FE068H Barry Humphries outside the Oldie of the Year Awards, Simpsons, the Strand, London 2nd Feb 2016
On Radio

Two essays in excellence

The BBC at its best on Shakespeare, and remembering Barry Humphries.

This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Finding new things to say about the greatest presence in our language, in any language, is a formidable task. More words have been written about Shakespeare than any other writer, so it was brave of Radio 3 to invite five actors, writers and directors to speak about the man Anthony Burgess called “one of our redeemers”.

Brave, and, as it turned out, magnificent. Reading the First Folio, which occupied The Essay slot, was a triumph. Those who caught the talks will have been sent back to the plays, either on the page or the stage. It was an exercise worthy of the BBC at its best, which begs a world-weary if obvious question: why don’t they try it more often?

The best essays were composed by Richard Eyre and David Hare, who drew on their life-long immersion in the theatre to illuminate speeches from King Lear and Macbeth; both speeches, as it happens, from Act 5 Scene 3. Here were two men of deep knowledge sharing their wisdom in language that made the eyes moisten, as eyes often do when we contemplate the end of things.

Eyre was drawn to Lear, he said, when he saw Paul Scofield in Peter Brook’s production. But he could not direct the play “until my daughter became an adult, and my parents were dead”. Even then he had to maintain “the detachment of a surgeon” when he approached the “gilded butterflies” reunion between Lear and Cordelia.

Shakespeare alone could find a convincing dramatic balance between barbarity of action and fineness of poetry

As he read the poetry, quite superbly, Eyre came close to filling up. He is, as he told us, almost as old as the king, and more aware (if humans ever can be) of “the mystery of things”. Lucky actors, to be tutored by this man in “the most remarkable play in the English language”.

Hare, viewing the monument from a writer’s perspective, found fault with the first rule of theatre, “show, don’t tell”. Macbeth was telling us all the time, he said, and it was this compound of high speech and low deeds which made the play so extraordinary. Shakespeare alone could find a convincing dramatic balance between barbarity of action and fineness of poetry. Imagining old age, Macbeth sees not serenity but more muck and nettles, at which point Hare quoted from Larkin’s “Next, Please” with the “black-sailed unfamiliar” which seeks us always.

Here were two men, masters of their craft, engaging fully with a writer about whom everything has been said, many times, yet finding ways of introducing the work to listeners who may not know the plays. You won’t hear two more beautiful, truthful programmes this year. Five stars.

For some reason Classic FM’s annual “Hall of Fame” countdown has become a bellwether for the national mood. It gets written up in the press, although as the number one is either Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto or The Lark Ascending of Vaughan Williams it’s not much of a tale.

Those works are great: of that there is no doubt. Yet Classic FM plays them so often it’s as if listeners are being led by the nose. Of course it is a station for popular classics, and it does good work, but it wouldn’t hurt to cast the net a little wider. There is a lot of French music from the late nineteenth century that rarely gets played, and some twentieth-century music that wouldn’t frighten the horses.

If, for instance, the station played Gabriel Fauré’s first piano quartet as often as it does Dvorak’s ninth symphony, it would be interesting to see whether it appeared in next year’s top ten. There’s a fair chance it would.

If the schedulers pushed the boat out a bit further, and offered listeners regular doses of Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss, would anything be lost? Something might be gained! Central Park in the Dark by Charles Ives is another. And Webern’s Im Sommerwind.

Meanwhile the station is nudging listeners to “the 15 greatest symphonies”. Florence Price is awarded second spot for her first symphony, and there are placings (denied to such lightweights as Bruckner) for Louise Farrenc and William Grant Still. There is missionary work, and there is folly. Back to Rach.

A light went out with the death of Barry Humphries. He was not only a great comedian. He was also a presenter of memorable programmes on Radio 2, which in those days allowed expert voices to accompany listeners along the byways of popular music.

With his vast knowledge, and a welcome note of asperity, he made those Sunday evenings special. If the Comedian Harmonists appeared every week, so much the better. And how witty he was! No jargon or half-witted banalities for Barry. No talk of wellness, or inclusion. His shows were properly inclusive, available to all who valued curiosity.

Richard Ingrams once praised Ludovic Kennedy for his easy television manner. He behaved, said Ingrams, like a man “on his way to the club”. Humphries, as it happens, was also a notable club man. It’s the old amateur style, of good breeding and clear diction, so much more graceful than the mediocrity we are now given so freely. What a star he was, to the last.

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