The Rock'n'Roll Years format – archive gear spliced with the music of the time, unmediated by voice-overs or talking heads – is well-tried on TV and radio, but there's still something rather grand and innovative about rolling it out across five decades and broadcasting it over 50 weeks, a year every week starting in 1951. Is commissioning Sounds of the 20th Century the first thing the 6 Music/Radio 2 controller Bob Shennan has got right in his short but deeply unsatisfactory tenure?
There's no shortage of raw material, and it zipped along: in the first five minutes we'd had "How High the Moon" by Les Paul and Mary Ford, a report from the Festival of Britain, clips from The Lavender Hill Mob, news of Burgess and Maclean's Moscow flit and Nat King Cole singing "Too Young" (and this being Radio 2, we got whole tracks, not just tantalising snatches).
The portrait emerged of a country recovering only slowly from the war, domestic greyness counterpointed by the optimistic glow emanating from across the Atlantic. There was still rationing: eggs, tea, sugar, soap, coal, meat – "an eightpenny ration of gristle", grumbled an unknown voice – and an election speech by Winston Churchill set the tone: "We are having a hard time. But I've seen worse."
The glow from the United States came primarily via the music, and I was surprised by how good most of it was: Frankie Laine's soaring "Jezebel", both Hank Williams and Tony Bennett's versions of the aching, yearning "Cold, Cold Heart", a gorgeous "Mockin' Bird Hill" by, I think, Patti Page – as well as Billy Cotton's splendid tongue-twisting paean to all things Cockney, "Forty Fahsend Fevvers on a Frush". Best of all was "Rocket 88", the record by Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner widely held to have kick-started rock'n'roll, rough-edged, brash and raw.
Then, as now, we were in thrall to the royals: there was the King coming through a big operation: "We shall feel his kindly presence moving once again among his people," the BBC man reflected in his cut-glass accent. And then there was poor Princess Margaret, reaching her majority: "Margaret, born into disappointment – the nation had prayed for a prince." No wonder she hit the fags and the bottle.
In DAB-land, the Channel Formerly Known As BBC7 continues to get into its stride, unveiling The 4 O'Clock Show, a magazine programme clearly intended as a kind of after-school club for all the family (until 2007, The Big Toe Radio Show fulfilled that brief). Monday's debut, based mostly round the new Winnie the Pooh film, showed that even in its new programming, Radio 4 Extra leans on the archives. There was a nice interview with Alan Bennett from a 1992 Woman's Hour, as well as him reading Pooh in the days when he was the king of kids' audiobooks; and a lovely chat, from 1976, with the original voice of Pooh, Sterling Holloway.
You'd have to wonder, though, how long children would have stuck with Bennett discussing Yorkshire speech patterns with Jenni Murray. Presumably The Big Toe Radio Show was canned because of audience figures, and I'm not sure this'll do any better.
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