Radio 4: In a class of its own

The great and good of the BBC have been agonising over claims that Radio 4 is unacceptably middle-class. They are missing the point, says John Walsh: social status has nothing to do with it

A storm in a teacup (not Spode bone china – more John Lewis) has broken out over Radio 4's allegedly excessive bourgeois qualities. It began when Jane Garvey, newly installed as one of the presenters of Woman's Hour, told The Guardian newspaper last Monday, "I think there is a massive middle-class bent to every programme on Radio 4. Find me a programme that isn't."

Duly outraged by this titanic slur on the corporation from one of its own presenters, the newspapers sought a response from Mark Damazer, head of Radio 4. Instead of sacking Ms Garvey for undermining the station, Damazer mildly replied, "'Middle-class' used to be a synonym for certain sets of tastes in such things as music and drinks. What has happened over the past 30 years is that the country has become infinitely more middle-class than it used to be," and, in consequence, "Radio 4 is likely to hit that group a great deal more than any other." But he challenged anyone to suggest that its programmes were only designed for "posh people in the south of England".

And there we were, thinking class warfare was dead. Cue a small flood of retaliatory articles complaining about the boringness of Radio 4 and how brave it is for anyone to come out and say so. "If I mention to someone that I find Radio 4 difficult to listen to at times," wrote the columnist Leo Hickman, "they either look at me as if I've committed a great heresy, think that I'm a bit thick, or celebrate the fact that they have at last found someone to share their own dark secret."

Poor Radio 4. It just goes on its own sweet way, at its own stately pace, a slightly droopy Edwardian figure, and people throw things at it and abuse it behind its back. But do the slurs have sustenance? Is it irretrievably middle-class? Since the end of the 1970s, the term "middle-class" has become so generalised, it has ceased to mean much. But if there is middle-class radio, is there such a thing as "upper-class radio" (what would that sound like?). Perhaps Ms Garvey meant there were too many old-fashioned presenters and announcers using received BBC pronunciation, discussing things in a judicious, school-debating-society way, and not enough shock-jock voices hurling opinions at listeners and demanding a response (but only to fill in time until the next commercial break).

Maybe we would be happier with the words "highbrow" and "lowbrow" – but they're generally used about the arts, and Radio 4 arts coverage isn't anything like as highbrow as Radio 3's. Its excellent flagship arts show, Front Row, is more likely to review Cloverfield or Dot Cotton's performance in EastEnders than to swoon over a Berg opera.

As for Mark Damazer's allusion to "posh people in the south of England", and his denial that his radio station is exclusively for them – by "posh", does he mean well-born, well-off, well-educated or well-spoken, or a combination of all four? The available figures show that Mr Damazer is right. Of the listening audience, 39 per cent are AB1s, high-earning "posh" professionals, 36 per cent are C1s, or medium-rich, junior managers, while the remaining 25 per cent are C2D2s, which should classify them as theoretically too dim to follow the meandering thread of one of Jim Naughtie's questions on Today.

All these findings, however, are beside the point. Radio 4 isn't an organism that evolves in response to consumer demand; it doesn't, by and large, change its essence to woo a radio audience exhausted by the rubbish advertisements on commercial stations, or sated with the footie on Five Live.

Despite Damazer's understandable, baby-boomer fascination with rock '*' roll, and his inspired appointment of smart female voices in key programmes (Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs and Fi Glover on Saturday Live) it's hard to detect many naked attempts to woo younger listeners.

This is crucial to its appeal. Radio 4 has always sounded middle-aged, but intelligently so, like your clever uncle whom you stop regarding as a tragic old git when you grow up and hit 30 and start listening to what he says. Sometimes, it adopts an elderly tone for purposes of humour, with disastrous effect: this week's 10.45am serial is called Daunt and Dervish, a spoof-Miss Marple drama set in 1953 and starring Anna Massey – but it sounds so close to the hushed, elderly tones of much Radio 4 drama, the spoof element was lost. I happened to hear it on Tuesday morning; the afternoon play that day was Saki's Laura (written in 1914) and the Book at Bedtime was Forster's A Room with a View (1910).

What makes Radio 4 unique is not that it caters for a certain age group, or competes for the attention of a certain socio-economic class; its uniqueness lies in its refusal to acknowledge the existence of the outside world except through its own, slightly skewed, perceptional filter.

We can think of Radio 4 as a kind of controlled environment or gated community, a country unto itself, with its own odd rules and behaviour patterns. In RadioFourland, all the female characters in radio plays who aren't explicitly foreigners or prostitutes speak like Shula Archer, the apparent pillar of respectability in The Archers, and any male characters who are not explicitly officer class sound (no matter where they live) like roughneck Cockneys. In RadioFourland, continuity announcers make hesitant, apologetic little jokes about the programme coming up, without ever suggesting that they expect you to laugh; they use words like a butler uses a discreet cough.

