'You can be plummy and still work for me'

James Boyle has learned that being controller of Radio 4 means you annoy some of the people most of the time. But Boris Johnson was the last straw. By David Lister

There is, I can't help but mention to the Radio 4 controller, an irony surrounding the centrepiece of his network's millennium programming, 1,000 Years of Spoken English . James Boyle looks blank. Well, one of the programmes will be on how the BBC itself has been the arbiter of what constitutes good English. Mr Boyle looks blanker. Well, Mr Boyle has just sacked Boris Johnson from presenting The Week at Westminster because his voice is too plummy. Mr Boyle explodes.

There is, I can't help but mention to the Radio 4 controller, an irony surrounding the centrepiece of his network's millennium programming, 1,000 Years of Spoken English . James Boyle looks blank. Well, one of the programmes will be on how the BBC itself has been the arbiter of what constitutes good English. Mr Boyle looks blanker. Well, Mr Boyle has just sacked Boris Johnson from presenting The Week at Westminster because his voice is too plummy. Mr Boyle explodes.

"It's a load of nonsense." Then Mr Boyle looks triumphant. He picks up a newly arrived letter from Boris Johnson, which is lying on his desk. In it Johnson apologises for the fuss he's caused, explaining that he has a column to fill in The Spectator, which he now edits, and he had decided to be a little "frivolous". It seems that Mr Boyle may have been unfairly maligned, not for the first time, he might add. Certainly not for the last. In the current Spectator, the radio critic Michael Vestey continues the anti-Boyle charge over his editor's alleged plumminess. I do wonder why Johnson allowed such an article, if he was merely being frivolous.

But what is interesting is the ferocity and personal nature of the attack in the magazine against Boyle, and indeed of many such attacks. Vestey writes: "Who are these focus groups to which Boyle submits voices for approval... I have yet to meet a Radio 4 listener who approves of anything he has done to the network... It's time he was returned to north of the Border."

Boyle explains wearily that he has only ever been to one focus group. And the Johnson sacking was about tone and adaptability, not accent. "The programme was moving from Thursday evening to Saturday morning. You get a different sort of audience, a lighter audience. The presenters have to take them firmly by the hand and guide them. You've got to be confident with the presenter. There are lots of plummy voices on the BBC. Henry Blofeld and a whole range of people. Yes, Henry Blofeld. I'm giving you Old Etonian for Old Etonian there."

And that, I sense, is young Boris and his old school tie sent packing. Boyle, who turns out to be a lot more thoughtful and, indeed, sensitive to criticism than his detractors might imagine, is particularly annoyed at being pilloried over Johnson, because Radio 4's controller takes his job as unofficial commissioner of the English language extremely seriously. 1,000 Years of Spoken English runs until the end of next May; it will include plays and documentaries and will be represented on programmes including Poetry Please and The Daily Service .

"The currency of this network is language," says Boyle. "The BBC has had a fantastic influence, everything from commissioning Under Milk Wood to the news programmes. It's always had a genuine concern for the language. It fostered comics from the North of England and the great artists who have written English. The more you say it, the more amazing it is. I commission hundreds of hours of drama each year and hear hundreds of voices and dialects. I think how I'm in charge of commissioning all this language and how it will have an effect; how people, for example, love John Peel, the best link writer in Britain."

Religion, too, is an integral part of Radio 4, Boyle admits; though he doesn't want it presented in too traditional a way. "One of the big series which we've got coming is John McCarthy's Bible Journey . Religion is very important on BBC Radio 4. I wanted to do it through the eyes of someone who says he isn't particularly religious but has a great knowledge of the Bible, as he read it twice in captivity."

Even on Radio 4 a celebrity is still deemed to give the audience a better entrée than someone of less renown but greater knowledge. Boyle is unyielding in his belief that a different approach is needed for a listenership that, he is sure, has a smaller concentration span than the audiences most previous Radio 4 controllers have had to deal with. And he is jaundiced about all the criticism from the press.

"I've had a torrid three years. As far as I'm concerned, the war is over. The listenership supported me throughout. About half the letters of complaint were on one topic, The Archers [which Boyle moved]. But increasingly the letters to me have been supportive. The main hassle was the newspapers hating any change. It makes column inches if you have someone like me around who says, 'If it doesn't work I'll go.' But it has worked. And you can measure it in half a dozen ways. I wanted to get more listeners in and have them stay with the network. Now nine million listeners tune in every week for 90 minutes more than they did. That's a stunning amount.

"On National Poetry Day we did A Book of Hours , poems throughout the day; the switchboard was jammed by 9am. So far we have sent out three and a half thousand of these books. The audience has wrapped itself around the schedule. So the listener sulk has already gone. But no one says 'Hallelujah, it's worked'. Maybe I should have courted the press more, instead of doing the James Cagney and saying 'come and get me'."

But once a Cagney always a Cagney. And if the Boyle-baiters don't see anything there to get them steamed up, he is prepared to go further. "We've got a greater variety of science programmes and book programmes. In the morning, we have a 'book of the week' strand. That used to be only during the recess. I have upped the intellectual content of Radio 4," he adds. "There's no shadow of a doubt about that."

But, as we chat, a slight shadow of doubt raises itself in my mind. He recounts how he has been talking to the network's writers and producers and urging them to write with the audience more firmly in mind. He wants to see Radio 4 tie in with the tastes of the audience, just as magazines cater for their audience.

But surely writers should lead and educate? "Of course they must write about what they feel deeply within, but they must remember who the audience is. I have told them many listeners won't stick with a 90-minute play. "I'm not," he laughs, "going to put George Bernard Shaw on Radio 4."

But why not? Wouldn't it be rather pleasing to be the controller who brought Shaw back to Radio 4?

"It just can't be done any more. People won't listen."

And what to do if you disagree with all this? The sense of ownership that Radio 4 listeners have, continues to delight Boyle.

"When I get complaints, in a way it's fantastic," he says. "I reply to every complaint. Sometimes I phone them back."

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