5, 4, 3, 2, 1: all systems go


IT IS sad to see Liz Forgan leaving. They said she would rule by ruthlessness, but her three years in charge of radio at the BBC have been characterised more by courage, determination and a redeeming humour. She has also been remarkably efficient. As a tribute to her skilful management, this column today assumes an unwanted air of organisation. Forget grumbling: here are the five national BBC stations at their best, in processional order. Well, that's the intention.

This week R1 gave us The Brits Abroad, an account of the murky marketing of pop records. For abroad read America where, since the days of Dickens, artists have had to tour to achieve sales. English pop stars are not much good at it. They dislike having to earn the advertising that wins air-time by being polite to endless corporate backers after gigs. The big schmooze sits uneasily with the cynical arrogance that often got the musicians noticed in the first place, but when Americans have no national radio stations to tell them what they should be buying there is no alternative.

Unless they turn and face east. Jo Whiley's instructive, entertaining programme ended with the success of Shampoo, a pair of blonde, outspoken girls who respect nobody. They are huge in Japan where, apparently, such behaviour is ecstatically received, and they are earning mega-yen. Jarvis Cocker should pay Japan a visit.

The best programme on R2 this week came from a delightful musician called Simon Mayor who was Marooned With a Mandolin. The mandolin is an instrument of surprising virtuosity. In a huge orchestra of Neapolitans, led by the splendidly named Signor Squillante, it can sound like the languorous tremolo heat of a thousand summer nights, but even on its own it can provide comfort - particularly if you get hold of the one that has been specially doctored. This fine instrument has a little door on the back with tiny brass hinges. Inside there is just room for 20 fags and half a bottle of Scotch.

R3 has been sending itself up again. John Morton (whose hilarious People Like Us is currently enjoying repeats on R4) wrote Mightier Than the Sword for four other Johns - Sessions, Fortune, Bird and Wells. They assemble, ostensibly to discuss great literature. The presenter Hugh Pankhurst (Ses- sions) is distracted by his collapsing marriage and becomes increasingly tearful as academics, producers and actors struggle manfully to discuss such monumental masterpieces as Virginia Woolf's Beyond The Shore, D H Lawrence's The Doctor's Daughter's Horse, Shakespeare's Folio, Prince of Jutland and Samuel Beckett's Getting On.

This last concerns characters called Velcro and Clod, permanently stuck in a revolving-door. Rebecca Front, as the naive, determined arts reporter, tries to interview the play's lascivious director, but he is far less interested in theatre than in her - or so we assume when he breathes, apropos of goodness knows what, "They really suit you". Eventually, he leads her astray to a cosy dinner.

This leaves us free to hear Pankhurst's anguished whispers about his wife's lover, who wooed her during a dulcimer-playing course in Totnes and calls himself a psychotherapist, though he used to be a driving-instructor. Momentous Beckettian lines constantly interrupt everyone - such mournful pensees as "My knees hurt", or "I've got some celery left". Each programme ended with the threat of T S Eliot next - eliciting almost suppressed groans. It was wonderfully, wonderfully funny.

R4, the housewife's best friend, produced many good things, among them a half-term treat for children. Joan Aiken's stories make perfect broadcasting. Beautifully written, they have an air of classic myth-making, and there was one nearly every morning. Monday's was The Winter Sleepwalker, read with gentle sensitivity by Lesley Manville. It told of a wood-carver who felled an ancient oak and was cursed to turn to wood the first object he touched on waking. Appalled at the risk to his daughter, he sent her to sleep in the barn, but she wandered at night and befriended a sleep- walking bear. Eventually, inevitably, she woke her father and suffered her fate and the poor man set out to find the bear. In the end, wooden girl and wooden bear were enshrined together in a snowy mountain cave.

There was no story on Thursday because of the wretched, domineering Cricket World Cup. Sport on radio is extraordinarily popular, though it leaves your reviewer colder than the weather. However, last Sunday's Baker and Kelly Up Front provided a snippet from R5 to end this round-up. Football fans were asked to phone in with stories about how they survived the "bundles" that, it seems, regularly follow all good matches. One caller had escaped from dangerously rioting crowds only by crawling away very slowly, safe and unassailable, under a milkfloat.

Radio 5 Live seemed, to many of us, a pretty hopeless idea at first, but Liz Forgan saw its potential and championed it. These days, even sportophobes are finding its news features and magazine programmes increasingly attractive.

In her statement to the press, Forgan said that she was leaving radio in strong form. It is true, and the strength of BBC network radio owes a lot to her vision. She will be seriously missed.

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