I can still remember when it happened: a little over 10 years ago, in a bar in west London, as I was exploring the cocktail menu with Valerie Singleton ("Screaming orgasm, Val?" I suggested. "OK," she replied). I explained to the former Blue Peter presenter how I'd become progressively disillusioned with BBC Radio 4, a station I'd listened to more or less constantly from the age of 10. I was one of those people who had recordings of The Archers mailed to them whenever they went abroad. My first real job was as radio critic for the long-forgotten Sunday Correspondent, and most of my columns made some mention of Radio 4. But now, I told Singleton, I'd reached some kind of tipping point, where there were so many nondescript programmes, typified by the bizarre greengrocery forum Veg Talk, that I found myself constantly re-tuning to the World Service or Radio 1.
"You should try 5 Live," she said. "That's what I listen to, most of the time."
5 Live? With that synthesised music that heralded every news bulletin? With the football commentaries of Alan Green, a man who might have been born to disprove Freud's theory that hysteria is a solely feminine condition? 5 Live, with its cab drivers calling in to debate their favourite topics: traffic wardens, roadworks and UK immigration policy?
Yet somehow, as I explain to Mark Damazer, current controller of Radio 4, that conversation with Singleton severed my allegiance to his station, and transferred it to the network sometimes derided as "Radio Bloke". Listening to 5 Live, I discovered there were a lot of things about it to like: the wide variety of voices and accents, for instance, something that has never exactly been Radio 4's strength; the contribution of Nicky Campbell, who (though he's relocated to front a highly entertaining breakfast news show) remains the most impressive phone-in host I have ever heard; the wit of Adrian Chiles; and the fearless intelligence of Phil Williams – that last name, I would argue, being one of the most brilliant prospects in British radio.
For the past decade, I have listened to almost nothing on Radio 4, with the exception of the Today programme (intermittently), and one or two downloaded features: mainly comedies such as Ed Reardon's Week and the work of Graham Fellows, or documentary shows such as the acclaimed Crossing Continents. Late last year, I suggested to Damazer that I should spend a week of continuous listening to his station, after which he'd talk to me in his office at Broadcasting House.
A few days before we were due to meet, Radio 4 suffered one of its less glorious PR moments when it was decided to remove Edward Stourton – Damazer's close friend and one of the best-loved presenters on the Today programme. "Posh Ed" learned of his impending departure when he answered a phone call from my Independent on Sunday colleague Cole Moreton, following a leak from within the BBC. From October 2009, Stourton (51) will be replaced by Justin Webb, currently North American editor. Webb, four years Stourton's junior, has a similarly orthodox, if slightly more excitable, Radio 4 voice.
Mark Damazer is an immediately impressive character: unpretentious, welcoming without seeking to charm, and challenging without any hint of malice or inflated ego. He has been in his current post since October 2004, and exudes the seriousness and maturity you'd expect from a man whose former BBC roles have included deputy director of news and head of political programmes. One entry in his cuttings file describes the 53-year-old as "balding", which is a bit like calling the dome of St Paul's Cathedral a work in progress.
Damazer can't be said to be afraid of change: he caused an almighty outcry, for instance, when he dispensed with the early morning theme music, a medley of tunes including "Rule Britannia". Traditionally minded listeners reacted as if the controller had taken a chainsaw to the Mona Lisa.
Yet the most immediate shock I experienced on returning to Radio 4, I tell the controller, was the narrow range of accents permitted to read the main news headlines. It felt like being teleported back to the 1930s, when newsreaders were compelled to wear dinner jackets. Many believe that this is a trivial matter– though that theory certainly isn't embraced by Radio 4's die-hard listeners, some of whom would commit hara-kiri rather than allow an undiluted Black Country accent, say, to deliver the main announcements.
"For some of our audience," Damazer says, "if you move the furniture around there is a bit of an issue. You can change things; what they don't like is huge amounts of furniture moved too quickly."
"I think that if someone arrived here from Jupiter and discovered you were permitted to read the main headlines only with a certain kind of accent – received pronunciation or Surrey, say – but not, for instance, strong but clearly articulated Rochdale, that alien being would consider it very odd indeed. I'd argue that you've tiptoed around this problem. I know you hired that guy who sounds like a black Loyd Grossman..."
"Every time I hear him I think of that line from Some Like It Hot, where Jack Lemmon is criticising Tony Curtis's Cary Grant impression: 'Nobody talks like that.'"
"People love him or hate him. I think he's wonderful."
And so do I, on balance, but Nunes, who arrived in 2006, is symptomatic of the way that Radio 4 – terrified, I suspect, of alienating the more hide-bound elements of its 9.5m audience – has edged cautiously towards variation in what you might call its signature accent.
