Two significant anniversaries, each very different but both reflecting the BBC’s mission and the reasons for its continued success. From Our Own Correspondent has been on air for 60 years, reporting on events across the world not just as news but to fill in the back story to the headlines. Instead of bombs and bullets, we might find ourselves listening to a Russian-born piano teacher in Gaza who at last finds a grand piano and begins entertaining her neighbours with Chopin. A single episode might take us from shallots in Mali to the strange ways in which Norwegians celebrate midsummer via China’s new passion for shopping, playing roulette in Russia, and the sorry state of Yemen, where Jeremy Bowen is told that trying to govern is like ‘dancing on the heads of snakes’.
On Thursday last week Owen Bennett-Jones introduced a special celebration of the programme from the Frontline Club in London, a sanctuary for reporters on shore leave. He reminded us that FOOC, as insiders like to call it (being ultra-careful to enunciate clearly that double-O), is the only long-running programme that has never had a makeover. Since it was first broadcast on 25 September 1955, the format has never needed to change: short, five-minute reports from reporters ‘in the field’, designed to tell us something unusual or expected, or rather describing how something normal, like buying a loaf of bread, becomes abnormal when gunshots echo constantly through the empty, crumbling streets.
Given that so much has changed about news reporting since the advent of the new technologies, it might seem surprising that the programme has survived just as it is (with the only difference being a marked alteration of tone, from lofty delivery to a much chattier and more personal style). But that is what makes radio so special. It needs no adornment, no fuss, no decorative flourishes. It works best when at its most simple: a person speaking into the microphone not with a global audience in mind but just one person.
Lindsey Hilsum (who has reported from Rwanda, Kenya, Kosovo and Palestine) recalled the days when she had to record her contribution on a cassette and then take it to the airport in the hope of finding someone on the next BA flight to London who was prepared to take the package and deliver it to Broadcasting House. Now, of course, she can file her story on her mobile, ‘live’ from anywhere, no matter the chaos around her. But, she reminded us, although the way it arrives might have changed, the report itself stays just the same.
The biggest change for Lyse Doucet, well known to regular FOOC listeners, is the way in which what was once ‘foreign’ has now become local, as graphically shown by the refugee/migrant crisis. The war in Syria ‘is about all of us now’, she said. Islamic State is not happening elsewhere, it is ‘everyone’s story’.
How, though, does radio and FOOC in particular fit into this ‘great, bustling world of BuzzFeed, TV and satellite communication?’ asked Gillian Reynolds, the esteemed radio critic of the Telegraph, who’s never afraid to speak her mind in defence of the medium she loves. ‘Intimacy,’ said Bennett-Jones, without pausing to think. The way it seems to speak directly to you, and tell you things you didn’t know you wanted to know until you heard them.
The longest-running radio soap anywhere has just celebrated, or rather commemorated, a rather peculiar anniversary: the day on which one of its star characters, Grace Archer (née Fairbrother), shocked ardent fans of The Archers by rushing into a barn to rescue her horse Midnight from the blaze which then engulfed her. Cue much screaming, ‘Grace, don’t do it!’, flames crackling, burning timbers crashing down. Flowers were sent to Grace’s (fictional) husband Phil; listeners phoned the BBC in tears. Followers of the Ambridge saga were so incensed they accused the BBC of sacrificing Grace on the altar of ratings. Her death, they said, was carefully timed to coincide with the launch that night (22 September 1955) of ITV, the BBC’s upstart rival.
Saturday’s play on Radio 4, Dead Girls Tell No Tales, by regular Archers scriptwriter Joanna Toye, which starred the great Simon Russell Beale, as a blundering radio producer, and the indomitable actress Ysanne Churchman, who played Grace back in the 1950s, tried to make out that it was nothing to do with such cynical calculations. But I’m not so sure. Shocking events are always inflicted on the innocent whenever ratings are in question. Do they draw in more listeners? Who can say, but there’s no doubting the current popularity of the soap, which now has listening figures to match the eight million per night of 1955, boosted by the number of podcasters and catch-up listeners.
The latest storyline about ageing mothers is a clever illustration of why Ambridge has such staying power; so many listeners will be facing the same dilemmas. And by and large a lot of the dialogue is spot-on. But I can’t for the life of me understand why Brookfield is too small to house both Ruth’s invalid mother and the lovable octogenarian Jill. It’s a farmhouse, for goodness sake, in rural Borsetshire. Five bedrooms minimum, surely?