Why 'Today' should watch its guest list

It was the week the Radio 4 programme handed over control of the airwaves. Jane Thynne replays the highs – and lows

Saturday 01 January 2011 01:00

If it's true that brains are hardwired for political allegiance, as the Today programme reported this week, then perhaps some are hardwired to prefer Radio 4, too.

That at least was the impression after a week of guest editors revealed that their interests were pretty much in line with those of other Radio 4 listeners – politics and pronunciation, childbirth and church choirs, crosswords and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Katie Price, perhaps because her brain has different wiring, was not selected in the end, despite discussions with Radio 4. According to Ceri Thomas, the Today editor, "we learnt from newspaper columns, emails and social media that thousands of years of Western culture and civilisation would come to an end before nine o'clock in the morning if we invited the wrong person to guest-edit Today." Instead he opted for Diana Athill, Colin Firth, Sam Taylor-Wood, Richard Ingrams and Dame Clara Furse.

The tradition of guest editors in the news dead zone between Christmas and New Year has been going since 2003. It always provides a welcome change of perspective, but handing over custody of the nation's flagship current affairs programme can be risky. Last year PD James gave the BBC director general Mark Thompson the kind of handbagging his own journalists would have never dared.

There was no such delicious controversy this year. The nearest anyone came to biting the hand that fed them was when Richard Ingrams employed a voice expert to examine why some of Radio 4's best-known voices are so irritating. Professor Pascal Belin from Glasgow University was asked to explore why the utterances of Robert Peston and Neil Nunes, the Jamaican presenter, allegedly annoy listeners, and handled this poisoned chalice with exquisite tact. Apparently, Peston's voice "has a slightly higher than average pitch and it is the least harmonic ... which contributes to being less attractive than other voices", whereas Nunes' is "fairly low pitch, contributing an impression of gruffness".

The revelation that right-wingers had a more pronounced amygdala in their brains while liberals had thicker anterior cingulates was a surprise discovery when Colin Firth commissioned "lighthearted" research from University College London's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. But, in general, the guest editors seemed more interested in exploring their enthusiasms than making headlines. Sam Taylor Wood's report on home birth was a little like childbirth itself: long and tedious in places, and weighing in at a whopping 13 minutes.

Today is generally a luvvie-free zone, but with the celebrity editors came celebrity worries. Three items were devoted to the anxieties of the acting profession. Dame Clara Furse rounded off the week with a celebration of British institutions, from church choirs to marmalade, and implicitly included in this, no doubt, was the institution that is Today.

As broadcasting gigs go, guest-editing Today has to be one of the best. "It was wonderful," Ingrams told them. "I didn't have to do anything at all. I came up with a few ideas over lunch and you people went and did all the work."

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