Petrov's Dilemma, Radio 4
R.E.S.P.E.C.T – The Art of Backing Vocals, Radio 4
Meet Stanislav, the Russian who saved the world
Sunday 24 May 2009
It's the classic what-would-you-do moment: it's September 1983 and the Cold War is virtually ice-bound. A MiG fighter has shot down a civilian airliner; the US has unveiled the Pershing II missile and Ronald Reagan is making smug noises about Star Wars. You're at work, though you should be tucked up in bed, when the alarm sounds.
In Petrov's Dilemma, Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant-colonel in the Soviet Union's strategic rocket forces and deputy head of the combat algorithms department, was filling in for a colleague at the Serpukhov-15 early warning station – "I can't say I was particularly vigilant that day" – when the siren sounded and a single word came up on the big screen: "Start!" He rang his superiors, told them he thought it was a false alarm.
Then it went off again. And again, and again, and again, five times at five-minute intervals. The screen changed from "Start!" to "Missile Attack". It's at that point that brown trousers, if not already deployed, would become a sine qua non of the whole operation.
"It was so tense that I couldn't even stand up," Petrov remembered. "I was glued to the chair – my legs failed me." But he stood, or sat, firm, and became the man who saved the world. It was all hushed up, of course, and Petrov sworn to secrecy. (This was after they'd tried to blame him for the whole incident even though a dodgy satellite was to blame.) He couldn't even tell his wife, he chuckled. "The next day the whole of the town would have known."
So, it's obviously a toss-up between Petrov and whoever arranged the backing vocals on Gladys Knight & the Pips' "Midnight Train to Georgia" for the title of Greatest Person in the World Ever. Yes, one saved the world from nuclear catastrophe, but the other created a thing of beauty, which is quite important, too. In R.E.S.P.E.C.T – The Art of Backing Vocals, Nick Barraclough promised to "expose the flying buttresses and gargoyles of songs you thought you knew". I'm not sure he quite did that, though he did usefully explore how backing vocals are layered for maximum effect – sometimes by the same person singing in different styles – and how there's a direct line from Elizabethan fa-la-las and "Sumer is icumen in" to rama-lama-ding-dong and bop-showaddy-waddy.
And, best of all, in exploring a few great examples of the art, such as "Leader of the Pack" and "Midnight Train ...", he made you listen to old songs with new ears.
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
New era of cheap oil 'will destroy green revolution'
Ukip founder Alan Sked and Nigel Farage 'begged Enoch Powell to stand as a candidate'
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant