'Frightful Fowey' satire irks residents

Insulted on air, and now in print! Roger Ridey on Cornish umbrage at BBC rudeness
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The Independent Online
"In the cool of a summer's evening, Fowey takes on the air of mystery and intrigue," reads a brochure produced by the local tourist board. "It takes little imagination to recall the historic deeds and legends of the past."

But on a chilly spring afternoon, the handful of tourists wandering through the narrow streets of this small port town on the Cornish Riviera could not have begun to imagine the more recent deeds that have cast a cloud of scandal over Fowey and provoked outrage among the townsfolk.

It began on a quiet morning last month when residents tuned in to Radio 4 to hear the programme A Retiring Fellow. They knew that Fowey would be featured and they expected it to extol the town's many virtues - the picturesque harbour that has been a favourite for sailors since Roman times, or perhaps its 14th-century St Bartholomew's Church. Instead they heard the programme's presenter, the satirical author William Donaldson, best known for his Henry Root Letters, describe Fowey as a place where "they all marry their own sisters ... a child could be his own grandfather here", where smuggling was rife and visitors were made to feel most unwelcome. The residents, Mr Donaldson said, were "suspicious little Celts, all 4ft 8in men".

There was more. Mr Donaldson interviewed one local woman who offered uncharitable opinions of several well-known townsfolk and accused some of infidelity. Though the BBC blipped out the names, the locals knew who they were. They took particular exception to the woman's remarks about Rusty Eplett, president of the local yacht club and organiser of the annual regatta. He was "hated" in the town, she said. Yet, just the day before the programme was aired, some 600 people had attended his funeral.

Leading citizens have fired off letters of complaint to the BBC, demanding an apology from the corporation and from Mr Donaldson. Michael Penphrase, who for 17 years has been Fowey's official town crier, said: "I cannot believe that such a highly respected institution as Radio 4 would broadcast such a programme." As for Mr Eplett, "Rusty was a giant of this town - all his life he worked his balls off to promote Fowey."

John Libby, a retired headmaster, said: "It was uncalled for, it made no positive points and the timing was absolutely abominable. I have yet to meet a single person in Fowey who thought it was funny. What's his grudge?"

Henceforth, Mr Libby will be listening only to Radio Cornwall. "My radio won't ever be tuned to an English station again."

Andrew Johnston, who produced the programme, insists that letters of complaint have been outnumbered by letters praising the broadcast - but only just, he admits. Mr Donaldson is adamant that people should have known what was coming. "I warned them that I would be playing a rude character. I thought most of them understood that. Having said that, I was surprised how chippy they are. I'd have thought they were used to being laughed at."

He adds that he has no intention of apologising but instead thinks Fowey should apologise to him. "These are the sort of people who, having tired of their letters not being published even in the Daily Telegraph, now write impertinent letters to the BBC. They really are frightful people, at least the ones I met were. I suppose there are nice people in Fowey, but they were no doubt out sinking innocent Spanish fishing boats while I was there."