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Radio

Sunday sustenance

22 October 2011

2:00 PM

22 October 2011

2:00 PM

Before we knuckle down to the week’s offerings I’m going to seize the opportunity (this review is a one-off, so no need to panic) to champion a regular programme: Something Understood (Radio 4, Sunday mornings at 06:05 and repeated at 23:30). It’s on every week and, while some are better than others, I’ve never heard a dud. It is neither more nor less than a 30-minute encouragement to be human — just what my (church-free) Sunday morning needs before the bells take over the airwaves.

Mark Tully (the most frequent presenter) picks up a subject in both hands (this week: mentors) and handles it with sympathy, good sense and good humour — he always sounds to me like a modest man who has understood not just something, but pretty much everything. Other voices will read poems and tell stories; other people will be introduced to mull over the selected topic and we will hear music — this week Bach, Bernstein and ‘The Bare Necessities’ all featured. It’s half an hour which is neither too big nor too clever but a right-sized portion: audible brain-food of the gentlest, most restorative kind. The edible equivalent would be a perfectly timed boiled egg and a pot of strong tea.

‘We hear with our ears, but we listen with our mind.’ That message, which introduced The Sound of Fear (Radio 4, Thursday), is in itself resonant; thrilling; portentous. This excellent programme examined how our live and leaping imaginations turn sound into effect. When we hear the shrieked alarm of a gang of spooked cockatiels our mind listens and is put on alert — it is perfectly natural, a forest-learned response, to hear a noise and to imagine — envisage — anticipate — an unseen, unrealised threat.


Bernard Herrmann took that panicked cry — Shriek! Shriek! Shriek! — and turned it into music. Alfred Hitchcock played those screaming violins alongside a scene of shocking murder. We watch Psycho; we hear its soundtrack; our mind listens and responds with both an immediate terror and an ancient panic. Simple, but genius: the sound is used and the listening mind is exploited. ‘You want your dinosaurs to give people a fright,’ says the man in charge of imagining the Tyrannosaur’s roar for the BBC. ‘You want it to seem real…and if you can frighten kids as well, then so much the better.’ The grin in his voice gave him away — after all, how many people can say that it’s their job to make children afraid?

At the end of the programme we arrived at silence, the sound we should fear above all others, but can never quite hear, while we live and breathe. In 1951 John Cage emerged from an anechoic (noiseless) chamber and asked the source of the two continuous sounds he had heard. That high-pitched whistle? His nervous system. And the low hum? The circulating of his blood. Without those two sounds there would have been silence, but he could not have been there to hear it.
No time for that sort of quiet contemplation at the Nailympics, a three-day event (‘Like Lucinda Prior-Palmer except with fingernails’) at Olympia Earls Court. In Up to Scratch (Radio 4, Friday) we heard a nervous Kit Hesketh-Harvey hurl himself headlong into the mayhem. Nail design was celebrated and championed, competition was fierce and the atmosphere febrile.

Bewildered, delighted and astonished Hesketh-Harvey managed — just — to keep his head above water. Soon he was sporting an embellishment of his own (‘You would suit a nice, pretty 3D flower’) and being told that there has been a recent ‘explosion of interest in this tiny little canvas’ — thanks to the recession. Nail-painting is a cheap way to tidy up one’s body, mind and entire life. ‘If [your fingernails] are a mess, the whole of you is a mess,’ we were told in a reproving tone. At last I discover where I’ve been going wrong.

This programme, unlike The Sound of Fear, should never have worked on radio and yet it triumphed, and not in spite of but because of the limitations of the medium. Just as my imagination leapt when it heard Bernard Herrmann’s violins, and trembled at the bellow of the dinosaur, it sprang into glorious flight when it heard Hesketh-Harvey describe the scenes which confronted him at the Nailympics: ‘One of the Italian craftsmen,’ he murmured in a confidential tone, ‘has produced a very sinister dentist’s tool with which he is drilling holes through the stiletto length of a bright yellow nail to make it look like Emmental cheese.’ Now there’s a sight for radio.


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