Radio: Quote Unquote, Radio 4

Why the future of the world depends on 'Quote Unquote'

By Nicholas Lezard
Sunday 17 February 2008 01:00

As with last week, I find myself taking a correspondent's advice. I was entreated to reconsider my previously hostile views on Quote Unquote; a recent edition with Katharine Whitehorn being cited as particularly enjoyable.

I had caught the programme as it was broadcast, and found myself wondering: this isn't too bad. Has Quote Unquote finally pulled its socks up? I resolved to tune in this week to find out whether this was an aberration or part of a genuine trend. For the Quote Unquote dilemma has been gnawing away at the hearts of every controller of Radio 4 since its inception.

The problem is that it is universally reviled. It is the butt of countless in-jokes on Radio 4 comedy programmes. I once had lunch with Mark Damazer, the station's current chief, and he asked me, mischievously, if there were any programmes I'd like to see taken off air. "Apart," he added, seeing my mouth about to form the velar plosive of "Q", "apart from Quote Unquote."

And yet... The other problem is that Radio 4 has to have a programme like Quote Unquote. You could say that The Write Stuff is that programme, but sharper, more literary, and the questions are much tougher. No, Radio 4 needs a nice, middlebrow vehicle for making gentle play with the collective wisdom of the tribe. A panel game, perhaps, hosted by, oh, how about Nigel Rees? It may bug the hell out of a lot of people, but you need it. I think you'll find it is mentioned in the corporation's charter.

Well, it was nice to hear this quote, from Harold Pinter, about cricket, at the beginning of last Wednesday's show: "I tend to believe that it is the greatest thing that God ever created on earth. Certainly greater than sex, though sex isn't too bad either."

But after that things seemed to revert to the status quo ante. Barry Norman was one of the guests, but you don't want to hear his impression of W C Fields; another guest was the critic and novelist Stephanie Merritt, but you don't want to hear her being verbally groped by Nigel Rees. (When this kind of thing comes across on the radio, one does not care to imagine what it must look like in the flesh.)

Which leaves me still not much less in the dark as to what Quote Unquote's fate should be. Clearly, it is most vexing in its persistence. And I can't help fearing that if it were cancelled, it would create a black hole in the schedule, which would suck everything in Radio 4 through it until the station itself ceased to exist. And we can't have that, can we?

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