RADIO : They're awful, but we really like them
Sunday 23 February 1997
Lest we forget, their predecessor Chris Evans was losing it before he left. Not only was he becoming increasingly, tediously offensive but his audience was deserting him. He would try to make a fool of anyone whose fame didn't prompt him to fawn: Mark Radcliffe and Marc Riley simply make fools of themselves. They are consciously - conscientiously - northern and down-beat, virtually jingle-free and often very funny in a Morecambe and Wise-cracking way. The games they play with listeners are gentle and silly; the prizes they offer do not glitter - mugs, a foot-spa and, if they ever find it, a stolen van. Also, I am informed by an expert (and venture to agree), they play better music than did Evans. An appreciative fax came in during the first show: "You're crap, but 10 times better than the ginger thingy." Yes, in our house we think that's about right.
At the other end of the spectrum, Sounding the Century (R3) kicked off with a live Stravinsky concert (see Michael White, page 12). Stravinsky was a clever choice, tougher than Puccini, easier than Birtwistle. The "difficulty" of contemporary music was discussed by the evening's conductor, Pierre Boulez, talking to that nice Michael Berkeley during the interval. He was fascinating. He said it was like architecture: at the beginning of the century stone, wood and bricks made wonderful buildings, but now we can work with glass, steel and concrete and produce different shapes. As a young man, he had found Stravinsky's innovative arpeggios shocking and attractive, but he felt betrayed when the older composer reverted to more traditional forms. His own music is as far from the classical as a Venus fly-trap from a daisy ...
Also from America comes Patricia Williams, this year's Reith lecturer - incidentally, since Marina Warner and Jean Aitchison gave their lectures, we are no longer constantly asked to marvel that a woman is capable of it: hooray. Strident tabloid criticism greeted Williams's appointment, but the woman who spoke to Sue MacGregor during The Reith Interview (R4) was no ranting black feminist; rather, a sophisticated lawyer with a beautiful voice, a steady, measured delivery and important things to say about race.
Williams grew up in Boston, where she and her sister were the only two blacks at their school. She is the great-granddaughter of a slave who was bought and impregnated at 13 by a rich Tennessee lawyer, anxious to increase his breeding-stock: thus, of course, she is also descended from him. Her attitude towards race is suitably balanced. She knows that most blacks still perceive it to be an issue, that most whites believe it to have been cleared up by the Civil Rights movement. It is that gap in perception that she hopes to address in the lectures, so that we can talk freely about race without falling into paroxysms of guilt, anxiety or misunderstanding. The bizarre phenomenon of the OJ Simpson trials led her to coin a fine expression for those who sat through it all on television: she called them the "armchair jurisprudes".
Perhaps their forebears dreamt up the idea of banning alcohol in 1920, which led to 14 years of bootleg liquor and moonshine whisky, The Prohibition Years (R2). Genial George Melly, who seems to have taken up residence at R2 (better Melly than Mellors), introduced this pickled promenade through the jazz age in a voice that must surely have been generously lubricated over many liberal years. Mellifluous.
And Russell Davies has been across the water in pursuit of a plain-spoken, rough-talking singer, A Hustlin' Woman (R3) called Memphis Minnie. She seems to have begun as a riverboat washerwoman on the Mississippi, dabbling in a little light hustling "according to her needs". By the Thirties she was making tremendous blues records, playing her guitar like a man, they said. Or I think they did. This was a programme rich in atmosphere, vague in detail, hilarious in conversation. Even Davies, on the spot, had trouble identifying words in the low, slow, chuckling drawl of the old southerners who remembered Minnie, particularly in the case of Dan Curry, a sprightly, ancient, toothless hog-farmer.
Davies made the most of his trip and came back full of southern comforts and a thoroughly enjoyable series called You Is What You Eats (R3). He got the original recipe for Kentucky fried chicken, rich in cream, mushrooms and bourbon; he learnt all about the use of cornmeal for hominy grits and he was informed at length about the virtues of the pig. They eat every part of a pig in the south, they say, except the oinks, but you'd probably rather starve than try some things. Pig brains scrambled with eggs? An intimidating variety of brawn called hoghead cheese? Worst of all, chitterlings? As they described the preparation process, a miasma emanating from the bucket of "filth" they remove from these things - if you're lucky - before cooking seemed to seep from my radio. Yuck, shudder shudder. Not soul food: troll food.
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