There are few jobs more dishonest than being a radio critic in Britain. I know this because it was how I got my first break 25 years ago as a columnist. In those days you used to get sent huge yellow envelopes full of preview cassettes, whereas now it’s all digital, but the fundamental lie is just the same: essentially you are telling the reader something they know not to be true — that BBC Radio 4 is a wonderfully civilised place to hang out, brimming with all sorts of marvellously fascinating programmes that transport you to another realm.
Yes, of course it does happen. In the same way that when Grozny was reduced to rubble in the Chechen wars, I expect there was some beautiful old building left standing, a mosque maybe, which you could have gone to visit. But if you’d then come back home and told your friends, ‘God, you really must go to Grozny. The architecture there is totally amazing,’ you wouldn’t have been telling the full story, would you?
So it is with Radio 4. (Which, as far as reviewing goes, is radio.) There are times — we’ve all been there — when you’re desperately trying to stay awake on a late-night drive or you’re slogging along a tedious stretch of motorway or you’re stuck in a jam, and to your rescue comes a documentary or even, on rarer occasions, a play so absorbing that time ceases to exist and you could happily stay there for ever.
Be honest, though: it’s not that often, is it? Definitely, I spend far more time shouting at my radio than I do blissing out to it. This is partly a function of the fact that the bulk of Radio 4’s daily schedule comprises so many programmes you can barely bear: Today — just maddening; Woman’s Hour — hateful, sanctimonious, man-hating wittering; You and Yours — bleeuurch; Costing the Earth — like being force-fed to death on sackcloth and tofu; PM — is there anyone on radio more irritating than Eddie Mair?; Any Answers — yes, there is and her name is Anita Anand.
And partly, of course, it’s because the BBC’s politics only ever go in one direction. They try really hard to be balanced, the BBC’s presenters. Unfortunately, no more are they capable of it than the scorpion is capable of not stinging the frog carrying it across the river. Like, the other morning Today’s Mishal Husain was trying to interview two people about the EU — one pro, one anti. She had no problem grilling the Brexit person but when it came to giving as hard a time to the Remainer she just couldn’t: not because she didn’t want to, I’m sure, but because she found it literally impossible to conceive of a single argument why anyone would want to leave the EU.
Its science coverage is almost worse, possibly the result of being an organisation full of arts graduates — even environment analyst Roger Harrabin is one — with hang-ups that they didn’t do a ‘proper’ degree. To make up for it, they put scientists on a pedestal: lo! The mighty keepers of the flame of knowledge with their white coats and bunsen burners.
I can’t recall ever being entertained or much educated by a single one of Jim Al-Khalili’s The Life Scientific (Tuesdays), now in its umpteenth dreary series, because he’s too stilted, and too easily impressed by whichever dreary prof he’s interviewing, never calling their claims into question. This week’s snoozer with a full-of-himself US cosmologist called Lawrence Krauss was no exception. Krauss sounded off against Republican anti-science, against Donald Trump and, inevitably, against climate sceptics. Al-Khalili listened, tongue lolling.
Possibly the ne plus ultra of Radio 4 boringness, though, are its afternoon plays. They’re invariably so third-rate you find yourself almost wishing you were listening to Jenni Murray, or even one of those worthy shows Radio 4 is so good at about the plight of Muslim women in Bradford or how terrible dyslexia is.
Every now and then, though, they throw in something halfway decent to wrong-foot you. Last week I quite enjoyed Furquan Akhtar’s Brotherhood (Friday)— a thriller about the pressures and divided loyalties faced by young British Muslims in the era of Islamic State. (Though the Islamists did get off a bit lightly.)
And this week, I was reminded how lucky we are that Jonathan Ruffle’s superb Tommies has become such a regular Radio 4 fixture. It’s a docudrama about life on the Western Front, meticulously pieced together from regimental war diaries and personal accounts, which convincingly recreates the banter and technicalities of military life, allowing your imagination — as radio does — to fill in the detail better than any film ever could. Such a pity it never, ever seems to be on when I’m driving.