"Bluntly, I would be delighted if the next vacancy [for an announcer] was filled by someone with a non-RP accent," Damazer says. "But I am not prepared to take out people who are doing a good job. Take the big beasts: Melvyn Bragg, Libby Purves, Kirsty Young ..."
"But you're drifting away from the subject of what I'd call the stately tone of the main news announcers – something which I think would be very easy to fix. I'm not proposing wall-to-wall Geordies. I love [Radio 4's queen of traditional announcers] Charlotte Green as much as anybody else. And I'm not bothered that the farming programme is presented by a woman who sounds as if she has servants. But why not just throw in one or two clear yet full-blooded voices from, say, Yeovil or Leeds?"
"There is a tremendous amount of Celtic stuff there."
"That's different: anyone English instinctively trusts a person with the accent of, say, Edinburgh, as someone who could land their plane or drill their teeth."
"We have some common ground here. I would prefer there to be a wider array of accents around continuity announcements."
(As long ago as 1989, speaking on Feedback, Helen Wilson, then head of planning and presentation, explained that the only criterion for Radio 4 announcers was that they should have "clear, attractive voices that communicate well" but added that non-RP speakers with these qualities simply "do not present themselves".)
Could the problem have something to do with recruitment procedure?
"These jobs are desirable," Damazer says. "They do not come up very often."
Accent is only a part of this. Radio 4 sometimes just doesn't feel like a station that relates to the whole nation, in the way that 5 Live can.
"Following the verdict in the Rhys Jones case," I remind Damazer, "the Today programme went to Liverpool and interviewed a couple of people, one of them Roger McGough [who presents the BBC Radio 4 programme Poetry Please]. I can understand the thinking behind that. Roger McGough: he comes from Liverpool; he's 71; he's definitely a man with his finger on the pulse of youth culture. Now let's imagine that someone had been murdered in Essex – not an unknown eventuality – would you have gone to Andrew Motion to ask him what street life was like there? Braintree used to be Andrew's home turf, didn't it?"
"I didn't hear that item; if you didn't like it, nothing I can say will alter ..."
"It's not the item, exactly. It's the underlying assumption that Liverpool is automatically 'regional' in a way that the Home Counties aren't." (BBC News continues to employ a "North of England correspondent", a title that sounds increasingly archaic.)
"We did do a cracker [of a show] with Winifred Robinson, who comes from there. She went back and did a really belting production on that story. But I do concede some ground here. Could we get under the skin of contemporary Britain better? Yes."
In terms of regular presenters, he adds, "Where there are really good people that can do it, that's fine. But I will not take out really good people with RP."
"So what was Edward Stourton doing wrong?"
"I thought he was good – and he is going to stick around and do quite a lot on Radio 4."
"But he's leaving Today."
"He's going from a particular role on Today. It's a nonsense for me to pretend that this is not an extremely difficult issue. To put it mildly. I remain a fan. But to explain precisely why we are making the change between Justin and Ed, that just wouldn't be right."
"People at BBC radio have been saying for years that Stourton would go eventually, because he's descended from a baron and he's just too posh."
"That's not my problem [with him]."
"He hasn't gone because of his poshness?"
"It was something else?"
"That 'something else' has to be taken within the context of somebody else's coming in," says Damazer. "My evasiveness on this," he adds, "needs to be transparent."
"That's a good line. Your own?"
"Of course. What I can't do is to allocate marks, out loud, out of 10, to two extraordinarily able people."
"But we can agree that, as is usual in tragedy, the manner of Stourton's execution was a spectacular cock-up..."
"Why so generous? Cock-up is the least that you can say. If you write a textbook on how to handle these things, this is chapter one on how not to do it."
"So where were you – on holiday?"
"No. I was here. The timetable, in terms of the way it was supposed to be handled, was wrecked by a leak. I am prepared to say that I feel wretched. It was wretched for Ed, wretched for the image of the Today programme, wretched for BBC News, wretched for Radio 4. And everybody involved in it, which includes me, has to learn a lesson from it, which was that it was Grade-A awful."
"What punishment do you have in mind for the leaker?"
"I'm not a great fan of leak inquiries."
"So you don't know who did it?"
"I'm not going into that. Cock-up is the most generous phrase you could have used. It was execrable. Execrable, execrable, execrable."
Edward Stourton, who spoke to me a couple of days later on his mobile, while walking his dog, said he had agreed a package that would include assignments for Today and Crossing Continents: a compromise finessed following protests from listeners and journalists.
