The Ballad of the Miners' Strike, Radio 2
Coal-war voices bring a lump to the throat
Sunday 07 March 2010
On the Home Service in the Fifties and Sixties, Ewan MacColl and Charles Parker put together a series of "Radio Ballads" in which different communities were portrayed through interviews and the songs inspired by them.
Over the past few years the formula has been repeated on Radio 2, on such subjects as the decline of shipbuilding and steel, the Troubles, fox-hunting, living with HIV, and Britain's fairground community. Now the 25th anniversary of the end of the miners' strike has been marked with an astonishing piece of work.
The reporter Vince Hunt conducted interviews up and down the country, with policemen – "I wonder, could they ever forgive the police for what we did to them?" – and scabs – "walking by friends, that was the hardest thing" – as well as the strikers and their wives. These were fed to folk musicians, who wove sad, beautiful songs from them. "The Ballad of the Miners' Strike" was stuffed with fantastic lines. "It was the nearest this country has ever been to civil war since 1641 to 1649," one miner said. "It's just a shame we didn't have anyone's head to chop off at the end of it."
The wives responded with strength and resourcefulness. "We were expected to go back to normal [afterwards]," said one. "But I'd forgotten what normal was. I stayed in the new world and that's why I became a councillor ... I'm still proud of what I can do as a local person in politics." But the tone was elegiac rather than bitter: "It was the most exciting thing that ever happened in my life," another wife said.
The programme was rounded off with a mournful, minor-key rendition of "Here we go, here we go" with a brass-band setting. I listened for most of the hour with a lump in the throat. It was, simply, one of the best radio programmes I've ever heard.
To my shame, as a radio critic, I'd never listened to the Asian Network before the recent bad news that, along with 6 Music, it's looking down both barrels. Having gone some way to rectify that, I can report that it's brisk, informative and a card-carrying Good Thing. A typical day includes Sonia Deol's magazine programme, Nihal's lively phone-in, and in the evening a two-hour programme in Mirpuri. It's clearly a niche market, but there are more than 2 million people of Asian extraction in Britain, so it clearly deserves a place in the BBC.
Odd, then, that I've seen no big campaigns to save it, unlike 6 Music, where the spirit of John Peel lives on. The past week's highlights included Jarvis Cocker's delightful Sunday show, and Huey Morgan, just about outdoing him in the laconic-delivery department. Lauren Laverne's morning show is eminently listenable to, as is Nemone's, though the grating George Lamb lets the side down badly. In the evening there's been a welcome repeat of Don Letts' 2006 series about the reggae label Trojan.
Both stations perform undeniably valuable services, and the probable decision to axe them is shameful – a cringing, humiliating bowing-down to pressure from Murdoch and the Tories. The message is loud and clear: if you care a jot about the BBC, don't vote Conservative.
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