How about this for an inspiring response to what could have been a personal tragedy. Chi-chi Nwanoku was in the sixth form at school, a promising athlete hoping to represent Great Britain as a 100-metre sprinter, when she injured her knee playing football. ‘It was a poignantly painful moment,’ she recalls, but thanks to a far-seeing music teacher and headmaster, and her own inimitable character, the accident was turned into a springboard not just for her but, through her, for many other young musicians too. When she returned to school, she was told, ‘We think you could have a career in music,’ and she was taken into the music room where two double basses were lying ready for her. She was not at all impressed at first. But, knowing her and understanding her character, her teachers simply said, ‘Look Chi-chi. When have you ever been put off by a challenge?’
She’s now not only an international soloist as a double bassist but has also established her own orchestra, Chineke!, to champion diversity in classical music, and it is made up entirely of black and other ethnic minority players. It’s named after an Ibo word (Nwanoku’s father was from Biafra in southern Nigeria) and means… Well, you should catch up with this programme and find out from Nwanoku’s inspiring description. She’s a real force; someone who creates change simply by being there. And she has a perfect voice for radio, warm, deep, mellow and above all completely natural. She’s much missed from Radio 3 where she used to present the Saturday afternoon request programme with a quiet presence and complete authority.
Nwanoku was talking to Naomi Alderman in Radio 4’s new Wednesday morning series Only Artists. This week you’ll have another chance to hear her because the programme is modelled on Chain Reaction, where one of the guests hands over the baton of conversation to another for the next programme. She’ll be talking to the artist Yinka Shonibare, who also has roots in Nigeria, so expect a very different take on sculpture.
Special music was commissioned for this series from Brian Eno, an odd way of spending money on a programme that’s essentially about conversation. But I suspect it’s hoped it will assume an independent life as a podcast, where an underlying accompaniment of music, used almost as a subtext just like on film, appears to be compulsory. Take S-Town, the latest cult leader in podcasting (produced by the same team at National Public Radio in America that made the ‘true-crime’ murder investigation Serial) and now boasting 16 million downloads since its release, in one glut, on 28 March.
This is a very different listening experience, and yet another marker that the world of audio is changing just as fast as the internet and visual media. Brian Reed, an NPR reporter, was contacted five years ago by John B. McLemore, a backwoodsman from Bibb County in deepest Alabama. (Though not so deep in the woods he didn’t use email.) He wanted Reed to look into a murder that he claims was never properly investigated, plus any number of other miscarriages of justice (S being short for Shit). It’s slick, professional, but not nearly as compelling as Serial, mostly because McLemore is a pain who, before email, would have spent his days writing letters to newspapers in green ink. The story takes seven hours to unfold in seven ‘chapters’, which might be OK if your source is Homer. But when McLemore started talking about his old school as if the experience had been like (and I quote) ‘Auschwitz’ I knew I’d had enough.
If this had sounded more like a real conversation between Reed and McLemore it might have been just about acceptable. After all, Sean Spicer made a comparable slip. But it sounds scripted, deliberate, as if someone had thought about what McLemore might say as a way of conveying what he’s like as a person. It just doesn’t feel true, even though it appears that it is true, which is an odd consequence of being too anxious to create an authentic documentary.
When Harold Pinter wrote and performed in Betrayal in 1978, the critic and broadcaster Joan Bakewell was not so much appalled as infuriated that their affair had been made so public without her having a chance to tell her side of the story. In private, she wrote her own short drama from her point of view as a mother with young children who felt trapped by marriage and wanted to find a new way of making such a contract work. Forty years later the play is at last being heard, on Radio 4.
In Keeping in Touch (produced by Charlotte Riches and starring Charlotte Riley and Colin Morgan) Bakewell becomes a translator called Rachel and Pinter an architect. They meet at a dinner party, are attracted, and slowly edge towards each other, unable to resist the pull. But Rachel/Joan constantly questions her motives — as you might expect of a character dreamt up by Bakewell, who chairs the incisive, questioning Radio 4 programme Inside the Ethics Committee. At just over 25 minutes, it’s frustratingly short and the coup de théâtre (which, apparently, comes from life) is underwritten, perhaps because it’s too close to the bone. But at least it felt real.