As we’ve seen in the past week, the full cost of providing services that no one asked for, digital radio and television, will fall on the licence-fee payer, with the BBC demanding annual increases of 2.5 per cent above inflation. It wasn’t entirely obvious in the early days of digital promotion that this was something the government was pushing hard for; the BBC case was based largely on how vital it was that broadcasting should become digital, as this was a superior form of broadcasting to the existing analogue signal, and our lives would be immeasurably improved if we all went digital. Does anyone, apart from the BBC, really believe that now?
At the time I argued that the BBC should improve its core programmes, many of which remain abysmal today, and should leave the development of digital to others. But no, the licence-fee payer is to pay for it, with a figure of anything up to £200 a year mentioned as being likely in seven years’ time. No doubt some people watch the BBC’s digital television stations and others perhaps listen to the digital radio networks — though I’ve yet to meet anyone who does — but I still think they are utterly unnecessary and superfluous. It pleases the government, of course, as the sale of analogue frequencies in the future will raise revenue, but the biggest burden of this regressive tax will fall on the least well off in society. Still, politically, when the great compulsory switch-off of analogue comes along it will be fun to sit back and watch.
At least we still have Radios Three and Four, both of which maintain their high quality, largely unscathed by the dumbing-down elsewhere. It was good to see these networks marking the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar with a series of programmes about Lord Nelson, the actual battle and the period. I found Drama on 3: Bequest to the Nation, Terence Rattigan’s play about Nelson, his wife and his mistress Lady Hamilton, a stunning radio production (Sunday). Kenneth Branagh conveyed Nelson’s complexity as a man and managed to sound both classical and modern as an actor. At first I wondered what Nelson had seen in the drunken, volatile, vulgar blacksmith’s daughter, but although Janet McTeer’s performance as Emma Hamilton might have been over the top it was mesmerising nonetheless.
Rattigan ingeniously used Nelson’s baffled young nephew George Matcham (Steven France) to delineate and explain the hatred felt by Nelson and his close family towards the blameless Lady Nelson (Amanda Root), who still loved her husband. Forced to confront the truth, he tells the boy that it’s really guilt that lies behind his refusal even to receive letters from his wife. His love for Hamilton emerges as something quite simple, really — lustful sex of the kind he clearly failed to experience with his wife. Emma knew a thing or two. Although McTeer portrays her as a tiresome, unattractive figure of fun, one mustn’t forget that she had been an artist’s model, much admired for her beauty, painted by George Romney no less, and still only 40 when Nelson died. Without Nelson she slid downhill and died ten years later in poverty. Although she’d been left as ‘a bequest to the nation’ by her lover, the government ignored this unusual request. It was radio drama at its best with a strong cast: Gerard Horan as a no-nonsense Captain Hardy and John Shrapnel as the wily, scheming Lord Minto. The play was made by an independent company, Naxos Audio Books, directed by David Timson and produced by Nicolas Soames.
Another delight has been Betsy and Napoleon, the Woman’s Hour drama this week on Radio Four. After the vanquished Napoleon was sent in exile to St Helena in the south Atlantic, he chose at first to live in a pavilion, a large ballroom, in the garden of the house rented by a director of the East India Company, Mr Balcombe. His daughter Betsy, aged 13, befriended Napoleon and this series was based on her diaries and memoirs as well as those of others. In this dramatisation of Julia Blackburn’s book on the subject, Betsy is played spiritedly by Michelle Tate, and Alex Jennings is Napoleon, bemused by his downfall. Betsy treats him as just another human being and scandalises his obsequious courtiers who’ve never seen the Emperor spoken to in such a way. Blackburn said on Woman’s Hour on Monday that Betsy’s remarkable relationship with Napoleon over what was only seven weeks coloured the rest of her life and she was even haunted by it. Whether or not there was a sexual element to the friendship, no one will ever know.