Much ado about Radio 4’s latest venture into the new smart world of aural selfies. Reaction Time, on Thursday mornings, is a compilation of mini-recordings by listeners telling us about their lives (overseen by Kevin Core). No tape machine needed or sound recordist. Just a listener with a smartphone and a thick skin. For these stories are not the kind of thing you would tell your nearest and dearest (unless they, too, have an equally thick skin). But rather they reveal disappointments in love, embarrassing date nights, ‘how I met my husband’, things you might unburden to a good friend over a couple of glasses — but would you do the same to almost 11 million listeners?
Gary tells us about his night with Briony, back in the Seventies when he was a gauche student. A night without passion. A lost opportunity. Rita, now much weightier, you can hear it in her voice, recalls her first love, a much older and more sophisticated man she meets as a young Irish girl new to London when he asks her to share his umbrella at the bus stop. Crystal, in triumphant mode, confesses that she has just ‘fired’ her husband after 25 years, but then adds with a twist, ‘I looooove men. I’ve always loved men and their company…’
It’s listener power, for sure, but will it keep listeners listening? To me it’s gruesome, ear-flinching stuff, but then I could never get on with John Peel’s Home Truths, let alone those episodes of In the Psychiatrist’s Chair when Anthony Clare led his subjects to break down on air. The show is presented by Narelle Lancaster, a listener who was invited to read the scripted links between stories after sending in her account of a disastrous date containing the brilliantly awful chat-up line, ‘Your breasts look magnificent in that dress.’ She has a great voice and a beguiling style which might just lead her into a career change in a year or so.
Give It a Year, also on Radio 4 (Monday to Friday lunchtimes), does much the same thing, giving us the inside stories of people’s lives, but this time the emphasis is not so much on what happens but on what doesn’t happen but might, you never know. Five very different people look back on the last year and think about what it taught them, gave them, took away in five slick episodes (produced by Polly Weston). ‘I’m glad it’s not TV,’ says Susie, laughing. She’s just shaved off her hair for charity ‘and it looks awful’.
Susie is 36, with two children and no partner. Her ideal man, she tells us, is someone who will make her feel special, who can help her look after her two boys, and who they will want to have around. At the beginning of the year it doesn’t look hopeful, but as 90-year-old Roy tells us in his episode, ‘Never say never.’
He wouldn’t say no to a new relationship (not to live with, you understand, just to spend time with) and is still going off on singles holidays, only to find that there are usually 160 women for every 20 men. Still, he’s not deterred. On his wish list is to go wing-walking (walking along the wings of a plane while it’s in flight). You could say this was all just as intimate, just as emotionally revealing as Reaction Time and yet instead of making my ears hurt I was drawn in by Roy, Susie and co, perhaps because they made me feel as though they were sharing with me, not telling me.
I still remember the fuss about the infamous rape scene in the TV version of The Forsyte Saga that was first shown on BBC2 in 1967 and then repeated on BBC1 in 1968 on Sunday evenings, single-handedly killing off Evensong in churches across the land (it was long before video recorders and there were 22 episodes). Listening to the new Radio 4 version, devised compellingly as five short episodes bookended by two full-length dramas (in an adaptation by Shaun McKenna) it was hard to see what all the fuss was about. We have become so inured now to seeing and hearing women being violently abused, either physically or mentally or both.
The current storyline on The Archers between Helen and Rob is becoming more horrific by the day. I hate myself for listening yet have to confess that for the first time ever I simply can’t miss an episode. The latest twist, as Rob suggests to little Henry that his mother is a liar, and promises Helen that he will be watching her from now on every minute of the day, and especially to see what she’s eating (Helen is expecting and has just collapsed with anaemia and high blood pressure), is so frightening it’s putting me off my food. Never has there been such a long-running and menacing storyline on this Radio 4 staple. Never has a woman been so abused. If it’s an accurate reflection of what goes on in many homes, the world’s a lot crueller towards women than in 1968.