Radio: Revamped Radio 4 takes flight with angels and insects

AS THE SUN set on the last weekend of old Radio 4, I was reminded of the emotional reserves I had to call on as a child when forced to watch The Courage of Lassie. Sentiment hung heavy in the air as faithful presenters signed off so tragically that they nearly had us believing that not only would they never broadcast again, but that they were, in fact, speaking live from the tumbril as it trundled to the place of execution, guillotine to be hand-operated by Controller Boyle. I genuinely thought at the end of the last Afternoon Shift that Laurie Taylor was going to break down in tears as he uttered a choked "Goodbye". On Kaleidoscope, Paul Allen's final, hushed words - "This is the last of Kaleidoscope" - were followed by an a capella choir of Allen and all six of his studio guests chiming "Goodbye" in harmony: it could have been an out-take from Queen's Greatest Hits. But my favourite leave-taking was that of

Breakaway's Pete McCarthy, who insisted on making his exit in John Archer fashion, and was killed on air by a falling tractor.

The BBC appeared to be on a mission to soothe, as heralded by the appearance of four angels on the cover of the week's Radio Times. What at first I took to be three airline pilots and a stewardess advertising Ultra Brite turned out to be the comforting quartet of Bragg, Buerk, Peel and Adie, clad in white raiment and baring pearly teeth (a visual detail denied us by the radio). The first week's listening was reassurance enough. To judge from days one to six, new Radio 4 is an exciting, at times overwhelming choice of old favourites - some retitled (Kaleidoscope is now Front Row), some rescheduled (Woman's Hour is half an hour earlier) - and freshly minted series.

The best of the latter came from two veterans of television. Mastermind's juddering theme music may be officially entitled "Approaching Menace", but under Peter Snow's stewardship the reincarnated show sounded less like the Grand Inquisition than a merry romp. While I missed the slow and merciless close-ups of the contestants' faces as they squirmed in the big black chair, Mastermind is every bit as compelling on the radio as it was with Magnus Magnusson on TV. (But perhaps the Iceman took his frosty catchphrase with him, because his successor now says, simply, and less intimidatingly, "I'll ask you that one again.")

Mastermind's great advantage in this medium is a surreal quality created by what someone once famously described as "sound pictures". The unexpected phrase can often sound as though it originated not in reality but in a Goon Show script. One of this week's contestants was a delicatessen assistant from Lancashire whose chosen subject was "Ornithiscian [that's "bird-hipped" to you and me] Dinosaurs". My mind raced as I pictured customers going to buy quiche from their local deli in Clitheroe, and being ignored by the assistant revising for Mastermind behind the counter, leafing through reference books on Velociraptors and Iguanadons. The dinosaur fancier lost to the Jane Austen scholar, so maybe it pays to be traditional.

David Attenborough's Call of the Wild was enthralling - the simple idea of exploring the sounds of nature was done full justice by the medium perfect for it. The first episode examined how and why whales and elephants, crickets and cicadas tailor the noises they make to fit their respective physical worlds. I am not a diehard fan of nature programmes on television, but I found the act of listening in to these animals' accoustic worlds an unexpectedly involving, even magical, experience. Attenborough also provided, of course, a lot of surreal sound pictures - such as the image of the Australian Bladder Cicada, so-called because of a balloon-like sac on its back which vibrates uniquely, "with a thud as opposed to a ping resonance". The reason for this? To confuse its arch-enemy, the insect-eating bat. I am as confused as the bat, but you don't need to fully understand Call of the Wild to appreciate it.

At times, Radio 4's new programming appeared to be going out of its way to refute accusations of dumbing down. We had impressive seriousness in Michael Buerk's The Choice, Jonathan Dimbleby's The Candidate and, most thought-provokingly, in War and Our World, the first of the five 1998 Reith Lectures given by the acclaimed military historian John Keegan. But the rigorous intellectualism of Start the Week was so rigorous and intellectual that it bordered on the unlistenable. The week's Renaissance theme was reflected in a discussion between acknowledged Renaissance men like the Angel Melvyn, Edward Said and Jonathan Miller. Among the topics discussed were: mirrors; the difference between looking and seeing; and the origins of the word "lustre". And while this was happening I'm afraid I couldn't help thinking of a moment years ago on Spitting Image when two bespectacled puppets fawned over each other, above a caption that read: "Bernard Levin and Jonathan Miller Talk Bollocks".

The case of Chris Morris's Blue Jam (R1) is a strange and sinister one. For an hour in the middle of Thursday nights, the man behind The Day Today and Channel 4's Brass Eye broadcasts a hypnotic mix of music and comedy sketches that defies rational description. I would steer clear of phrases like stream-of-consciousness and avant-garde, but if you like the idea of a cross between the Coen Brothers and Lewis Carroll, pitch-black jokes about four-year-old assassins or heroin doctors or TV sets full of lizards, songs like "Party Weirdo" and samples of the Beach Boys, Nik Kershaw and Sade, then I whole-heartedly recommend Blue Jam. It's quite the best thing on radio at the moment, but I doubt Chris Morris will ever be chosen to grace the cover of the Radio Times. More's the pity.

Sue Gaisford returns next week.

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