Thank heavens for radio, and its ability to survive the depredations of new technology (even the botched introduction of DAB). Channel Four’s much-hyped adaptation of William Boyd’s novel, Any Human Heart, is just so lazy, letting the images do all the work, without bothering to create a coherent or dramatic script. A radio dramatisation of the book would have had to work much harder to ensure that the characters were brought to life. No fancy costumes or fabulously elegant settings to tell us where we are, and in what decade. No tricksy graphics at the beginning, either. Just plain words, carefully crafted to lead the listener through the narrative.

Thank heavens for radio, and its ability to survive the depredations of new technology (even the botched introduction of DAB). Channel Four’s much-hyped adaptation of William Boyd’s novel, Any Human Heart, is just so lazy, letting the images do all the work, without bothering to create a coherent or dramatic script. A radio dramatisation of the book would have had to work much harder to ensure that the characters were brought to life. No fancy costumes or fabulously elegant settings to tell us where we are, and in what decade. No tricksy graphics at the beginning, either. Just plain words, carefully crafted to lead the listener through the narrative.

A master of storytelling through dialogue, the documentary-maker Alan Dein has a new series of Lives in a Landscape on Radio 4 (Wednesdays). If you’ve not heard Dein before, he’s an ardent oral historian, cataloguing the way we live now through what we say, and how we say it. The first programme proved that sometimes just allowing someone to speak direct to mike can tell a whole story in just a few words. If Cameron and his coalition chums had listened, they might perhaps have understood that Lord Young was not entirely wrong when he said that so many of us have never had it so good. It depends on whom you are speaking to. That’s what makes this recession so different from others.

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Dein was visiting Bicester in Oxfordshire, or rather its ugly sister Bicester Village, an upmarket ‘designer outlet’, just one field away. Dein follows in the tradition of those silent interviewers such as Studs ‘the voice of Chicago’ Terkel and Tony Lighthouse Parker, whose compassionate interest in the stories of the people they are talking to overrides any desire to shine above them. Their skill is to be driven by their beliefs, their agenda, but not to let this squash the voices of those they are recording.

‘It’s a weekday. What else is there to do?’ declares one shopper when asked by Dein why she had travelled to Bicester Village, not Bicester town. Another confesses to having spent £1,270 on ‘a small python bag’, knocked down from a mere £2,540. The mind boggles. Meanwhile, the posh PR woman, anxious to sell Bicester Village’s USP, tells Dein, ‘We are giving a second life to previous-season products, but in a very bespoke setting.’ Bespoke? ‘The new car park has just won an award for its design,’ she tells us, proudly. ‘It’s like a pair of trousers…which is really to make it feel like you’re not in a car park.’ Her voice became more and more strident as if she knew that her words were hollow but could not admit it. When Dein asked what she meant by ‘second life’, there was a stunned silence. No one had dared to ask the poor woman to go off-message before.

In Bicester old town, meanwhile, Dein visited one of the eight charity shops, the only ‘useful’ shops left between the banks, barbers and nail parlours, where one woman tells him, with delight, ‘This was £1.75 — for pure wool. Pure wool.’ The shoppers were after bargains, just the same, but are living in a different reality.

This week Dein took us into the alternative reality of ‘white-collar’ boxing, talking to a lawyer and a social-care recruitment consultant who were about to meet each other in a prize fight held in Kensington Town Hall. ‘I’m not aggressive, but I am competitive,’ declares the lawyer, who made it to partnership level in his firm and then wanted to find another challenge. ‘You can’t walk into the office next morning with a broken nose and black eye. So I’m very careful to make sure that I fight in the right way with people.’ Ummm.

Meanwhile, just to prove that radio is all about change, progress, new technological horizons, last week saw the launch of French Radio London, broadcasting in French only and on DAB for those within Greater London and on the internet for those beyond the M25. It’s mostly music and news, with the music, naturellement, being at least 80 per cent French. Check it out if you want the chance to brush up your French or to experience a very different kind of schedule.

‘Elle est élégante et typée et suit le biorythme naturel de ses auditeurs,’ proclaims the organic-minded website. ‘Vive et pop le matin, libre l’après-midi, nerveuse en début de soirée, onirique et surprenante au cœur de la nuit.’ Or in the English version, ‘lively and pop’ in the morning, ‘liberating’ in the afternoon and ‘slightly nervous’ in the twilight zone. The pop was more enervating than nerve-racking on the day I listened, but there was a certain relish to be had hearing the Irish moneymakers being lambasted en français in the hourly bulletins.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Alan Dein, Arts review, Living in a landscape, Radio 4