Platform 3: `Week Ending', the end of humour as we know it

Laugh? I merely sighed. But it serves me right for listening to Week Ending, Radio 4's only regular satire show. I can't believe it's not better.

Week Ending is the comedy show that's too important to be funny. Instead of jokes, it has laughless rants about pollution, or poems about homelessness so sad that they bring a lunch to your throat.

And its lame-brain anecdotes and witless quips are just the tip of the ice-cube: the programme even breeds its own legends, notably those famous Wednesday brainstorming sessions at Broadcasting House, when the gagsters meet to polish their punchlines in a process that recalls the old puzzle about what lesbians do in bed - how can they polish what they haven't got?

Horrifyingly, instead of ending this Friday, its run has been extended so that it can be Radio 4's chief comedy outlet for the general election.

"I don't like it," agrees Roy Hudd, who returns next week to show how election satire should be done. About to start its 42nd season, The News Huddlines on Radio 2 is Britain's best radio comedy on Britain's most popular radio station.

The secret is managing change. Radio 1's gear-crunching continues to lose listeners and fascinate the press. At Radio 4, it's even worse: who would dare to move any of that famous furniture in the face of a Home Counties uprising by leather-elbowed ex-mandarins and their stick-shaking wives? They terrify the local gymkhana and they'd terrify you.

But Radio 2 (home of Huddlines) has gentler listeners. They're older, more down-market, mostly female, wear floral dresses, and abandon the station with only a discreet popping of clogs. That's why gummy Radio 2 can suck the bullet by, for instance, waving goodbye to the Jamesons in two weeks' time. No wonder it effortlessly attracts listeners and has usurped Radio 1 as the country's biggest station.

Indeed, now that the demographic bulge of baby-boomers is ageing gently into Radio 2 territory, its figures will keep on rising. Yes, sooner or later, the cream of British OAPs will be rocking to "Anarchy in the UK", as Jimmy Young prepares his latest segment about prostate problems.

"Sod and bugger," says Huddlines script editor Tony Hare, listing the latest naughty words he's been allowed to use. "And there was a time when we wouldn't portray the Queen. But we've just been winding up June Whitfield [who portrays all the royal females] by having Her Majesty say `fart'."

Next week, Radio 2 further belies its cred-free reputation by following its hiring of Steve Wright with a show for Whispering Bob Harris, best known for flapping his flares on such college rock programmes as Whistle Test, where he launched the likes of the Eagles and Steely Dan.

Over at Radio 4, by contrast, the mediocrity of Week Ending blithely defies the years. Harry Thompson, who has since become famous for such television hits as Have I Got News For You, was script editor for BBC Radio Light Entertainment way back in 1989, when I first complained about its awfulness.

"It has the potential to be very good," he said, displaying the kind of politico-speak that has carried him so far up the BBC hierarchy. "But it has to be monitored very closely because people do it week in and week out, and it's very easy for professional writers to dash off a sketch using one of the two or three identikit Week Ending formats."

And they still do.

"Week Ending has no house style," is the crisp explanation of Richard Stoneman, self-styled "gag doctor" for The News Huddlines.

Huddlines script editor Tony Hare agrees. "Week Ending is discouraging for writers because they keep changing the producer. We don't, so Huddlines has a stronger identity. People assume we're the same as Week Ending but with knob jokes. They soon discover they're wrong and give up one or the other."

Jokes are what make the difference. Complain to Week Ending people and they'll sooner or later say that it's the UK's greatest training ground for comedy, giving newcomers a unique access to the airwaves. They don't explain why licence-payers should listen to novices with more opinions than wit.

Huddlines pays the same as Week Ending (around pounds 30 to pounds 45 per minute, or pounds 8 each for one-liners, not forgetting the 65p repeat fee) and is equally welcoming to newcomers. But it rejects mere political opinionising and demands jokes.

"Both programmes are rare because you can turn up and start your career on them," says "gag doctor" Stoneman. "But Huddlines insists that you're funny. People have tried to write for us and Week Ending, but they've never managed it."

"I've always insisted there must be belly laughs," agrees Hudd. "There can be a point, but there must always be a joke. And, yes, it is end-of- the-pier stuff - but with modern material."

A visit to a Huddlines recording at Broadcasting House reveals exactly the audience profile you'd expect - the same cackling crones familiar from Mrs Merton's soirees, who display the grisly perkiness last seen in the insurance adverts on daytime TV. But Radio 2 is surfing into the future on their grey permanent waves, and the Huddlines will be right alongside.

"I look forward to greeting the new century in the company of the wonderful News Huddlines," says sunny Jim Moir, boss of Radio 2. Like him, we should meanwhile monitor the election via Roy Hudd and the Huddlines team.

The writer is a freelance radio critic.