The Week In Radio: When playing it safe isn't a sound move

On that sad day when circumstances compelled Radio 2 to replace Jonathan Ross on Saturday mornings, it looked around and its gaze quite naturally fell on Graham Norton. He was, in many ways, the obvious choice. Norton is a proven talent as well as a warm, genuinely likeable personality. Of all Radio 2's DJs, he's the one I'd most want to get trapped in a lift with. But given the brilliant, inventive extemporising with which Jonathan Ross used to kick off the weekend, Norton's new show, which started this week, felt totally... safe.

Now safe isn't necessarily bad. If you're under 30 it's a term of approval, though there won't have been many of them listening in. But compared to Ross's verbal pyrotechnics it was bland. His line-up of Amanda Holden and Joe McElderry, interspersed with mandatory discussion of The X Factor, could be a dictionary definition of middle-of-the-road. Then there's the weirdest part of the show, a feature called "Grill Graham", in which listeners ring in with "personal" dilemmas. The first morning's conundrum involved someone who had borrowed a friend's jacket and left it with sweat stains. Cue endless discussion about underarm rings and dry-cleaning techniques. This Saturday, we can look forward to a discussion of BO? Why on earth? There have been suggestions that Norton has been asked not to "camp it up", which is like asking the Pope to ditch the Latin and robes, and if so, it's a mistake. Camp can be endearing, witness the singular Steve Allen on LBC, whose Sunday morning newspaper review is unrivalled for its sparkling, quickfire bitchery. Admittedly, it's hard being camp about Middle Englanders with their wedding anniversaries, underarm stains and taking the kids to uni, but Norton shouldn't be quite so afraid of alienating his demographic. After all, his playlist, from The Rolling Stones, Blondie, Thin Lizzy, to Barry Manilow and T Rex is balm to the ears of most fifty-somethings, and even those of us not quite in this demographic found themselves hopping round the kitchen on Saturday morning.

And yet, Radio 2's 13 million audience came under new threat this week, if the PR is to be believed, with the launch of the national version of Smooth Radio, the first national commercial competitor to offer pop. Assembled from the amalgamation of Smooth's six local franchises, it's aiming to serve a 40-to-59-year-old audience, and is available on DAB and online, as well as the existing FM frequencies of the regional stations. The big signing is Simon Bates who doesn't arrive until January, but until then there's Mark Goodier, Lynn Parsons and Andy Peebles, making it feel like the ghost of BBC radio past. Smooth aims to occupy the middle ground, and its playlists certainly do. For launch week there was a competition to win a Honda Jazz, the question being to remember the last two songs you heard on Smooth Radio. The truth is, I think that might actually prove a challenge.

The best resurrection of the undead came in Craig Brown's Lost Diaries, which assembled a formidable clutch of impressionist talent, including Rory Bremner, Alistair McGowan and Jan Ravens, to deliver gobbets of satire on figures who may have vanished from public life, but burn brightly in collective memory. There was Edwina Currie's diary on her trysts with John Major: "'Essentially,' he coos, 'these proposals for renewing the essential health of our domestic economy are the same as those I previously mentioned.' 'Go on!' I beg him." There is John Prescott, whose malapropisms and bulimia are a gift, and Antonia Fraser on Harold Pinter's poem about Humpty Dumpty as a denunciation of the Bush regime. "Serves you bloody right for being an egg, chum!" Antonia records that, "Both mummy and daddy had their eyes closed in immense concentration." Bliss.

jane@janethynne.com

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