The Week In Radio: The spirit sinks as Widdy has one too many whines


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The Independent Culture

Has there ever been a more glorious title for a programme as Radio 5 Live's Drunk Again: Ann Widdecombe Investigates? Prior to listening, I had visions of Britain's newest national treasure three sheets to the wind, wobbling out of a Wetherspoon in mini-dress and heels at one in the morning, and trying to snog a policeman.

It's possible that the producers had the same thought as Widdecombe wasn't deemed safe to be out on the lash by herself. Instead, she was put in the capable hands of Rebecca, Kate, Brooke and Phoebe, four seasoned party girls whose Friday nights were spent crammed cheek to cheek in a city centre chain pub and to whom a large chardonnay and several vodka and tonics each were merely amuse bouches to the more serious business of sambuca shots that could be set alight either in the glass or in their mouths.

Anyway, Widdecombe wasn't going to relinquish control of her evening that easily. "There's an establishment that's called a reggae music and soul food bar," she announced primly as the volume of conversation in the pub threatened to shatter the optics. "Shall we go there?" Once settled in quieter surroundings, her first toast (of fizzy water) was "to temperance and sobriety", to which one of the girls replied "Would you like a shot, Ann?"

Widdecombe's plan was to try to get under the skin of the British women who doll themselves up on a Friday night after work with the express intention of getting hammered, and six hours later end up walking around in circles with a snapped stiletto trying to remember where they live. Amid the stories of punch-ups, pickled livers and vomit-splattered taxis, Nigel Hawkes of Straight Statistics, an organisation devoted to correcting the figures circulated by the government and media, painted a more positive picture of drinking trends, noting that despite the endless scare stories the levels of consumption among young people had declined in last five years. The problem, he said, was that weekend drinkers are more visible than they used to be, hitting city centres rather than their local boozer and then coasting straight to A&E.

Back with the girls, Widdecombe was sticking to her fizzy water and grumbling: "I just don't understand how you can drink so much and apparently enjoy it." But the more her new-found friends talked about their nights out, during which they remembered to text their mums and each made sure that the others got home, the more decent they seemed. The presenter claimed to be "not remotely anti-drink", which may well have been the case, though she was certainly anti-fun, particularly where women were concerned. In her mind, their perceived lack of decorum and restraint signalled the end of days.

Perhaps, when it came to understanding why youngsters wanted to get wasted, Widdecombe wasn't the right person for the job. She had forgotten what it was like to be young and unburdened by worries about future health and happiness, and the more she banged on about responsibility and the senselessness of hangovers, the more you wanted her to chill out, knock back a sambuca and put on her dancing shoes.

The health of the nation wasn't so much the question in Radio 4's The Food Programme as the future of decent beer, and whether the wacky ingredients used by American "craft beer" producers, from maple syrup to grape skins, could catch on here. The beer snobs were dubious, though take a few samples to Wolverhampton city centre on a Friday night and I'm betting that it would slide down a treat.