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Speaking for England

Radio 4 needs fewer regional voices, and more beautiful ones

19 February 2011

12:00 AM

19 February 2011

12:00 AM

Three decades ago, when his voice still carried some weight, Malcolm Muggeridge reckoned that social historians of the future would be puzzled by the middle-class death wish that took root after the second world war.

It isn’t hard to see what he meant. Some time in the Sixties, politicians and other public figures who had been educated at private schools started to feel ashamed at their good fortune, and moved heaven and earth to deny those who followed the advantages they had enjoyed. Today the consequences are evident wherever one looks. Thousands of lives have been blighted by the doctrine of bogus egalitarianism, and we are all weaker for it.

But it is not just schools and universities where standards have been eroded. Last week the BBC Trust, the corporation’s regulatory body, assisted the wretched process by calling into question the virtues of Radios 3 and 4. It seems that the qualities which sustain these stations, apparent to nearly everybody who listens to them, irk the Thought Police at Broadcasting House. Radio 4 was damned for ‘didacticism’, Radio 3 for being insufficiently ‘light’.

David Liddiment, a member of the Trust, told the Today programme that Radio 4 represented a Home Counties view of Britain. His comments were amplified on Any Questions by Tristram Hunt, who said the BBC formed part of a white, middle-class establishment. Naturally it is not an establishment to which the Hon. Tristram Hunt, educated at University College School and Trinity College, Cambridge, belongs. How fortunate are the voters of Stoke-on-Trent to be represented by a London blow-in called Tristram!

There will now be an attempt, yet another one, to move Radio 4 towards ‘spontaneity and conversation’, a phrase that means absolutely nothing. For if one listens to Radio 4 in the course of a day, as 10 million people do, conversation is at the heart of the network.

Not everything works. The News Quiz, hosted by that self-satisfied waffler Sandi Toksvig, is infested by unfunny comedians who want you to know how liberal they are; Jonathan Dimbleby’s handling of Any Questions is often indulgent; and Kirsty Young’s failure to elicit necessary biographical details from her guests robs Desert Island Discs of some spice. Overall, however, Radio 4 can only be rated a triumph of public-service broadcasting. Together with Radio 3 it justifies the licence fee.

What Liddiment really meant, of course, was that there should be more regional voices. Dress it up whichever way you like — ‘demotic’, ‘spontaneous’, ‘natural’, ‘informal’: that is the nub of the matter. If you want to know where that road leads, listen to 5 Live, which has developed over the past decade into Radio Halfwit. There you will find all the regional voices your heart could desire, and few have anything interesting to impart. What Radios 3 and 4 need are not more broadcasters with regional voices, but fewer. Modulation, evenness of tone and clear projection are the most important considerations, and while it is true that many broadcasters born north of the Wash have these qualities, many do not.

Jenni Murray and Ian McMillan, for instance, are both from Barnsley, but only the long-standing presenter of Woman’s Hour is in the right place. McMillan, who hosts Radio 3’s The Verb, referred last week to Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘One Art’ as ‘wun-airt’. Such brutish speech is unacceptable. Send him back to Yorkshire.

What people like Liddiment fail to acknowledge is that northern folk (I happen to be one) enjoy lucidity of speech and clarity of diction as much as people who live in the Thames Valley. The best radio voices are, in the best sense, neutral. Think of John Humphrys, a Welshman, and Eddie Mair, who is Scottish. They don’t belong to any establishment. They are superb professionals, and are therefore welcome in any home in the land.

Instead of making Radio 4 more ‘accessible’, let us restore a bit of discipline to those parts of the station that need repair. It would be pleasing if Sarah Montague stopped greeting guests on Today with a breezy ‘Hi!’. What is wrong with ‘good morning’? And don’t ‘Rob’ and ‘Gary’, the sports presenters, have surnames? They do, so let’s hear them.

The best radio voice? Surely it belongs to David Attenborough. His Life Stories return to the wireless this week and each programme will reveal a master of the airwaves, whose sentences unroll like an ever-flowing stream. No gimmicks, no silly inflections, no ‘provincial’ frippery. Just a peerless craftsman who cherishes our language, as indeed we should all do.

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