The Week in Radio: When even news junkies need a bit of comic relief

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The Independent Culture

There has been an inspired little guerrilla campaign waged on behalf of the short story on Radio 4, under the aegis of the Society of Authors, to which several writers and actors have added their voices. They oppose plans to extend The World at One an extra quarter hour, thus reducing midweek short story slots. According to Bill Nighy, enlarging current affairs output is a mistake. "The idea that we need more news on Radio 4 is bewildering... I can't move for news. What I don't see all around me is the opportunity to listen to new writing, or, indeed, old writing, in short-story form."

The question of whether we "need" more news is an interesting one. There is surely symbiosis between fast-moving events and our sense of urgent "need" to keep up to the minute. The extension of World at One is justified by the need to explain the complex economic situation enveloping us, yet one has to reflect whether extending the time we dwell on that situation drives the fear and alarm that feeds into the situation itself. I crave a news fix as much as the next journalist, but it's often the stories you don't know, and don't need to know, which enlarge your appreciation of the world.

One such was the Fiddler in the Tower, on Radio 3's Twenty Minutes slot – the story of the last hours of a virtuoso violinist, Fernando Buschman, who was shot as a spy in the First World War. Confined to the Tower of London, his final request was the company of his violin, and all through his last night, against the howling of the wind, the exquisite sound of his playing could be heard. Daniel Hope, himself a violinist, played the pieces and told the story. "As a violinist, to see Bach and the sonatas on this list is very telling. If I were in this position then Bach would certainly be on my list, and of all the great masterpieces the Sarabande from the D minor Partita is the one I would want to play in my final hour." On his way to the firing squad, Buschman asked a passing soldier if he had a child who would like the violin. Now there's a story you never knew, and probably won't forget.

It's budget-related cuts, however, which are squeezing comedy on Radio 2. The plan is to "move away from built comedy slots" to "ad hoc" series across the year, including decommissioning The Comedy Hour on Saturday evenings. Last Saturday evening's slot contained Two Episodes of Mash, an offbeat, surreal and occasionally hilarious sketch show from Diane Morgan, a kind of depressive female Larry David with a deadpan Lancashire accent, and Joe Wilkinson. It's the prerogative of sketch shows to be inconsistently funny, and having laughed out throughout the second episode, the third was a little downbeat, but given that downbeat is the signature mood of the show, it seems wrong to complain. The pleasure of the series is the way sketches merge seamlessly into each other, so one moment it's a pair of lobsters in a restaurant tank, "I feel trapped, I'm hyperventilating. Why she's pointing at me?" and then it's a tarot reader with football cards. "The John Fashanu card means at some point you will become invisible. Gordon Strachan – your hair's prone to matting and you may become dormant." A striking thing about this show, and so unusual for topical comedy, is that the sketches are entirely detached from the news agenda and none the worse for it. Meanwhile, the short-story guerrillas have amassed nearly 9,000 signatures to their petition and hope for 10,000 by the time the campaign closes next week. There's a story worth keeping up with.