Radio: What a boring bunch of bankers
Sunday 21 June 1998
If I've lost you already, I've only R4 to blame. However they try (and oh how they try): teams of funky accountants and dingbat bankers exchanging their Tricks of the Trade are never going to be compelling lunchtime listening (or, you'd imagine, amusing to a studio audience - unless frog- marched off the street, doused in brandy and promised a fiver per laugh). What are R4 commissioners playing at? I'm sure Nigel Cassidy is charming but if his old Board Game was dire, why did they think it worth re-inventing in an even more frightful formula? However often Cassidy racily asks to see the size of accountants' assets or suggests that bankers seasonally adjust their figures, the enterprise is doomed.
Just as we were warily adjusting to the revised schedule, it changed. At least four new programmes have appeared without fanfare, and this second eleven is marginally worse than the first. Take Under One Roof (R4). Take it to Beachy Head and drop it off. This mini-serial has replaced Postcards, a patchy handful of doomy seaside sagas which in turn replaced the truly great Woman's Hour serial. It is, unbelievably, repeated every evening. It concerns three generations of women sharing a London house. The grandmother is plain horrible, the grand-daughter makes Kate Aldridge of The Archers seem like a sweet girl, and the long-suffering mother (whose voice is, unaccountably, much posher than the others) grumbles glumly on, loathing them both. It's not a patch on After Henry, though the formula is similar, and it makes this listener (as you see) very bad-tempered.
Happily the news is not all bad. While The Candidate takes a break, it is replaced by A Hard Act to Follow (R4) in which the excellent Diana Madill talked, this week, to Liz Allen, the young journalist who stepped bravely into the shoes of the murdered Irish crime reporter Veronica Guerin. The questioning was close but not intrusive, and Allen made it clear that, while she is distinctly different from her predecessor, she admires and defends her - and aspires to her courage.
And Who Goes There? (R4), replacing Quote ... Unquote on Fridays, made a good start, largely thanks to the benign influence of Miles Kington's relaxed serendipity. It's a proper unrehearsed quiz, depending on good humour and minimal showing-off, in which Martin Young asks contestants to identify historical characters by means of clues like pseudonyms. One of these was Emily Charlotte le Breton, which proved to be the real name of Lily Langtry. To everyone's surprise Francis Wheen, a panel-member, is descended from her. As Kington remarked, it's not often that a man comes on to a programme to learn something about his great-aunt.
It was preceded by What's in a Name? (R4), a delightful one-off by Lynne Truss. Geoffrey Palmer played a memorable hermit-crab in one of her earlier monologues and this time he brought the same lugubrious and aggrieved melancholy to the character of Hopkins, an elderly taxonomist. It was really an excuse for glorying in the exotic names bestowed upon various creatures, like the Satanic-Eared Nightjar, the Furtive Fly-Catcher and the Hawaiian 'o'u. Zoological nomenclature is, after all, the oldest profession, says Hopkins, quoting Genesis. In the end, the tiny arachnid he has been struggling to name becomes, gratifyingly, the Hopkins Tick.
This was the kind of programme you catch halfway through and wish you could re-wind. Theodore Zeldin would like someone to devise a radio that would do just that. He was imagining useful inventions on The Brains Trust (R3), the old Third Programme stalwart which returned last night. It was marvellous - civilised, intelligent and serious. Joan Bakewell took the chair with polite authority and the panel - Zeldin, Ben Okri, Angela Tilby and Steven Rose - did their damnedest to answer huge questions as honestly as they possibly could. Okri in particular was dazzlingly, poetically fluent in his response to "Can you know what love is without experiencing it?"
To descend at speed to bathos: the answer is yes, even if you're geriatric. I'm not sure what Prunella Scales was doing presenting Late-Flowering Love (R2), but she had trouble keeping irony at bay as she read stuff like this: "When we are 17, we go weak at the knee at the flutter of an eyelash or the flex of a muscle." Pass the bucket, as my daughters would respond. Ah well, roll on senile sex, but preferably without syrup and Sinatra.
The best thing on R2 was Fruit Tree - the Nick Drake Story, a thoughtful, touching tribute to a singer-songwriter who killed himself at 26 but who has - rightly - grown posthumously into a cult hero. And the best thing on the World Service - probably the best anywhere this week - was The Sinking of the Lancastria, about the worst naval disaster in British history, worse than the Titanic and the Lusitania, which left 5,000 people dead.
This vast ship was taking soldiers and civilians away from Brest in June 1940 when she was bombed. A survivor spoke of a huge mast, parallel to the water, from which he dived; others remembered the sickening smell - was it cordite? Oil? Fear? One man, a child at the time, had been dumped on a heap of corpses until his mother's screams persuaded the authorities to work on resuscitating him. Chillingly, at the end, Churchill's memoirs of the incident were quoted. He had not, he wrote, announced the disaster as the time, in the interests of morale. And later: "I had intended to release the news, but ... I forgot."
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