Forty years ago, the idea of having an hour of BBC Radio devoted to men talking about themselves would have been so cutting-edge. Back in that dark age, you could still see City gents striding to work in pin-striped suits and bowler hats, whose buttoned-up appearance reflected (or so we have always been led to believe) their social behaviour. No self-respecting member of the male élite would have been happy to sit behind a mike chatting about their emotional problems. Now, though, after witnessing the extraordinary sight of wet cheeks on George Osborne, Andy Murray, and even Ken Livingstone, all the mystery of male difference has evaporated. We know, we’ve seen: they’re just like women, really.
At the same time in the past four decades women have appeared mostly to abandon their tearful trepidity and are daring to go for what they want: power, at work and at home. A new book (by Professor Alison Wolf) has even suggested that, at least in the top 15 to 20 per cent of the population, men and women have achieved a degree of equality (if at the cost of everyone else).
Dear old Auntie, though, has not caught up with all this social change and is still determined to keep alive the fires of gender difference. A new series of Men’s Hour, ‘the magazine for modern men, in which men reveal their troubles, desires, and insecurities’, started on Sunday night, not as you might expect on Radio 4 as a companion piece to Woman’s Hour, but on Radio 5 Live.
When the programme was launched a couple of years ago I really didn’t think it would last. Surely we’re just too gender blasé now to want to listen to something so sex-specific. But here it is again, with items this week on wife-bashing, heroism, the latest ‘life-enhancing’ gadgets and, perhaps more surprisingly, cosmetic surgery for men. To listen in to men discussing not just their Botox injections and hair-movement therapies but also their feelings about them could be thought of as innovative and attitude-altering.
Take the hairdresser who has had ‘vampire bloodlift’ treatment costing £400 and who admitted on air that he had it done to make himself look younger: ‘I had to do something. You have to look your best [as a hairdresser] and especially because I work with younger people.’ Who would have thought it? Men worrying so much about their appearance they’re prepared to suffer 200 injections and a blow to their bank balance? But how much more interesting would the discussion have been if we’d also heard at the same time from women who’d gone for a nip and a tuck.
Next morning I checked out Woman’s Hour, in the spirit of Everyman. How much has it moved on since its launch in 1946? At that time the not-yet-so-well-established BBC was anxious to show its allegiance to its political bosses by creating a programme for women that would help them to readjust to their postwar lives and settle back into domesticity. No more driving tractors, looking after the family single-handed, keeping the country ticking over. For women it was back to jam-making, dinner parties, and how to manage troublesome Tommy (aged three or 33).
Now of course Woman’s Hour tackles anything remotely connected with female issues, from women politicians to scone-baking via child abuse, body image and the menopause (actually this last topic was first aired in 1948). On Monday, Professor Wolf shared with us her findings on the rise of the female boardroom bosses, while Jane Garvey talked to a woman who’d suffered a coronary aged just 37, neither of which would have featured in 1946. But again we could have learnt more if the item had not been so gender-specific. What, for instance, do we know about heart attacks in career-hungry men?
Whereas Men’s Hour has a six-minute-long news and sports bulletin halfway through, Woman’s Hour ends with a 15-minute drama, reinforcing age-old stereotypes: only fluffy stuff for the women while the men are given real meat. The current serial, The Cazalets, based on the novels by Elizabeth Jane Howard, and about a family living through the second world war, is unusually long: 45 episodes. The production is superb (with Penelope Wilton as narrator); the lavish length is a brave and brilliant conceit, giving the characters time to breathe. The trouble is they’re all so dislikeable. I just can’t bear to listen to their chatter, and find myself switching off. What I want from Woman’s Hour at the moment are challenging stories about the women and children trapped in Syria. Or, as my 92-year-old neighbour suggested last week, for a keen-eared reporter to take an audio recorder into the female medical ward of a local hospital before it’s too late. Many of the patients will be 90 or thereabouts and will have lived through the second world war. Ask them what they did in the war, my neighbour told me; they’ll have stories to tell.