The week on radio

Click to follow
The Independent Online
It's a well-known factoid (looks like a fact, smells like a fact, isn't true) that people are resistant to change - a line wheeled out regularly by the BBC when announcing schedule changes. Of course, if resistance to change were so firmly rooted in human nature, then we'd still be hanging around the Olduvai Gorge sneering at this trendy stone-tool rubbish and pining for the good old days, when people lived in trees and kids showed some respect.

But if small-c conservatism isn't necessarily part of the human condition, it may well be part of our condition, here and now. It could be a global change, a reaction to the century that invented the phrase "I can remember when it was all trees round here"; or perhaps it's a purely local phenomenon, a reaction not to change pure and simple, but to injudicious, cocked-up change.

At any rate, this is the lesson you could draw from two programmes on Radio 4 this week. In Why Did We Do That? on Thursday, Chris Bowlby investigated the mania for urban motorways that laid waste so many towns and cities in the Sixties and Seventies; and on Friday morning the architect Maxwell Hutchinson began a six-part series, Back to the Drawing Board, on the impact his profession has had on Britain over the past 50 years.

One thing both programmes made clear was that change was welcomed enthusiastically by many people - bus companies ran tourist trips to admire the Preston by-pass. And the demolition of slums in favour of clean, modern council estates was not the imposition of a socialist utopia. Young architects often had an idealistic streak - dreams of building Le Corbusier's Radiant City - but they had a counter-balancing realism: as Hutchinson put it, you might have Veronica Lake pinned to your drawing-board, but you still loved your wife. Sadly, they were building in a hurry, with little firm knowledge of how modern materials would behave over time, or how people would react to new living arrangements, such as high-rise blocks.

Bowlby's diagnosis of the trouble with road-building was less sympathetic, perhaps because it isn't his profession, perhaps because town-planners had fewer excuses. Certainly it's hard to see the counter-balancing realism in Birmingham's dream that "tree-lined parkways" would help transform it into one of Europe's most beautiful cities. Luckily, the wave of urban road-building broke against London, the planners admitting defeat when computer projections of traffic flow suggested that Earls Court be replaced by a 14-lane motorway.

These sharply argued, well-made programmes offered nicely contrasted views of closely related subjects. This was probably mere accident, though, and could easily have been another example of the BBC failing to find new ideas, or remember the old ones. This week had a good example: a Radio 3 series on spa-towns called Taking the Waters, admirably complementing last year's Radio 2 feature on the same subject with the same title. And you thought the BBC was interested in novelty for its own sake.