On Radio

The faltering heart of the BBC

Amongst the dearth of decent BBC Radio content, “Start the Week” is outstanding

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Nation shall speak peace unto nation” was the BBC’s original guiding principle, if not its primary purpose. The first B offers a clue. The corporation broadcasts in the first instance to the British people, who fund it through the licence fee, a form of poll tax many thousands of listeners (and viewers) now find iniquitous.

It isn’t hard to find common ground with those malcontents, for the modern BBC far too often turns its back on the people it seeks to represent. Like the Guardian, its partner in temperament and world view, it has disappeared down a metropolitan rabbit hole, with a smattering of provincial voices deployed for comic effect.

It has disappeared down a metropolitan rabbit hole, with a smattering of provincial voices deployed for comic effect

A modern reading of that noble Reithian intention might read: Camden shall speak virtue unto Islington. In that aim it succeeds brilliantly. Or, increasingly: Peckham shall read social exclusion unto Lewisham. It’s pretty good at that, too.

A Sunday morning service on Radio 4 from the New Testament Church of God Community in Brixton, which marked one year since the death of George Floyd, certainly made a few listeners choke on their porridge. The sermon, spoken with great force by the Rev Les Isaac, left us in little doubt not only that we were miserable sinners (we are) but also that we were culpable of holding the kind of racist and exclusionary attitudes that contributed to the poor man’s death.

Radio 4. The proud, beating heart of the BBC’s mission as a public service broadcaster. The station which does most to justify that licence fee. It did so many things well, for so long, but now the sense of honour bright smells like a fish dock.

When was the last time you laughed at anything anybody said on The News Quiz? When Barry Took, Richard Ingrams and Francis Wheen were on the show, it was often amusing, and sometimes witty. Now the panellists are desperate to remind us that, like the Mikado, “my morals have been declared part-ic-u-lar-lee correct”.

Women’s Hour, long the domain of Jenni Murray, the Dame herself, a formidable broadcaster, is now the province of Emma Barnett, and woe betide the soul who stands between her and a cream bun. Rat-a-tat-tat. I want that.

Desert Island Discs has been a dead loss for years, so Lauren Laverne’s appearance on the bridge was never likely to steer the boat away from the rocks. Broadcasting House, presented by the woefully unfunny Paddy O’Connell, is so flimsy it could serve as a Blue Peter set. Book of the Week tends to come from an approved library. It was no great surprise when a rapper called Akala tipped up recently, to remind us we live in a national cesspit of intolerance.

Somebody at Langham Place must know that most people who tune into Radio 4 are middle aged, small-c conservative, and live in the shire

Surely somebody at Langham Place knows that most people who tune into Radio 4 are middle aged, small-c conservative, and live in the shires. It doesn’t confer any privilege upon them, and no doubt some of those listeners hold views that may be too robust for progressive tastes. But to spit in their faces is, at the least, counter-productive.

Those tales of journalists in the Today newsroom having “a jolly good blub” on the morning this country voted to leave the European Union are quite true. That’s what they think of you, and they will neither forget nor forgive.

The Today programme, sadly, is losing its identity. The departure of John Humphrys and Jim Naughtie left mighty holes to fill, and although there is talent there, the show has lost its sheen and its sharpness. It’s as if the Grateful Dead in 1972 were suddenly shorn of Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. The band could probably play the songs, but they wouldn’t sound the same. Nick Robinson, for all his bluster — does any news presenter refer to himself so often? — will never be the leader of the group in the manner of Humphrys/Garcia. Muzzle him, somebody. Let’s hear more of Sarah Smith.

And now, to cheer us all up, along comes Amol Rajan. How does this bouncy mediocrity come by so much highly-paid work? He’s over the airwaves like a robber’s dog, and pops up frequently on the box, where his foggy appearances on Richard Osman’s House of Games (he had never heard of Cleopatra’s Needle) have become collectors’ items.

At his most civil, he sounds abrasive. More commonly he comes across as a confrontational chap, and like so many presenters he loves his glottal stops. Rajan sounds surly, and nobody wants to wake up to a surly man. But have no doubt, we’re going to hear a lot more of him.

What balm, therefore, to catch an outstanding Start the Week with Andrew Marr and guests speaking so generously about DH Lawrence. Marr is everything Rajan is not. A literate as well as a literary man, he has a spacious hinterland, and an intellectual curiosity which can bring out the best in others.

Here he was joined by Frances Wilson, author of Burning Man, a biography of Lawrence. Simon Armitage and Salman Rushdie were the other contributors to a discussion which served to remind listeners of a writer’s unique genius, overlooked for so long. And that must be a good way to begin any Monday morning.

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