"I am leaving," Stourton was quoted as saying, when he first heard the news, "because Mark wants Justin Webb."
"I just don't understand what you've done wrong," I told Stourton. "Do you? Just to be clear on this, there isn't some great elephant lurking in the corner? You haven't killed a man?"
"I haven't killed a man. I haven't farted on air – are we on or off the record here?"
"Are you still on good terms with Mark Damazer?"
"Well... I'm seeing him for lunch tomorrow."
"I've had lunch with Lord Archer, but I'm not sure I could depend on him for a character reference."
"I understand that. But I've got to a stage where I think I've done enough whingeing. I want to make what I have got on Radio 4 work. None of this would have been so painful if I didn't like the station so much."
Stourton may have sounded upper-class, but he never seemed to me to patronise his audience. Sometimes the notion of superiority can simply relate to the broadcaster's sensibilities regarding the listener.
"Your defence correspondent Frank Gardner," I tell Damazer, "complains in his book about being thought too posh. Talking about the Mumbai bombings – and you should be able to relate to this, though I admit I can't remember if he was speaking on Radio 4 – he said: "This could have been planned by some bald guy in his bedsit." What work is the word 'bald' doing in that sentence?"
"I'm not sure what he was trying to convey..."
"Sad loner? And then – this is Frank again, on Guantanamo Bay: 'Simulated drowning, which many regard as a form of torture.' Who are these people who don't regard waterboarding as torture?"
"Donald Rumsfeld," Damazer replies. "The Wall Street Journal? Probably the entire American regime. Look, I'm a Frank fan. He's good. He's good. He's good."
Mark Damazer was born in Willesden, where his father, a Polish immigrant, had a delicatessen. He left Cambridge with a double-first in history and, while there, is reputed to have had a relationship with Enoch Powell's daughter, Jenny.
"How did you hit it off with Mr Powell?"
"The fact that I allegedly went out with his daughter does not imply any political view about the father," Damazer replies, sounding for the first and last time like a corporate animal.
"Are you saying you didn't go out with Powell's daughter?"
"Well, I did."
"So what's with the 'allegedly'?"
"I'm not going to anatomise the relationship."
"I'm not asking you to."
"Nobody who knows me would think my politics or Enoch Powell's had anything in common. I want to leave it at that."
After Cambridge, Damazer took up a Harkness Scholarship at Harvard, a prestigious award that required him to travel widely across the US. In 1979 he won a place on ITN's elite trainee scheme, with Michael Crick and Ed Stourton. After a brief spell with the BBC World Service, he joined TV-am, returning to BBC News in 1984. He edited both Newsnight and the Nine O'Clock News. As deputy to the director of news Richard Sambrook, he was heavily involved in handling the Hutton Inquiry, a task he is generally seen as having executed brilliantly. He married his wife, Rosemary, 18 years ago: they have two children, and live in Streatham, south London.
The vaudeville surrounding Stourton's departure stands in marked contrast to Damazer's general stewardship of Radio 4, a network which, in terms of programming, seemed to me considerably healthier and more inventive than the one I remember from 1998, under then-controller James Boyle.
I have, I explain to Damazer, sadly thrown away a couple of splenetic letters Boyle sent me on the subject of Veg Talk. I can remember that he appeared to lose it when I suggested that "editorially speaking, you, like Lord Reith, are likely to be remembered for your non-leguminous output".
Damazer, though defensive of Boyle, killed the programme off. "Veg Talk," he explains, "had, I thought, run its course."
"I did too – after about seven seconds of the first show."
"I'm more patient than you are."
"What else did you get rid of?"
"Home Truths, in my first three months. It was incredibly dependent on John Peel's persona." He also removed a couple of tedious business programmes. More than either of his recent predecessors, Boyle (1996-2000) and Helen Boaden (2000-2004), Damazer has proved skilful not only at excising moribund formats, but finding useful and original material to go in their place.
"I brought in this new obituaries programme, 52 weeks a year, called Last Word."
"Which is wonderful, to judge from the episode I heard."
"Alastair Cooke died just before I arrived. They'd brought in A Point of View, a rather strange beast using several people, which I thought was weak. I thought we should redesign it with larger names. The main person now is Clive James." '
It took Damazer two years to persuade the Australian to accept the commission, and it was well worth the wait.
Any listener comes to Radio 4 with their own prejudices: I've always seen Woman's Hour as the best magazine programme on radio, and I think it has been significantly enhanced by the arrival of Jane Garvey, lured from 5 Live by Damazer. ("There is a massively middle-class bent," Garvey observed, after she arrived, "to every programme on Radio 4.")
