Old Grey Whistle Test 40, Radio 2, Wednesday<br/>The Little Black Fish That Created Big Waves, Radio 4, Thursday

He may be old and grey, but Whispering Bob is far from testing

Simon O'Hagan@SimonOHagan
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:55

Radio's relationship with television is pretty much a one-way street.

It consists of radio coming up with a good idea and TV nicking it, which may explain why the aural medium has a tendency to feel superior to the visual one. That and the fact that it is superior, of course.

Last week, however, there was a rare instance of television giving back. In Old Grey Whistle Test 40, the TV landmark that was the 1970s music show The Old Grey Whistle Test forms the basis of a 16-part series on Radio 2, each part corresponding to the seasons (not that they were called "seasons" in those days) of the original programme.

Wow. Sixteen parts. That'll keep us going until well into the winter, and you might wonder whether a single television programme, even one as important as OGWT, can sustain such extended scrutiny. In fact, as the first episode showed, OGWT is little more than a framing device, and what we actually have is a history of 1970s music – the first music in rock and pop history to be treated with critical seriousness.

As Radio 2's voice of 1970s music – and a fixture in the OGWT presenter's chair – "Whispering" Bob Harris was the only possible choice as the front man for Whistle Test 40, though it struck me that Harris isn't quite the whisperer he once was. Vocally, he's a bit of a Dorian Gray. In his OGWT days, when he was in his late twenties, he sounded about 150. Now he's 65 and sounds no more than middle aged.

Anyway, he had a lovely old reminisce with Alice Cooper, whose first British TV appearance was on Whistle Test, and another with Elton John, who seemed to be urging Harris to bring OGWT back, as if this was something Harris had any power over.

Music on television has evolved so much since OGWT's day that it's hard to see that happening (plus we have Later ... with Jools Holland) and, in any case, listening to Whistle Test 40 – and the reason why it will be a sure-fire hit with the generation that grew up on OGWT – you realised that, in spirit, The Old Grey Whistle Test never really was a TV programme. It was a radio programme with a few pictures attached.

In another tumultuous week for dictators, there was an enlightening half-hour on Radio 4 called The Little Black Fish That Created Big Waves. It was about The Little Black Fish, a children's story written in 1967 by Samad Behrangi, an Iranian schoolteacher. Behrangi's tale of a fish who leaves its pond to swim to the sea captivated a generation of children growing up under the Shah of Iran in the 1970s.

Negar Esfandiary, who presented the programme, was one of them, and her exploration of the story's allegorical qualities was a little hymn to freedom.

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