildered by the attitude of the British, who "have no trouble showing their feelings in a traffic jam or when a soap star they don't know cannot dance on ice", but are all too keen to thrust their elderly into the arms of strangers. As one stressed daughter tells her, "It's my son's school play. They're doing Anne Frank's Diary and I haven't sewn the swastikas on his anorak yet."

Senility, incontinence, medication, decay. Not traditionally a barrel of laughs, but it should at least put paid to conspiracy theories about the cult of youth on Radio 4.