The Week In Radio: The Bible and Mozart heal the January blues

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The Independent Culture

It may be the grimmest month in all other respects, but January is an unexpectedly great time for radio listening. Unlike humans, radio programmes have disproportionately more birthdays in January, because that's when the broadcasting year starts, so anniversary editions abound – witness this week's Archers spectacular, of which more later. On top of that, there are anniversaries of other institutions, such as the King James Bible, which is currently receiving exhaustive attention from Radio 4 for its 400th.

In the bitterly cold January of 1604, plague was sweeping London, and royals were forced to withdraw to Hampton Court, where one William Shakespeare was visiting to act. It was there that the new James I set about commissioning a Bible in English, which would construct a middle way between Protestantism and Catholicism. It's a great story and James Naughtie did a thorough job across three documentaries of relaying the impact of the KJV on our lives and literature, though I would have welcomed more close-up emphasis on the language. It was drawn up by 54 scholars, but the hero of the piece was William Tyndale, first translator of the Bible into English, whose life read like a Hollywood thriller – he lived on the run in a garret on the continent, studied under Martin Luther and died as a martyr. Ninety per cent of the words in the KJV and its wonderful images, "bald as a coot", "salt of the earth", "fly in the ointment," are his. And once in English, people saw aspects of the biblical text that they never heard in Latin, like the Magnificat in Luke's gospel with its verse about "putting down the mighty from their seats", which was revolutionary stuff. Some have suggested that Sunday's forthcoming KJV day, when Bible readings will be spread throughout the schedule, is going over the top, but as Giles Fraser said: "People love to hear this poetry. It still resonates with people deeply even if the dogma is something they're uncertain about."

Besides, over on Radio 3 another cultural giant was receiving even more full-on treatment as the network devotes every note of its schedule to Mozart for January's first 12 days. Inevitably, some felt Mozart is being overexposed at the expense of lesser known composers, but there are plenty who must have adored it, not least contributors to Radio 3's Private Passions, which also happened to be marking its 700th edition. In a ravishing programme, entirely devoted to its subjects' Mozart choices, there was a good spread, with Sally Vickers finding comparison with Shakespeare in Mozart's "capacity to see through suffering to something that transcends human misery" and Fiona Shaw choosing the Requiem because listening to it "you feel a change in your bloodstream and your marrow changes colour". In a show that was already reaching for the superlatives, Graham Vick, the opera director, outdid all, proclaiming a moment in Act 2 of The Magic Flute "the most sublime creation in all existence".

The prize for most hyped anniversary, though, has to go to The Archers and Nigel's Fall – cue a lot of weeping and wailing and that's just the listeners. Given Vanessa Whitburn's build-up you've got to sympathise with those who were expecting a full-scale massacre, but I'd say the editor got it right. The Archers is probably the only drama left that dares to be dull. Like a Vermeer interior, it eschews sensation in pursuit of verisimilitude. Falling off a roof isn't as sensational as a shootout, but life is like that. One thinks of Auden's "Musée Des Beaux Arts" in which suffering "takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along". Tragedy is only truly tragic when it is rooted in real life. And while Nigel wasn't exactly Auden's Icarus, his fall had that same quality; careless, wasteful, unnecessary, sad.

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