RADIO: Q: why do so few R4 quizzes work?
Sunday 11 February 1996
Historians have been descending from their ivory towers in droves just lately and arriving breathless at the BBC, longing to share their knowledge with a grateful world. But it's hard to know what to do with them. The classic R4 answer is a quiz, so that's what happened. Few R4 quizzes work, and nor does this. Contestants fell over each other to recount some extra- scrumptious anecdote about the Widow of Windsor which, by some arbitrary rule, sometimes won them a round. Far better to buy them a round at the nearest Duke of York and eavesdrop on their chat. At least that way they might string more than a couple of sentences together, the audience wouldn't get cross with the hapless chairman for his airy unfairness - and we'd be spared more blasts of Zadoc the Priest.
Another historical coachload stopped off at R3, causing more problems. From Leicester and from Bristol, from York and from Birmingham, they rolled up. The R3 answer is to pair them off and get them to argue during concert intervals, all week. Under the suitably vague title of History Now and Then and the chairmanship of an affable, slightly faux-naif Roy Porter, that's what they did. Some were much better than others. To choose the good ones (while making a mental note to cross certain universities off my son's Ucca list), the medievalists made the best programmes. Particularly interesting was the conversation about witchcraft. Were nine million witches burned in 300 years, asked Porter? Well, no: apparently there would scarcely have been enough wood in Europe to fuel such a barbecue.
Witches, said Lyndal Roper, were often accused by other women, especially when they were perceived to have caused harm to children. She'd started her research full of eager feminist opinions that these were unfortunate creatures made scapegoats by their contemporaries' lurid fantasies. To her chagrin, she found them often to have been extremely scary and unpleasant people. Jim Sharpe agreed, adding darkly that the witch-hunts of our own century have been at least as cruel and illogical as anything perpetrated by our ancestors, and that, paradoxically, we modern rationalists who don't believe in witchcraft form a tiny minority in a world of believers.
The witchery of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf was rather warily examined by Cathy Wearing on Sunday. Was that soaring silvery soprano really hers, or was it Her Master's Voice (WS & R3)? Her husband, Walter Legge, was her Svengali. He supervised her every recording, sitting on the piano stool as she did up to 50 takes, aiming at perfection. We heard her singing Porgi Amor: it was as near perfect as is humanly possible, but curiously unmoving, perhaps because the iron will was glinting under the silver.
Then we heard a strange story. Refused a welcome in America for her Nazi past - whatever the truth of that is - she was eventually invited to sing Rosenkavalier in the Sixties. She chose to arrive at the first- night party wearing the symbolic uniform of pure Aryanism, a dirndl. It was not well received. She must have been either defiant or unhinged.
Retreating back into safer, older history, a madman in Nether Stowey workhouse around the turn of the 18th century was thought to have been bewitched, or possibly possessed. The parson William Holland wrote sadly about him in his diary, the dramatisation of which began this week, with Paupers and Pig-Killers (R4). England is rich in journalising parsons, and Holland, played with verve by Ronald Pickup, is a star. Ratty and gullible, opinionated and xenophobic, he resolves, endearingly, to grow better as he advances in years - and immediately denounces someone as a Quantock horse-dropping. Full of dark railings against the French, rainy winters and rides to funerals, night-alarms caused by rampaging cows and general domestic disharmony, this is exactly how history should appear on radio: and, oh joy, it still has two weeks to run. "Lord, now and then," prays Holland (little knowing that this phrase will be echoed 200 years later on R3), "will you let me get something right?"
One thing he was sure he was right about was his use of language: everyone else was wrong. "I wish these Somerset folk would speak English," he grumbled, when they called him "purzon". Times do not change. Jean Aitchison has already stirred up a storm with the first of her Reith Lectures (R4) on The Language Web. Choosing such a speaker is clearly a cunning plan by Michael Green to rouse the British to furious debate on his network. Nothing so incenses a R4 listener as a suggestion that to harmlessly split an infinitive is no different than to not allow a double negative - never, nowhere, no matter what. On Start the Week (R4) Melvyn Bragg detected snobbishness in Aitchison's suggestion that we adopt varied speech depending on our audience - but then his nose for social condescension would not disgrace a sniffer-dog. In the first lecture, Aitchison did little more than set up her coconuts: it will be fun to watch them fall.
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