The Week In Radio: Festive fare with hardly a turkey in sight
Thursday 31 December 2009
It was Barry Manilow who came up with the single weirdest observation of the week. Broadcasting inappropriately enough from Palm Springs, he interspersed his medley of old favourites with smoochy insights into the meaning of what we must learn to call "the holiday season". As Barry said, "I love the holiday season. It seems to me that during the holiday weeks, everybody stops yelling at each other. Isn't that great?"
That was hard to connect with here on Planet Earth, where the yelling level significantly increases during the festive event, yet Barry's insight did prompt a realisation. Whereas television is a family affair, with all its attendant rows and disappointments, radio is for those moments of peace. Whether gridlocked outside Basingstoke, or merely confined to the kitchen behind a mountain of sprouts, it was radio that provided some of the most contemplative moments of the season.
The best recipe for Christmas radio is to provide the same, but different. God help any network controller who messes with staples such as the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College chapel on Radio 4, whose solo chorister singing the first verse of "Once in Royal David's City" pierces the encircling gloom of Christmas eve and heralds the true arrival of Christmas. Ed "Stewpot" Stewart's special edition of Junior Choice on Christmas morning wonderfully resurrected Christmas past, with classics like Slade, Ernie, Captain Beaky, Rupert the Bear and Frosty the Snowman. And while it's hard to better Terry Wogan's description of Alan Carr's Office Party on Christmas Eve as "hell on wheels", A Magical Manilow Christmas on Christmas morning, with Andy Williams, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby and Judy Garland, was perfect cardigan radio to accompany increasing inebriation.
Further high notes came with Paul Gambaccini's Here There and Everywhere, a hugely enjoyable two-part series about the legacy of the Beatles, which examined all the elements that made the group so powerful – from their instrumental and vocal to their songwriting strengths. There were little-known revelations – the fact that "Blackbird" on The White Album started out as "Black Girl Screaming in Little Rock" as a response to American race riots – and there was analysis of the genius yin and yang of Lennon and McCartney, which meant, according to one contributor, that when they sang together "it was almost like a third guy singing". Only one quibble – almost all the songwriters and artists interviewed were American, giving the impression that Gambaccini had recorded the show while on holiday in LA. Instead of interviewing Slash about George Harrison's guitar playing, why not ask David Gilmour?
The same-but-different rule also applied to News at Bedtime, Ian Hislop and Nick Newman's dazzling satire on current affairs culture, featuring twin presenters John Tweedledum (played by Jack Dee) and Jim Tweedledee (Peter Capaldi) broadcasting from Nurseryland. But you wouldn't need to be a Today aficionado to find this series a delight. There was the crooked man defending himself against allegations of corruption: "It's not a crooked sixpence John. I found it next to a stile. It's perfectly acceptable for me to claim as an allowance." The Grand Old Duke of York was on defending his military action – "You launched an ill-thought out, ill-conceived and legally dubious assault on the hill". There was the Daily Fairygraph, owned by the Brothers Grimm, and Jonathan Porridge from Beanpeace protesting against Jack's genetically modified beanstalk. All of it was pitch perfect, totally inventive and very funny.
A far more dramatic tweak of perspective for the Today programme came on Tuesday when David Hockney was invited on as guest editor. Hockney's agenda was, as expected, a broadside against the BBC's politically correct soul. There was a French philosopher arguing against exercise: "the jogger does not inhabit the world, he inhabits his body", and debate on whether the government, which has introduced a mere 3,600 new laws since 1997, was overly authoritarian. And there were not one but three items about the joys of smoking. But ultimately, the BBC had its own way, positing Hockney as a grumpy old reactionary and quizzing him on whether he was going to vote Conservative, with barely a nod to his thoughts as one of Britain's greatest living painters. Would Turner or Constable have been grilled on whether they supported pro-gay legislation for boarding houses? It was a missed opportunity. There was a tiny moment, when Hockney said "I get excited when I see a puddle." But you wanted more, much more.
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