The Choice, Radio 4, Tuesday
Outlook, World Service, Monday
Make the most of terrific interviews like these – they'll soon be gone
Sunday 29 May 2011
So farewell then On the Ropes, Between Ourselves, The Choice and Taking a Stand: you will soon be things of the past, ex-programmes, relegated to reruns on Radio 4 Extra, ousted to make way for a Tuesday-morning science strand, the first victims of Gwyneth Williams' need to make her mark as the newish Controller of Radio 4.
Well, the science strand had better be good, because there have been some terrific interviews in those four programmes down the years from, respectively, John Humphrys, Olivia O'Leary, Michael Buerk and Fergal Keane.
The valedictory series of The Choice kicked off with an interview that was up there with the best of that show's output. Mikey Walsh was born into a family of Romany bare-knuckle fighters, and he was expected to continue the tradition. His father began his training when he was not quite five (cue outraged gasp from the excellent Buerk); he'd have to put his arms behind his head while his father punched him to test his pain threshold, "to see how far he could go until I cried" (at which point he'd give Mikey a proper hiding).
Even now, a successful author, with Gypsy Boy a best-seller and its sequel imminent, he sounds sweet and vulnerable. He was clearly a bitter disappointment to his father who put him, at the age of seven, in the ring with an 11-year-old Irish traveller, who was told "to beat the crap out of me".
Mikey's account of gypsy life was simultaneously distressing and riveting, told with love despite the hardships and, basically, abuse. As he got older and realised he was gay – a big gypsy no-no – he dreamed of escape, and at 15 he ran away: "It was almost a live-or-die decision." The only way was up: begging at first, then work in a burger bar, learning to read and write, three years' drama training at Guildhall, and finally his memoir.
Quite soon into the programme you could hear Mikey fighting the waterworks, and he stayed like that. The tears finally came when he recounted a call to his mother: she passed the phone to his dad, who said, "I've got something to tell you: you're more of a fighting man than any of them, and I'm proud of you." The tears weren't just Mikey's, I have to say.
There was absolutely no blubbing during the telling of another extraordinary tale of adversity, on Outlook, the vehicle for another fine interviewer, Matthew Bannister. He spoke to the New York Times photographer Joao Silva, who was in Afghanistan seven months ago – and stepped on a landmine.
"I knew the legs were gone – I've seen enough mangled flesh in my time to make an assessment," said Silva. So what did he do on his stretcher? Carried on taking pictures, of course. Wouldn't you? He spoke to Bannister by phone from his hospital bed, though he has started negotiating the stairs on his prostheses – "It's certainly not graceful, I can tell you" – and you got the feeling that his resolutely matter-of-fact tone wasn't mere bravado. "No point in looking back," he said: "It's a done deal ... unfortunately there's no rewind button – you just bulldoze your way through." I suspect he'd get on well with Mikey Walsh.
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