At the same time, the only pleasure I can ever remember taking from Libby Purves' Midweek was many years ago when the presenter asked the late songwriter Vivian Stanshall, who had clearly breakfasted well, why David Jason had progressed more slowly than some of his comic contemporaries. "Because he isn't a brown-noser," Stanshall told her, "and he didn't go to Oxford bloody University."
Damazer has retained Brain of Britain, although it has to be said that Robert Robinson's programme has never delivered quite such glorious moments as I've heard on local quiz shows. One one London commercial station, the presenter asked: "Which disease once decimated the rabbit population of Britain?", to which the contestant replied, "Gonorrhoea." And I was once sitting with friends in a café in Blackpool when we heard, from the radio behind the bar: "What is the largest animal without a backbone?" A pause. "The cow?" (Correct answer: giant squid.)
I think the main thing I'd forgotten about Radio 4 is its ability to give you wonderful surprises. In the week I listened, there was a programme about the photographer Oscar Marzaroli's work in Glasgow that was articulate, informative, and – illuminated by a blisteringly perceptive contribution from the writer William McIlvanney – at least as interesting as Marzaroli's original pictures.
The station's visually impaired star Peter White (a man I always imagine as wearing a T-shirt with the slogan: "It's Great to be Blind") had a daily programme in which he attempted such potentially challenging jobs as batsman, vet, pilot and rock star: Blind Man Seeks Work was simply extraordinary.
Perhaps overconfident after landing in a 747 flight simulator without razing Crawley, White approached the Top Gear presenter James May, who owns a light aircraft. "How do you feel about letting me have a go?" he asked May.
"Can you see at all?" "No. But I had a go on the simulator. It was really straightforward."
"But this is a small plane; one that you fly through your inner ear, and your buttocks."
"I," White replied, "have buttocks."
Another of these programmes – I think it was the one on the rock business – found White with his arm embedded up to the elbow in a cow's anal canal. The broadcast was punctuated by quite extraordinary explosions of flatulence (bovine, presumably) – something I never heard once in decades of listening to The Archers. Ambridge cows, like Edward Stourton, have an instinctive grasp of the kind of indelicacy best avoided on air. And, while we're on the subject of The Archers, I can't begin to understand what I ever saw in it. "This is weird," my 11-year-old son said, listening to it in the kitchen, adding, when I asked him why: "Because it's more boring than real life."
Many of the great Radio 4 broadcasters are dead: Nick Clarke, John Peel, John Walters and Linda Smith among them. Other legendary voices I remember have simply vanished. The veteran maverick Ray Gosling, for instance, is someone I last saw on television, explaining the circumstances behind his bankruptcy. In the United States, old as he is, Gosling would be fêted, and worked to death, as befits the ability he has.
"Where's Ray Gosling in your schedules?"
"He is a broadcaster I greatly admire; we did bring him back to do one or two things. I'll have another look around for him. If he's interested, he's precisely the sort of thing for Radio 4."
"Andy Kershaw's last, turbulent year has been widely reported in the written press. He always seemed to me to be under-used by Radio 4. Is Kershaw somebody you might have called upon more – in addition to his reporting from Rwanda, and his courageous documentary work – if you'd been at the station earlier?"
"In the work he did for us, Kershaw was always first-rate: descriptive, knowledgeable, remarkably vivid. He was a delight to have on the network." Damazer pauses, anticipating the next question. "I'm not sure where Andy is right now."
I'm aware, I tell the controller, that his job is a bit like being manager of the England football team: responsible to the nation – in his case through the licence fee – and constantly receiving advice from millions who know far less about the job than he does. "I recently talked to a journalist from the Daily Mail who described BBC Radio as the Guardian on air," I say to Damazer. "Yet, when I listened to Any Questions, you had a line-up policed by an instinctive conservative, Jonathan Dimbleby. The panel was Phil Woolas (Labour, but not exactly an old-school Socialist), Baroness Pauline Neville (Conservative), David Laws (a Lib Dem so far to the left of the party that he was recently offered a position in the shadow cabinet by George Osborne) and Fraser Nelson from the right-wing Spectator magazine. That's quite a Tory huddle, isn't it?
"Casting is careful," says Damazer. It's usually one each from the three parties plus a fourth, who could have been..."
Bragg might have become a real star of Radio 4's talk shows, but one aspect of the station that endured is the notion that classical music and show tunes are culturally valid in a way that most recent popular music isn't.