Here, the hosts of comedy and quiz shows tend to be in their 80s (Humphrey Lyttleton, Nicholas Parsons) and the audience on Quote Unquote will sound convulsed with glee by the moth-eaten, elderly pleasantries exchanged by Nigel Rees and Simon Brett. Here is the only place on earth where a show called Gardeners' Question Time could find an audience, and where the host pretends, by effortful little jokes about mulch and fertiliser, that this is not a specialist show for horticultural nerds but a programme that everyone can enjoy.

You can tell a new comedy sketch show on Radio 4 because a) no other radio station would bother with it; and b) the dialogue, rather than being funny or even witty, settles for being arch and over-written. RadioFourland is the only place on the map you'd find a weekly programme exclusively devoted to discussions of historical events, scientific discoveries and ancient philosophical cruxes, which is none the less called In Our Time, hosted by a man who never explains why he's invaded your bathroom at 9.03am to ask three academics about the juvenilia of Hermes Trismegistus.

Children find Radio 4 boring because they equate the music and phatic monologue on XFM with entertainment. When they discover the pleasures of good writing and intelligent conversation as they grow older, they discover Radio 4 and become converts. But it has to be said: the station does flirt with boredom and depression.

It has a blithe unconcern for its listeners' attention spans and capacity for downbeat subjects. Shortly after Woman's Hour ceased its long and laudable series on the rights of domestic carers, the show was followed by the jauntily titled Catching up with Cancer. On the day I listened to Radio 4's all-day output, listeners could enjoy File on Four in which "Julian O'Halloran investigates Network Rail's performance on track maintenance and safety checks" at 8pm, closely followed by Case Notes in which "Dr Mark Porter and guests discuss the Department of Health's new infection strategy for England." Disease, death, disability, gloom, technical matters, things going wrong; Radio 4 is half in love with it all.

Who, though, are we kidding? It's precisely the oddness of Radio 4 that we value. The querulous carping tone of You and Yours, or the valetudinarian huffing on Yesterday in Parliament may make you switch channels to Virgin or Magic FM, where you can listen to some music for a while; but the feeling that you might be missing something interesting will always bring you back. There are about 20 Radio 4 shows to which I listen regularly, with such enjoyment that I arrange car rides and shopping trips around them: they include Today, Broadcasting House, The News Quiz, Any Questions, Front Row, Down the Line (and you can tell it's a spoof because the faux-DJ presenter Gary Bellamy has a convincingly chippy Five Live voice, one that would never get a job on Radio 4) A Good Read and anything in which Paul Gambaccini investigates a musical event.

I've become a connoisseur of Woman's Hour (despite being comprehensively hand-bagged by its presenter some years ago) and think Jane Garvey is a beacon of intelligence and sympathy. I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue has left me weeping with laughter on the A303, and I've found myself in unexpected convulsions of hysteria over Count Arthur Strong.

And I have become embroiled in The Archers in a way that, I suspect, rather sums up the Radio 4 audience. I find the theme tune works upon my brain like Chinese water torture. I cannot abide certain characters, such as Matt Crawford, (one of those Cockney rough diamonds on whom the station is so keen) and the ceaselessly sub-hysterical Kathy Perks. But even as I fight against becoming The Sort of Person Who Likes The Archers, I've become drawn like a gasping haddock into nets of story-lines, and am forced to like, or at least appreciate, the characters.

I like the way Jennifer Aldridge always carefully refers to her husband's illegitimate son Ruaridh as "Roo-a-ray", rather than pronounce it "Rory" like her husband – just preserving that little iota of distance between them. Some of me wishes such a detail had not lodged in my brain. But it means a connection of sorts has been made between us and it will not go away.

As the Roman poet Catullus said: "I hate and I love; why I do so, you may well ask."

Lots of Radio 4 fans will confess the same. They love the hours they spend with it, but they'll begrudge having to listen to some less-than-sparkling drama or leaden comedy. But they won't switch channels (or switch off) because it would be like switching off a voice in your head that explains the world or reassures you through the day, and keeps you tuned into the thought processes of your extended family: Uncle John Humphrys, Aunt Martha Kearney, Cousin Paul Merton, Great-Aunt Kate Adie...

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst - High Wycombe - £30,000

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst role...

Guru Careers: Talent Manager

£30-35k (P/T - Pro Rata) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienc...

Sauce Recruitment: New Media Marketing Manager - EMEA - Digital Distribution

£35000 - £45000 per annum + up to £45,000: Sauce Recruitment: The Internation...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing / PR / Social Media Executive

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A thriving online media busines...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor