Radio: Here is the news. There is no news

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The Independent Culture
Politicians are so ungrateful: all this sniping at the BBC for the way it treats them when, after all, nobody else takes them half so seriously. Sure, interviews may involve a certain amount of rough and tumble and hurly-burly, even a spot of argy-bargy, but the basic attitude towards Parliament and its doings is almost reverential. News programmes work largely on the assumption that what MPs get up to is automatically newsworthy, sometimes, it seems, to the exclusion of anything else.

You can see this at work during the parliamentary recess: there's no question on Radio 4 of expanding the Today programme to fill the gap left by Yesterday in Parliament with deeper, longer coverage of other kinds of news; it actually loses part of its time-slot, and we get someone reading a nice book. (Not that this is a complaint - it just tells you something of the BBC's newsgathering priorities.)

Meanwhile, Analysis, the most serious-minded current affairs programmes, pops off on its holidays too - clearly, there's nothing left for it to analyse - and in its place we get Makers of Modern Politics (Thursday, Radio 4), in which Anthony Howard talks with the breathless urgency he manages to bring to almost any subject about great parliamentarians of the past.

On the evidence of the first programme, on Stanley Baldwin, it doesn't look as though the series is going to live up to its title. The main plank of Howard's argument was that we can see Baldwin's influence at work in our current prime minister - a decent, dependable sort of chap, who embodies gentle virtues like fair-play and sympathy for the underdog, and appeals to an old-fashioned vision of Britishness.

Aside from the fact that this is grossly flattering to John Major, who looked like an embodiment of gentleness for about 10 minutes in contrast to Mrs Thatcher, there wasn't any evidence for the idea that Major has been influenced by Baldwin - there's just a vague resemblance, easily explained: both followed a charismatic leader who aroused powerful feelings for and against (in Baldwin's case, Lloyd George), and rather than try to beat their predecessors at their own game, both tried to make a virtue of dullness.

To be fair, Howard did establish Baldwin's importance in turning the Labour Party into the second party of state, and made a case for saying that he's been unfairly condemned as an appeaser. All the same, it wasn't easy to take the programme seriously, largely because it's hard to take politicians quite as seriously as Howard does.

For him, you get the impression, there's something heroic about politics - a mighty struggle between larger-than-life figures; probably he doesn't believe that rationally, but you suspect that there has to be some such feeling at some level of his mind to keep up his apparent sense of excitement about the whole business.

By contrast, the heroic element seemed oddly lacking in A Stone from Heaven (Radio 4, Saturday), a lengthy two-part drama by Lindsay Clarke based on the Parsifal legend, as told by Wolfram von Eschenbach and borrowed by Wagner and T S Eliot.

Clarke had evidently decided that it was the allegorical, psychological elements that were interesting, and they got the headlines: Parsifal abandons mother, fails to respond to promptings of own heart, battles with dark version of self (and is reconciled with same). All of which is highly enjoyable, and done without regard to coherence of plot, which was certainly a wise decision; but from time to time it did feel like a dramatised version of the notes at the back of The Waste Land. There are times when only a bit of straightforward, manly violence does the trick.

n The television review returns tomorrow