"On Adventures in Poetry, in the week I was listening, they chose to analyse a 'poetic' popular song: Cole Porter's 'Let's Do It'. Someone explained – in case the listener hadn't noticed – that, 'The joke is the emphasis on the animal kingdom: birds, insects and non-human mammals.' Shakespeare, one contributor observed, 'didn't come up with anything better'. There were further analogies with the poets Byron, Herrick, Marvell and Homer. Now that's what I call a rush of blood."
"I admit that is not guilty of understatement..."
"Why not compare Poussin's Rape of The Sabine Women to Alex Harvey's '(There Ain't Nothin' Like a) Gang-Bang'? You could make a case for Randy Newman's 'Rednecks', or Elvis Costello's 'The Birds Will Still be Singing' as poetry in this context. But not this."
"I thought the programme was rather jaunty. I disagree on this occasion, but I have heard other programmes dripping with a certain kind of nostalgia."
I'm old enough to remember the day, almost 20 years ago, when Lady Diana Mosley, widow of the fascist leader Oswald, was allowed to record an edition of Desert Island Discs, in the course of which she denied the Holocaust ("Six million? It's just not conceivable") and shared affectionate memories of the architects of Buchenwald, punctuated by "A Whiter Shade of Pale".
Under its fourth presenter, Kirsty Young, Desert Island Discs sounds, to me, better than it's ever been. "But isn't it absurd, in 2009, to be fading Leonard Cohen, Smokey Robinson or Rufus Wainwright after 20 seconds? Isn't this a legacy of the days when Roy Plomley's guests would have chosen mostly symphonies? Why not play the shorter pieces right through, and make Desert Island Discs an hour?"
"That is by no means a bad thought, and one that does cross my mind, although it isn't yet imminent. You'd have to take other parts of the schedule down."
I manage to stifle the phrase: "Take out Libby Purves."
"I suppose I can't argue with James Naughtie doing a special programme celebrating Puccini," I tell Damazer, "even if the trailer reminded me of Cerys Matthews' aside about opera: 'I'll wait till I'm deaf before I get into that.'"
"Puccini," says Damazer, an opera enthusiast, "is good, and big. There is every justification for that."
The worst example of a nostalgic libretto, in the week I listened, was a musical called The Switch by the novelist Ali Smith. A piece that induced not so much boredom as a sapping of the will to live, The Switch was described as a semi-autobiographical piece describing the experiences of the daughter of a Scottish electrical engineer. It's without doubt the poorest musical I have ever heard, and I'm one of the few people to have seen DJ Mike Read's piece on Oscar Wilde, which closed after one night. The lyrics included: "[Father]: 'When things have got too intense/Take yourself back to basics and mug up/Unscrew the back of a plug/Better than any old drug is the comfort of wiring a plug.' [Daughter] 'Know what just happened? The old/Generation gap just got re-dug... cause of your naïve guff about plugs.'"
Mark Damazer didn't hear The Switch. I sent a copy to one of Britain's leading opera critics, who replied with the following message: "Perfectly appalling. Autobiographical? God help the person who wrote it. You claim that this work was broadcast on BBC Radio 4. I simply cannot believe it. I enjoy that station regularly. It was just ghastly, really ghastly."
Yet it was after I heard The Switch that I noticed I'd started caring about Radio 4 , rather passionately, once again. Things got worse when I got home and returned to 5 Live: The Best of Victoria Derbyshire – the programme's pick of 2008 – was pre-recorded. It included a discussion about whether black or brown shoes best complement a blue suit. ("Blokes in brown shoes," Derbyshire said, "look like losers.")
I realized I'd become unaware of the extent to which 5 Live is fixated with television, especially reality shows. Derbyshire's Best Of included a lengthy, and mind-numbingly bland, conversation with James Corden, of Gavin and Stacey.
[Derbyshire] "How do you write it?"
[Cordon] "We put up Post-it notes but we usually just write it."
[Derbyshire] "Peter Kay rang you up – after series one. Or was it before series one? Where did he get your number from? What did he say? 'This is Peter Kay? Gavin and Stacey is great?'"
[Cordon] "He says: 'Hello. This is Peter.'"
[Derbyshire] "And you knew, immediately."
[Cordon] "I said: 'Peter! Peter Kay! How are you doing?'"
At which point, we discovered, Kay responded: "I'm good."
"You've ruined my life," I told Damazer. "Now I'm getting agitated about Radio 4 again, but when I try to go back to 5 Live, some of it sounds like garbage."
"I never set out to ruin you life," Damazer replied, charitably. "But I do want you to come home to Radio 4."
And so it is that, after a decade in exile – tentatively, maybe not forever, and mainly as a result of the combined influence of Mark Damazer, William McIlvanney and Peter White's flying buttocks – I'm back.Reuse content