Radio: A magic box that's full of surprises

Click to follow
The Independent Online

If you were trying to describe the medium of radio to someone who had never come across it, you might find yourself groping for the image of a vast attic, or lumber-room, full of odd cupboards and boxes. Some are stuffed full of nasty tat; some look promising at first, but disappoint on further investigation. But a surprising number of the lids and doors open to reveal something entrancing, even magical.

If you were trying to describe the medium of radio to someone who had never come across it, you might find yourself groping for the image of a vast attic, or lumber-room, full of odd cupboards and boxes. Some are stuffed full of nasty tat; some look promising at first, but disappoint on further investigation. But a surprising number of the lids and doors open to reveal something entrancing, even magical.

The natural rhythms of radio are what make it lodge in the heart. You could even say that a test of whether or not a new series will last is if it sounds as though it has always been there. Look at the way that Radio 4's Dead Ringers, and Old Harry's Game, with Andy Hamilton as a sardonic but vulnerable Satan,have the same quality of deep-rooted comic weirdness that permeates the more ancient I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. Longevity, though, is no good unless it is matched with invention and energy. Look at Just a Minute, and how it has started curling at the edges, or The Moral Maze, which has gone from being interestingly loathsome to merely dull.

Eccentricity can sometimes be a substitute for content, as the well-polished surrealism of Wogan, Peel and those wildly irritating men from Veg Talk regularly prove. But the best radio has a captivating strangeness that hangs in the air long after it's finished. From the past year, a mosaic of marvellous fragments still jostles in the brain: shamanic drumming, chosen by the explorer Hugh Brody in Private Passions (R3); Robert Fox's choice of music to report wars to, from Reporter's Notes (R4); the extraordinary acoustics of early architecture on Sounds of the Stone Age (R4), and the crystalline sound of boys' voices reverberating against stone in Choral Evensong (R3).

Then there was the talk: Jeanette Winterson's trenchant honesty on Devout Sceptics (R4), proving that you don't have to be asked a good question to deliver a brilliant answer; Tracey Emin, giving John Humphrys an unprecedented duffing-up in On the Ropes (R4); the memories, part-poignant, part-pungent, of former conscripts in Charles Wheeler's remarkable series about National Servicemen (R4); and the grace notes – Radio 4's new and wholly inspired habit of running miniature, 10- or 15-minute series on a theme throughout a week. The ones on friendship ( A Friend for Life) and what Disney did to familiar stories ( Disnified) were good, but most dazzling by far was the clever, tender and deeply imaginative Short History of Darkness.

All of these were marvellous. But for my favourite radio moment of the year, I gravitate to that lodestone of radio programming and home of unexpected moments of surrealism: the Today programme. Recent passages to treasure have included an unexpectedly pastoral revelation from Mary Gahan, who turns out to keep bees, and a painfully funny report about a train company's attempts to make its customers talk to each other. But it was the departing Sue McGregor, making a link between this item and the following one, who produced my most treasured fragment of broadcasting from 2001. "Did you know, John," said she, "that the Beche-de-Mer, when frightened, extrudes the whole of its insides? And now over to the Bishop of Southwark, with his Thought for the Day."

Highlights
'Devout Sceptics' (Radio 4)
'The Peacetime Conscripts' (Radio 4)
'Short History of Darkness' (Radio 4)
'Sounds of the Stone Age' (Radio 4)
'Private Passions' (Radio 3)

Comments