Peter York On Ads: John Peel is dead. Long live the fish supper

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The Independent Online

Home Truths, Radio 4's old John Peel Saturday morning show, revealed there was a whole breed of ur-middle class people as listeners, people who obviously kept the nation going. (Now Peel's gone, they're axing the show.) The core constituency was educated, provincial, middle class and deeply unfashionable family people who told cheerful or sad stories with a touch of that 1970s "Your Song" Simon Bates strand on Radio 2. The wonderful thing about these hugely optimistic people was the shared frame of reference. The mustn't-grumble self-deprecation that ran from teenagers to people in their seventies. Where on earth did they find them? (Norwich? Carlisle?) And are they endangered?

The Home Truths world seems utterly impervious to smart mockery. Its members - many of them working in the public sector and institutions - go on doing good, visiting friends in New Zealand and raising money for brown babies, whatever anyone in Primrose Hill says.

They liked Peel for the way he talked; for his ability to reference a sort of British world view - the style and vocabulary of a middle-brow newspaper humorist of the 1950s. It was fascinating to see Peel, a former public-school hippie with an assumed Liverpool drone and a history in the London media and music world, become Suffolk Dad and a one-man speech museum for whom every job was "gainful employment" and every walk a "perambulation in a northerly direction". We heard about Peel acres, about the Mrs, about the children and their friends and about JP's increasing age, unfashionableness and ancient jerseys. It was deeply, deeply reassuring. Out there, in the real world of subfusc provincial middle-class people - Peel, as always was being a bit disingenuous - life goes on and our deepest British rhythms re-assert themselves.

But Home Truths is going and so is that weird Radio 4 theme tune - a collage of once-familiar fragments like "Men of Harlech", "Scotland the Brave", "Rule Britannia" and "What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor?", put together by a European wartime refugee, Fritz Spiegl. It was typical of the old rag-bag culture-in-common: we've got tags from Shakespeare and the Bible, shared associations with place-names - Basingstoke (funny), Cardiff (big port, Shirley Bassey) - and London landmarks, and shared experiences of public-sector suppliers such as the Post Office or the Gas Board.

Now everything is privatised and globalised - and most of it unimaginably better - we've lost a lot of that connective tissue, the bric-à-brac of reference. You can't assume that anyone in our national life - except possibly Jordan - is universally known.

Nor that anyone has the faintest idea what to do with a drunken sailor. Drunk girls in Nottingham city centre, of course, but sailors, once so central, have almost disappeared from the national conversation. Working on the sea, in the Navy, the merchant navy or as a fisherman, once connected you to the heart of the economy - to shipbuilding on the Clyde or Tyneside, or fish-gutting in Grimsby or Hull. Working on the sea meant you had a Noel Coward play about you (In Which We Serve) or a John Grierson documentary. Or it got you reviewed by Their Majesties at Spithead. But now the romance of the sea means a yacht on the Hamble or the Rick Stein experience - elective, marginal consumer stuff.

Young's new commercial (I'm not really sure I can remember them advertising on TV before) does the romance of the sea at full tilt. It's all about fish, and Young's getting 60 species from 30 countries just for us. They start with heart-tugging film of a trawler breasting a hugely heaving green glass sea with a cloud of seabirds following. I'm on for that. From Stornoway to Stoke they say. The Stoke end of things looks like breaded scampi in a basket. Then they've got Speyside - looking glamorously under populated - to Spalding, where it's smoked salmon on the plate. Then, more exotically, things go from the Maldives - looking colourful - to Manchester. It's that staple of Manchester Central bar country, seared tuna steak. Young's brings it all to your table, via Grimsby. And Grimsby, normally somewhat dour, conspires to look lovely in an aerial shot; a coast full of lights and towers.

"Make fish the dish of the day," they urge. The music track is one of those pipes-and-cello Radio 4 sounds. It looks glorious and it plays every Ancient British seafaring heartstring going, but you can't see it getting to first base with the Talk Radio listener.