Up with the lark, down with the jokes

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The Independent Online
IT IS assumed by the programmers of Radio 4 that a person in the habit of, or with a job involving, waking up at dawn will wish to be reminded of national cultural origins, and so the day begins with a folkloric little medley that culminates in Rule Britannia. And this, to my way of thinking, is odd, although not unusual.

For I have noticed that Classic FM also believes that what the listener needs in the hours before dawn is a good, regular slug of the music of the Australian composer and folklorist Percy Grainger, and in particular: '. . . the clog-dance, Handel in the Strand. Insomniac, are you?' they seem to say. 'Well, how about a little clog dance to sort things out?'

One does not wish to be chivvied along or made more patriotic, to be joshed and 'cheered up' at such an hour. One wants music that is cool and non-invasive. One does not wish to be roped in; tricked into some group activity. 'Just woken up, have you? Well, that's great because we've an egg-and- spoon race you'll just love to join in]'

My system is to join the conscious community just before six, if possible, during the weather reports from coastal stations, which have their own cool, non-invasive poetry. These reports never explain themselves. They never ever crack jokes. They retain their mystery. Lundy, Fastnet, something that sounds like North Etsira, South Etsira, Smith's-Knowle Automatic (or maybe Smithson All-Automatic) . . . the list proceeds at its stately pace and one has time to adjust.

There follows one of the best things on Radio 4, the six o'clock news with its joke-free weather forecast and only mildly salty press round-up. This is the start of the working day for such professional newsreaders as Charlotte Green - people who live a life apart from the Today ethos. Cool people. Non-invasive people.

Charlotte Green does not rush panting into the studio. She does not greet other people in the studio or make inexplicable jokes about them. She has no matey designs upon the listener, she does not invite raised eyebrows or conniving chuckles. She is a ceremonial presence, like the old- style royal family. Like Smith's- Knowle Automatic, she retains her mystery and her dignity.

As far as the farming programme is concerned, I wouldn't change a thing, but the next item seems to have been misplaced. 'Prayer for the Day' comes in as an afterthought. Better programming would run:

5.45 Prayer for the Day

5.50 Thought for the day

5.55 Weather reports from coastal stations

6.00 News briefing with entirely joke-free press round-up.

6.10 Farming programme

Which brings us to the Today programme, soon to be taken over by James Naughtie, for whom I hold out great hopes. And the first great hope I have is that he is going to kill off the 'jokes'.

For it is worth observing that this desire to produce jokes at 6.30 in the morning is reflected nowhere else in our national life except on broadcasting stations. If you pass through Covent Garden at any other time of the day, you may see hopeful comedians attempting to amuse crowds. But even they are not around at dawn. In Leicester Square there is often a queue outside the Comedy Store, but not at 6.30 in the morning.

In private life, if you woke someone up to tell them a joke, it would have to be someone you knew very well, or it would have to be a joke in which you had enormous confidence. Imagine the courage it would take to ring up a stranger at, say, 6.40am and tell a joke. Why then, should the members of the Today team think that their jokes (many of which are, in fact, office in-jokes rather than actual joke jokes) will be welcome to listeners?

Worse than the jokes are the pre- set, in-studio reactions to the jokes, as when Niels/Nils/Nyls/Njals Blyth hurtles through his business reports in the direction of an expected concluding quip, and you can actually hear the smiles being winched into position and the throat being cleared for the chuckle. But when Mr Blyth has his mind on the story he is telling, when he is in his non-invasive mode, he's perfectly acceptable.

So what we expect from Mr Naughtie is a sense of humour that has enough sense of humour to know when it is not welcome. The other thing we expect is continued deployment of that rudeness of paradoxical politeness in the face of the politicians.

It is a quality, I think, that was developed during the Thatcher years in the face of non-co-operative and actually threatening MPs. Paradoxical politeness contrives to be rude while at the same time making it impossible for the interviewee to point to the moment when any convention was flouted or bounds of taste broken. It uses an almost insane degree of fairmindedness and it dispenses absolutely with debating bluster.

It is not the only interviewing technique. The Today programme often has a fine line in moral exasperation, in which the interviewer sounds pretty much at the end of his tether, and contrives to keep you on his side. For special occasions, as in a recent confrontation with Winston Churchill on the race question, you can even hear an authentic passage of withering scorn. But for day-to-day work I think the paradoxical politeness of the Naughtie school quite admirable.

What the nation wants is a Today programme that:

(a) Does not have spiritual designs on its listeners (which is why I have rescheduled the abusive 'Thought for the Day');

(b) Respects the 'watershed' of nine o'clock: no jokes, inappropriate jokiness or presumptuous mateyness before that hour;

(c) While remaining cool and non-invasive from the waking listener's point of view, retains and reserves all rights with respect to politicians, with whom it is never more than paradoxically polite.

Given this prospect, we are prepared to risk Mr Naughtie's leaving The World at One, and to say with him, through a mouthful of lunch, for the last time: 'This is James Naughtie, and that was the wurrld at one-faughtie.'