Radio review

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It has been a long year - 1997, that is; 1998 has so far been a comparatively short one, though that situation seems set to change over the coming months - and the world of radio has had its full quota of thrills and amazements, from James Boyle's announcement that Radio 4 programmes would all be abolished and replaced by something similar, only better (an idea adapted by the Labour Party, with startling success, for its election manifesto), to Chris Evans's sudden purchase of Virgin Radio and subsequent appointment of his horse as director of programmes.

What with all the walk-outs, buy-outs, rows, deals, and Mark Radcliffe bobbing up and down the Radio 1 schedules, it's been hard to pay attention to the programmes themselves.

And the effort hasn't always been repaid. On Radio 4, in particular, there has been a dearth of interesting new features, and a dispiriting glut of rehashed old features, generally featuring Barbie dolls, Darwinian insights into human psychology, or the undertaker-poet Thomas Lynch. Meanwhile, the regular magazine programmes - Woman's Hour, The Afternoon Shift, Kaleidoscope - have seemed irradiated with tedium: you want to decontaminate yourself after listening.

Hence the surprisingly unindignant response to Mr Boyle's slash-and-burn scheduling philosophy.

Elsewhere at the BBC, though, things have been looking more cheerful. During the brief interlude when Mark and Lard were occupying the breakfast slot - admittedly not the best showcase for their talents - Radio 1 had the most creative and satisfying line-up it's ever seen. Then again, Zoe Ball.

Radio 2 is Radio 2, and there's nothing you or I can do to stop it, but the evening schedules have become increasingly bold and challenging, with some really quite clever and witty programmes popping up in odd corners. Then again, Steve Wright's Sunday Lovesongs.

Radio 3's musical presentation, still chasing after that ignis fatuus "accessibility", has got lost in the decaying swamp of inane cheerfulness. But speech output has been outstanding: the Sunday afternoon feature and the nightly post-concert strand have scored repeatedly, while Night Waves, a programme that once suffered terrible reception problems due to being transmitted from somewhere up its own backside, has pulled itself out of that hole with aplomb.

The facile logic behind Radio 5's existence was shown up by Princess Diana's death: what's the point of having 24-hour rolling news when you're going to blank out every other channel? Still, it has given a voice to a blokey, intelligent sort of person who hasn't had one before. Few of the independent stations offer such a sharply defined alternative to the other BBC networks - the notable and oddly lovable exception being Talk Radio UK, whose persistent advocacy of many brands of loopiness has at times made The X Files look like a particularly sober edition of Panorama.

In the end, though, the radio highlights of 1997 were all BBC programmes, and mostly broadcast on Radio 4. The exception was Blue Jam, Chris Morris's seething mix of music and heartless comedy on Radio 1. It had something of the same remorselessness, the same refusal to let the listener off the hook, that marked out my favourite drama, Bill Bryden's noisy version of Alistair MacLean's existential navy lark HMS Ulysses.

Documentary needs to be kinder than this. The best factual series was Noah Richler's In Paradise, a rich, eccentric exploration of how garden design and eschatology overlap in a variety of cultures, which showed an exceptional eagerness to understand other points of view.

And the best single documentary was Matt Thompson's Touching the Elephant, in which four blind people were invited to visit the zoo and discover what an elephant felt like: an acute investigation of how we perceive things, it was, inexplicably, deeply moving. If 1998 comes up with another programme as good, it won't have been a wasted year.

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