Radio: Why Boyle should learn to love the golden oldies

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Once upon a time, the British loved the Royal Family unconditionally. Newspapers nourished this affection, within rules as decorous and defined as a gavotte. On This Day (R4) dipped a toe into that pre-tabloid enthusiasm to recreate the atmosphere leading up to the wedding of Princess Elizabeth.

There's a mildly guilty pleasure in listening to this well-researched series. It has the sweet, irresponsible charm of nostalgia for an elusive time just beyond memory, just after history. Listening, I remembered switching on the television a year or two ago, and catching a moment from a Forties film: a plucky little woman was apologising for her shoddy house. "Eh nah," said her visitor robustly, "shebbeh, maybeh, but shoddeh nevah." On This Day doesn't aspire to those vowel sounds, but it captures the emotions: "Brightly coloured bunting fluttered from the buildings," said Geoffrey Wheeler "and red, white and blue ribbons were waved merrily by child and adult alike ... tip-toe with expectancy." Is it words like "tip- toe" and "merrily", or just the careful sentence structure that seems so quaint?

But there's more to it than that. It finds people who were there, whose own memories constitute living archives. The message they delivered this week was, surprisingly, that the royals were less stuffy 50 years ago than you might have thought. At the wedding, out of sight of the crowds, the bride and groom gave each other a big hug, and her father, the King, stepped out of line to help a struggling page-boy heave the bride's great train around a monster candlestick.

The indispensable Godfrey Talbot noticed those endearing aberrations, but the star witness was Mabel Friend. She'd had the devil of a job boiling cocoons to produce 20 pounds of silk for the dress - while her factory manager, Major Field-Bibb, played his bagpipes for encouragement. Mabel was rewarded with a better seat in the Abbey than visiting royalty and relished talking about it, as she probably has for half a century. There's nothing new about Tony Blair's espousal of the people's cause: the people were always there.

Gavin Fuller, the producer, found other couples married that year, including one golden groom who'd thoroughly enjoyed pig's-cheek sandwiches and trifle for his wedding breakfast. And an outrider in the Household Cavalry talked of spending weeks leading up to the royal wedding bashing biscuit tins at his horse, to get it used to the polite huzzahs of the 1947 crowd.

I've dwelt on it because the series is due to disappear when the new R4 schedule comes in. James Boyle promises us other history programmes to replace it, but I can't be the only listener who will miss this. Perhaps he might reconsider?

Incidentally, the Golden Wedding day started on R4 with a truly frightful Prayer For the Day. Canon Stephen Oliver saw fit to mention his own bad-tempered attempts to escape confetti on his wedding day, and recommended a colleague's custom of sending his wife an anniversary card bearing the message So Far So Good - for 35 years. How do their wives tolerate them? Perhaps Canon Oliver thought he didn't have to try too hard at 6.30am, that nobody would be listening. But we were.

Now let's escape from this gloomy November - into the outback - though there was precious little comfort in Mean Times Australia (R4). This was the story of Harold Lasseter who went prospecting for gold - and said he'd found it - but died of starvation in the desert. Again, this story had the authenticity of real witness. Lasseter's diary - more touching even than Captain Scott's - was found near his body. "Teach the children to believe the best of their father," he wrote to his wife - and his son has spent most of his 70 years trying to find that gold and redeem his father's reputation. By the end, Lasseter was writing that he'd rather have a loaf of bread than all the gold in the world.

Rick Stein might have felt the same. He went to Australia to judge a Best Restaurant competition: he came back fat. His was the first entry in a new series of Dear Diary (R4) - supposedly an audio journal. He'd clearly written it on planes and only got to read it aloud when safely home.

If you think it must have been a jammy assignment, I think he'd disagree. To be wooed by restaurateurs desperate to enliven your jaded palate meant consuming vast portions of kangaroo (tasting, he opined, as if it had been soaked in blood, yeuh), pink rubber emu, shark-lip and sheep's-neck faggots, washed down with a wine called Mad Fish Bay White. Even Dame Edna never offers her unfortunate guests anything quite as horrid: just hearing about it induced nausea. He gave the prize to a dish of liver and bacon which, by then, seemed bland as nursery tea.

So: no joy in Australia. Let's try the wilds of Africa, setting for Postcards from the Swamp (R4), Yana Stajno's second radio play. Her first, The Venus Bar, was wild, but this was wilder. She constructs plots which compare impressively with the labyrinth of Knossos for intricacy and her imagination makes spectacular use of the freedom of this most liberating medium: she's also very funny.

This time, she sent her hapless heroes into a landscape of charging hippos, man-eating crocodiles and powerful, evil plotters. James Wilby played Henry Kadence, a divorce lawyer hopelessly besotted with the manipulative Gloria Ransome. He persuades an innocent, short-sighted naturalist called Kate Tuft (Sarah Jane Holm, sounding and behaving just like Shula Archer) to replace Gloria on a trip to Manzigovanga swamp. Alas, Kate is the author of learned articles on the breeding habits of the common shoveller while Gloria is the type to have crossed the Khyber Pass on a donkey, in a blizzard, with a broken pelvis. Happily, if improbably, they survive, save the planet and fall in love. You could even enjoy ironing with a play like this to distract you.

Finally, back half a century again, to Michael Holroyd's boyhood, when he went with his aunt's mobile library delivering selected romances to prisoners of war. Tales from the Stacks (R3) celebrated the hey-day of public libraries, when middle-class ladies would lightly roast their books, against the germs. They'd better catch Holroyd for On This Day, while there's still time.

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