The Critics: Radio: International relations are the heart of the World Service
Sunday 22 February 1998
If you spend a week listening exclusively to the World Service, this is the kind of thing you hear. It was Tuesday's Wildtrack, all about Janice and four other lemurs who had travelled from their birthplace in America to be released into the rain-forests of Madagascar. And not a moment too soon. Apparently, the native population is so small, they are urgently in need of new blood: given what passes for normal among lemurs, we can't have them becoming in-bred.
The day before, an ever more elusive creature was cornered high in his mountain fastness by Simon Pitts for Meridian. Robert Redford doesn't give many interviews and seemed uneasy at first. But Pitts was genial without being sycophantic, asking easy film questions and eventually suggesting that he was a spiritual man. Redford was reassuringly dismissive of new- agey incense and wind-chimes, but said that he drew great strength from the wild Utah landscape. Like Janice, he fights to preserve his territory: "We're trying to keep it pure - it's not easy. It's almost like a war- zone, but a peaceful one, and it's a battle worth fighting."
Such words have ominous resonance this week. Sunday's International Question Time bit the bullet. An impressive panel of John Pilger, the Ugandan writer Vincent Magombe and Unicef director Carol Bellamy answered questions from Madras and Sydney, Spain and Norway, Japan, Prague, America and Antigua. Just to write such a list is curiously comforting. The world is not, despite the propaganda, dividing itself into furious hostile factions. It contains thoughtful, concerned and astonishingly similar people, brought together, in this case, by their common respect for the integrity and reliability of the World Service.
They were nearly all worried about double standards in international affairs - in Nigeria and Indonesia as well as in the Gulf. Pilger's cynicism was so bleak that Sheena McDonald, in the chair, asked him had he ever considered trying to do a positive job like Bellamy's: he had not. Anxiety about the situation in Iraq began and ended this instructive hour, with Magombe railing against those who seek to teach us not to kill by killing and Bellamy expressing a firm, if desperate, reliance on diplomacy: "There are no good guys in all this. No more lives should be lost because of it." Hear, hear. And then this sombre mood was lifted as an announcer, with typical WS sang-froid, introduced International Recital: a concert of Arabic classical music.
The wide-angle lens of the WS taught me a good deal during the week - about the Iranian international film festival in On Screen; about how to describe a setting in The Art of Writing and about the Italian Renaissance in Michael Diamond's ambitious serial Civilisation (did you know that Titian was rewarded by Charles V with titles, gold chains, pensions, forests and the right to legitimise bastards?). Though it sometimes doesn't strike you until later, benign WS didacticism is nearly always present - even Westway concerns a mixed community in microcosm.
Set in a west London health centre, Westway features a white female senior doctor with one white male and one black female partner. There is an Asian practice manager and two receptionists, one black, one white. Set out like that, it looks too PC to be tolerable, but these are exceptionally rounded characters and the soap is so well-produced and written that, in the space of a few months, it has become seriously addictive. Storylines include an absconding teenager, an asylum-seeker from Colombia, a racist malingerer and an abused pregnant girl. My only criticism of it is that real surgeries involve a lot more uneventful thumbing through ancient magazines in a miasma of other people's germs - but on second thoughts, I don't really need to hear any more about boring colds and mysterious tummy-aches.
The final fanfare in this unashamed paean of praise is for the WS drama department. This week has seen performances of the first two prize-winners in the 1997 International Playwriting Competition - which attracted an astonishing 1200 entries. Lisa Schlesinger's Rock Ends Ahead was about the gentle love between Boone, a lonely and neglected 15-year-old, and Joey, a car mechanic, electronically tagged for a first offence. It's not hard for a good guy to get caught doin sumpn bad, as the priest remarks, what's hard is ketchn the bad guys doin sumpn bad. Funny, lyrical and full of yearning fantasy, it was luminously beautiful.
And the runner-up was as good. Stephanie McCarthy's Bird in the Camellia Tree was about the effects of war. The Japanese imprisoned her grandmother and crippled her mother; Vietnam destroyed the sanity of her uncle - but it is her Japanese friend who saves the life of young, orphaned Mariana. There's the lesson: once again, we must rely on our common humanity. Subtly produced, its effect was unforgettable - very positive, very inspiring. Very World Service.
The World Service can be found overnight on R4 frequencies and at other times on SW 6.195, 9.410 or on MW 648. 'Westway' is on Tues, Thurs & Fri, with an omnibus on Sat at 7pm.
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