The agony and the ideal aunt

RADIO

Last Sunday was clearly excruciating for Radio 4's James Naughtie, struggling to contain his own shock at what had happened while getting on with the nightmarish job of telling the rest of us. "The death this morning in a car crash of Diana, Princess of Wales", "The death this morning in a car crash of Diana, Princess of Wales ..." Yes, yes, Jim - now give us something else to take our minds off it. Of course, it was hardly his fault that he had nothing else to give.

"My first thought this morning was a sort of disbelief ..." Thus agony auntie Anna Raeburn opened Red Letter Day (Talk Radio), a Sunday-lunchtime phone-in normally dedicated to gobbets of good news. And, oh that the printed word could do justice to Anna's stunning coloratura performance. She was crisp and superhumanly tender, like Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins. As sorrowful as "Feed the Birds", as sensible as "A Spoonful of Sugar". As empathetic as the "Chim-Chiminy" lament; as operatic, and yet as deeply felt.

An Asian-sounding woman was sobbing so much she could hardly speak. She mentioned a "conspiracy" to "get rid" of Diana, and something about Montserrat, and something about "forgive me, but I am not sure". "This is only conjecture," Anna riposted, her voice all round and sweet and firm. "I don't think this was more or less than a tragic accident." When another caller complained about how Diana's mother was "never there for her", Anna bracingly responded - "The difficulty is, we make Diana younger than she is. You must remember, she was 36 years old."

But our heroine was pushing herself so heroically, she did start taking off into orbit. A building-site worker called to say how worried he was about "the boys". "I'm sure," trilled Anna, kindly, but - let's face - nonsensically - "the building-sites are all the better for having you." And how about the following for a well-meant tribute gone odd? "She ran out of lipstick, she ran out of patience. She ran out of hair dye. But she never ran out of love."

From Monday onwards, programming sort of went back to normal, with a bewildering behind-the-scenes flurry as shows were vetted and recut. The News Huddlines (R2), being topical satire, was dropped until next week. "Dead or Alive?", Simon Mayo's tacky quiz feature on his Radio 1 show, was also dropped temporarily. (Who's that spoilsport I hear wistfully wondering if they will forget to pick it up?) On Midweek (R4), Frieda Hughes, artist, poet and the daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, contributed one of her verses, dedicated to Diana's sons. "Wanting to breathe life into their own dead babies, they took her dreams/ Collected words from one who did their suffering for them ..." OK, so it wasn't the best poem ever. But it did come from a woman well qualified to know whereof she spake.

It was bad luck for Three Writers in Search of a Character (R4) that this new light-historical series began its run last week. Not that the first programme - discussing, would you believe it, the passionate, sexually eager young woman who lurked beneath the "old tea-cosy figure" of Queen Victoria - was distasteful, because it wasn't at all. But it did get rather swamped. No matter how hard you tried to think about Victoria, the image of another eager young demi-Royal just kept popping up.

According to Elizabeth Longford, Victoria was never on record as having said, "We are not amused" at all. "In fact, she was writing throughout her journals, 'We are very much amused indeed'." Jeremy Brock, who wrote the script of the new film Mrs Brown (reviewed on page 11), found these diaries a fabulous, gushing read. "She italicised everything and repeated herself endlessly: her coronation was the 'best day in her life', and then her trip to Crystal Palace was the 'best day in her life' as well. I like people like that." Dorothy Thompson, the venerable feminist historian, couldn't help but like Victoria too. "I grew up in a republican family, but when you get up close, you are driven to admire and respect her. No individual should have the power she had. But given that she had it, she did a remarkably good job."

Yesterday morning, the whole BBC radio network broadcast Diana's funeral as one. Then the channels went their separate ways again, each in its own fashion edging off from full-scale grief-in and back to everyday life. Radio 1 continued with a gently toned-down playlist. Top requests last week were "Everybody Hurts" by REM, "Missing" by Everything But the Girl, and Puff Daddy's "I'll Be Missing You".

Amid the calls for everyone to stop buying tabloid newspapers forever, a caller on Thursday's Outlook (World Service) suggested a different plan. "Hello Barbara, I think of you as my sister," Hector from Goa began. "But the World Service is being cut, and it is a pity you did not recruit Diana to this cause." A caller from Peru added his voice to the campaign to ban all landmines in lasting memory of Diana's humanitarian work. "Our borders are littered with them," he added, matter-of-factly.

In a week in which virtually all our domestic media went even more inward- looking than usual, it was strange to be so reminded that a world outside this stunned but self-absorbed little country continues to exist.

Sue Gaisford returns next week.

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