S2DB8X ANZAC memorial
On Radio

Palin was a rare Radio 4 treat

The triumph of Michael Palin’s Book of the Week and the tragedy of Radio 4 comedy

Michael Palin is not only the most modest member of the Monty Python team — he didn’t order a bigger hat when fame came knocking. He is also the most rounded, having excelled as an actor (rather than performer), globe-trotting traveller, and writer on many subjects. Now, in his eighty-first year, his curiosity remains undimmed, as listeners to Radio 4’s Book of the Week may confirm.

It’s a good spot for a writer, 9.45am every weekday, though producers could vet the material more carefully. Too many of the books chosen offer only bread and dripping. Palin’s Great-Uncle Harry: A Tale of War and Empire, however, was a feast. Ostensibly it was a tribute to Lance Corporal H.W.B. Palin, slain on the Somme in September 1916. But he did not merely recreate the life of a man whose body was “known unto God”. Through years of research and hard writing he created a life.

Harry Palin, the youngest son of a Herefordshire parson, was educated at Shrewsbury, where his great-nephew followed half a century later. No scholar, he served the Empire on the Indian railways, and then as a farmer in New Zealand. When the world went to war in August 1914 he was one of 14,000 Kiwis who answered the call to arms.

Enlisting as a private soldier in the 12th Nelson company of the Canterbury Infantry Battalion — part of the ANZAC forces — he saw action at Gallipoli, before the regiment’s deployment in France. Reading from the diaries that survived his great-uncle’s death, Palin pieced together the course of a life that was, at first glance, unexceptional. Except, as the book revealed, all lives have meaning.

Palin became aware of this particular life in 1971 when five of Harry’s diaries, “barely legible”, fell into his hands. But it wasn’t until 2008, when he visited the Somme for a television documentary about the Great War and saw the name of 32-year-old Lance Corporal H.W.B. Palin, “farmhand” on a memorial, that he vowed “I had to find out more”. His research uncovered a soldier who, like so many men faced with death, used understatement and grim humour to mask their fear. “Too tired to protest,” read one entry. That understatement ran to the official response to the assault on German trenches which led to Harry’s death, shot through the head. It had succeeded, read the dispatch, “with slight casualties”.

Why do we import so many third-raters, mused Thomas Beecham, conductor and wit, when we have enough second-raters of our own?

Had Harry lived as long as he has done, Palin noted, he might have attended his twenty-first birthday party. A century on, as he revisited those meadows of slaughter, and saw the hornbeams in leaf, he offered a moving valediction: “He and I are not so far apart.”

Palin’s writing was all the better for its lack of ornamentation. He also read clearly and understood which syllables should be stressed. What balm! Maybe this gifted man can perform one final task, and if the BBC took its purpose more seriously somebody would ask him to perform it: to teach all journalists in the corporation’s newsrooms to speak properly. It can be done.

Why do we import so many third-raters, mused Thomas Beecham, conductor and wit, when we have enough second-raters of our own? That lightbulb came on when the wretched News Quiz returned to Radio 4 on Saturday lunchtimes, with its dismal parade of show-offs.

An Australian comedienne eager to talk about “mental health problems” was let off the leash, joined by a char from south London who referred in the time-honoured way to “chari’y”, and thought (cracker alert) the Lib Dems “should get some policees”.

The audience tittered dutifully and when Hugo Rifkind said, with regard to private education, there should be VAT “on going to church, and moving into catchment areas”, there was applause. Maybe the pies had arrived. One wonders what Master Rifkind, the cleverest of clogs, would be doing if he wasn’t the son of a prominent father, and hadn’t gone to George Watson’s College. Stacking shelves in Leith, most likely.

Meanwhile, on Front Row, Radio 4’s arts show, an occasional presenter discussed the vanishing breed of tyrannical conductors. As he referred to a baton-wielder called “Hubert” von Karajan, accused Beecham of displaying “rage”, and called the greatest musician who ever lived “Back”, his stand-in performance was not a success.

Why does the BBC despise its most loyal followers? Week after week the people who produce these programmes accept avoidable blunders as an essential part of the seasonal cycle, like darkening nights and gathering conkers. It is a badge of shame.

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

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