THE CRITICS : B is for BBC, Birtism and Blandness - it's enough to make you Boyle over

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Indy Lifestyle Online
YOUR name doesn't have to begin with B to rise to the upper echelons of the BBC, but it might help. Two Bs who've made it to the top appeared on Today (R4) this week: one of them seems really promising.

James Boyle is the new Controller of R4, a job described by Michael Green, his excellent predecessor, as the best in broadcasting. Today's producer decided to make the interview a kind of ad hoc fax-in, using listeners' questions to elicit the intentions of the new boy. This was appropriate, as Boyle had said on the previous evening's PM (R4) that what listeners want is what will end up on the network. He responded well.

He made no pretence of knowing it all in advance, nor any attempt to duck the issues. Two remarks in particular made sweet music: on the vexed question of endless cricket on long-wave, he uttered the immortal words: "If listeners are saying there is a problem, I'm going to tend to believe them"; then he identified intelligence as the most important characteristic of R4, adding that intelligence on radio is expensive, but it's something we have to defend.

Only gently simmering as yet, Boyle has not suffered the contamination of Birtism. Alas, on the evidence of Today, the same could not be said of the new chairman. Twice, Christopher Bland failed to answer James Naughtie's question about why there had been such a failure to consult the people who really know about the World Service before announcing radical changes. Nor did he explain why cutting jobs at the BBC is considered admirable, whatever the consequences. Bland indeed, and distressingly smug. John Birt, meanwhile, had that day received a heavy pay-rise: "He's worth every penny," declared his chairman, firmly. Funny, when I think of Birt and Bland, the names Burke and Hare spring to mind.

As for the World Service champion, John Tusa, Bland airily dismissed him as "out of touch with radio", perhaps unaware that Tusa's series 20/20 A View of the Century has just won a Programme of the Year prize. Tusa is also involved in broadcasting educational programmes all over Russia. Interviewed earlier on Today, he put forward precise, cogent, moral and economic arguments for keeping the World Service in its present form. Out of touch? I don't think so.

It was a particularly vocal element in the R4 audience that forced Gerry Anderson off his daily magazine programme, now renamed The Afternoon Shift (R4) and presented by Laurie Taylor and Daire Brehan. It has been steadily improving. Brehan, particularly, is a fine, dispassionate interviewer, allowing their guests ample time to air their views and unobtrusively bringing them back to the point when they wander. She had no trouble with Peter France (an old Kaleidoscope hand) and psychiatrist Anthony Storr. They were discussing the virtues of solitude. France, who has just written a book about hermits, was speaking from his own hideout on the island of Patmos. Not everyone benefits from isolation, was their conclusion, but, if you can manage it for a bit and you weren't too miserable to start with, it can do you a power of good; more surprisingly, it can make you more useful to people who seek your help. I was right there with Brehan at the end, when she sighed to have just 10 minutes alone with her inner continuum.

Those lucky souls with the foresight to have booked years ago are currently enjoying eremetical solitude in the MacDowell Artists' Colony (R3) in New England. Here they can spend all day alone in dainty, remote little cabins (though one, rather alarmingly, was called Cirrhosis - at least that's what it sounded like). Lunch is brought to them in flower-bedecked baskets and they are free to attend their muses. Hell, with that kind of service, even I could be Bernstein or Thoreau: couldn't you?

Suzanne Levy produced this, and other tempting little vignettes from the fringes of the Tanglewood Festival, summer showcase of the Boston Philharmonic. Introduced by the urbane Humphrey Burton, Tanglewood made for gorgeous listening. I kept it on in our kitchen all weekend, and was delighted to catch several gems, like Frederica von Stade describing the thrill she feels at the beginning of Mozart's overture to The Marriage of Figaro, when she relives the days of playing the lovesick Cherubino, adjusting her wig and buckling her shoes as her heart lifted with each busy, imperious arpeggio.

That was a moment from White Ties and Red Sox (R3), an irreverent but extremely informative history of the orchestra - the kind of thing Burton does so well. Geoffrey Smith was the perfect complement to Burton, equally knowledgeable but even more laid-back as he introduced a special Jazz Record Requests (R3), in which predominantly classical musicians like Andre Previn let their hair down and enjoyed themselves.

Besides several magnificent live concerts, Tanglewood was the excuse for some unexpected talks: in If I Die in a Combat Zone (R3) Michael Goldfarb spoke to the novelist Tim O'Brien, who lives near Boston, about how he coped with his memories of fighting in Vietnam; in fiction he finds that he can come closer to the truth than "straight" autobiography would allow. Contrasting accounts of the massacre at My Lai proved his point, searingly.

She Learned it from a Bird (R3) was a quaint and charming piece. Christopher Cook went to a tiny Shaker community and discovered the canary who, with his avian ancestors, inspired Shaker songs - which have now reached a level of popularity equal to the chanting monks and the three tiresome tenors. It was an idyll of simple delight. And then suddenly, gosh, there was Zoe Heller talking about engines.

You're on Car Talk (R3) examined an extraordinary phenomenon: two brothers who run a garage and host a phone-in about old cars, a show so popular that it is syndicated across the whole country. Heller went to see then and they had a good laugh about it all - in fact several. Though the show provides useful mechanical tips, its appeal is not primarily practical. Callers imitate the sighing and sobbing coming from a steering-wheel and, during diagnosis, the brothers find plenty to chortle about in the banter they generate. They are like twin laughing policemen and their callers love it. So, apparently, did Heller. So did I. I wonder what Birt and Bland made of it all.