On Radio

A Good Read should be better

Some weeks there are comedians and groovy journalists — others it’s groovy journalists and comedians

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The adventures of my soul among masterpieces, Anatole France called his literary criticism. Flaubert put it slightly differently. “I read,” he said, “in order to live.” Hurrah for those Frenchmen! We could always do with a bit of that spirit.

A paradox of our age is the number of book festivals which have sprung up in a world obsessed by the image. There is barely a town in the land which does not have a week of events devoted to the written word, yet ours is no longer a literary culture; not in the way it was.

With all those channels available you would have thought the BBC could set aside an hour each week for a serious television show about books, and the people who write them. Instead there is a terrible programme, presented by the 49-year-old teenager Sara Cox, which starts from the premise that nobody is really interested unless a few froth-and-bubblers can be persuaded to waffle.

Gilbert is determined to press upon listeners books that are usually foreign and doggedly earnest

On the wireless there is A Good Read on Radio 4, which has been presented by Harriett Gilbert since the Tremeloes ruled the hit parade. It’s not a bad programme, in the way the Cox show is grim, but it should be so much better.

Gilbert kicked off the new series with a pair of Scottish reviewers. Ian Rankin is always engaging, and he chose well. Emeric Pressburger is best known for the classic films he made with Michael Powell, as one half of The Archers, their production company. He was also a novelist, and Rankin selected The Glass Pearls, an excellent book about a Nazi sub rosa, working as a piano tuner in post-war London.

As Pressburger was a Hungarian Jew, for whom English was a fourth language, this subject was fertile soil. Astonishingly, given Pressburger’s eminence in the film world, Gilbert didn’t appear to know he was Jewish. Has she ever seen The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, or The Red Shoes? They’re quite well known.

The other guest, a Highland balladeer called Colin MacIntyre, went for a memoir of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who achieved a succès de scandale in the 1980s New York art world. He wasn’t very good, but painters didn’t have to be talented to win rich admirers in that credulous white-powder world.

Robert Hughes, the brilliant critic, was less dazzled by the boy wonder. He wrote a superb essay on the “featherweight” who conformed to every cliché in the book by drinking and doping himself into the grave. MacIntyre should read it.

Do we really need to hear any more of “magic realism”?

Gilbert gave us something by a French-Afghani about a woman mourning her husband, which was par for the course. Every inch a metropolitan liberal, Gilbert is determined to broaden the range of reading material by pressing upon listeners books that are usually foreign and doggedly earnest. How about some George MacDonald Fraser or Simon Raven, to lighten the tone?

Do we really need to hear any more of “magic realism”? For one thing, it’s rarely magical, and hardly ever realistic. For another, as Margaret Drabble has written, Dickens invented it in 1840, and carried it off with greater aplomb than these decorated chaps from the non-Anglophone world, however exotic they seem.

If only the host would expand the range of guests. Some weeks there are comedians and groovy journalists. Other weeks there are groovy journalists and comedians. On the second show in the current series there was a female footballer. Well, you feel such a fool without one.

Comedians have never been arbiters of literary taste, though Les Dawson and Kenneth Williams were well-read. This show needs a transfusion. Make way, Harriett Gilbert.

Annie Nightingale (Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Annie Nightingale was given a rapturous send-off, which must have puzzled the greybeards. Wasn’t she the blonde disc jockey whose Radio 1 shows supplied background music for revision periods back in the Seventies?

She was 83, and still taking to the floor at raves. Rather unseemly behaviour, one might think. There’s something skew-whiff about an octogenarian hoofing away the late hours with drug-takers when the grandchildren are spending a quiet night in.

For those who put pop music on the back burner three decades ago it was mystifying to read so many tributes to a lady we thought had been shunted into the sidings. “She was pleasant enough,” a pal who worked with her at Radio 1 told me. “But she was a groupie, really.” So that’s how she got the CBE.

Tony Blackburn (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Tony Blackburn OBE, meanwhile, has turned 81. How gaily we adolescents used to laugh at him in the old days, as we tuned in to John Peel, and how smug we were.

Peel did his bit, but he and Nightingale were feathers for every wind. When the weathercock shifted, so did they. The fear of missing out on the next thing was too shaming. Blackburn never had any wish to be fashionable. He played records he liked, without embarrassment, and he’s still at it on Sunday nights on Radio 2.

And consider this. In 1971 his enthusiasm for “I’m Still Waiting” carried Diana Ross to No 1. It was the best record she ever made, and miles better than some of the rubbish Nightingale played. Chapeau, Mr B.

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