On paper and on air, there’s nothing to suggest that the Radio 4 series Across the Red Line will have sufficient listening power to draw you in so that once you’ve reached home and need to get out of the car you’ll rush straight in to switch on the radio. The billing in Radio Times describes it simply as a 45-minute show in which the journalist Anne McElvoy ‘invites figures on opposing sides of a political issue to listen to each other’. And that’s exactly what it is. A pair of talking heads tossing about a topical football, guided by McElvoy, who has as her sidekick a conflict resolution expert, Gabrielle Rifkind, brought in to moderate the session if things get lively.
It’s so spare a format — no music, no soundtrack — the accountants must be pleased (the only overhead being the provision of a studio with big mikes, and in this case, a quartet of armchairs). Yet it makes for riveting listening. In the first programme (still available on iPlayer) Hugh Muir, associate editor at the Guardian, was brought together with Charles Moore, of this magazine, to discuss their views on immigration, or more precisely whether it’s OK to be wary of people from other backgrounds. Given their opposing circumstances and allegiances (Muir, the child of immigrant Jamaicans, was educated in east London; Moore is straight out of Eton and Oxbridge), there was not much hope of resolution, you might think. But under McElvoy’s shrewd guidance (and the scrupulous editing of producer Sarah Shebbeare) this was not so much a series of hammer blows by a pair of contestants determined that their voice should be heard loudest and longest as an inquiry into why people think as they do, what makes them wary of each other, is that wariness justified.
As Rifkind said at one point, ‘I don’t think you need a conflict mediator.’ Each was listening to the other. And for once on a discussion programme this didn’t matter. Argument, conflict, tension was not what McElvoy was after. On the contrary, she was hoping to find answers, or at least a degree of understanding. Which is why halfway through the programme she moved her guests from the formality of a table strewn with microphones to those comfy chairs to change the angles of debate. Rifkind suggested that Moore and Muir should question where their arguments came from, what underpinned their thoughts and beliefs. As Muir said about Moore, no one is ever wary of him, makes assumptions about him, ‘No one looks at you like that.’
But really this whole exercise was not about talking so much as listening. ‘Listening is very difficult,’ Rifkind reminded Muir and Moore. ‘We assume we are quite good at it, but listening is a muscle that needs training, and we don’t do it that naturally.’
New Year’s Day was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frankenstein, or rather of his monster, created by Mary Shelley and now the epitome of all things we fear about progress and what science can unleash on an unsuspecting world. How Shelley came up with such an extraordinarily complex and far-seeing novel is still the stuff of magic and inspiration. Much is talked about that stormy night in June 1816 when the Shelleys visited their neighbour Byron at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva and were challenged by him to come up with a ghost story. Yet nothing quite explains the imaginative brilliance of the teenaged Shelley, or the way she expands her original short story into a three-volume novel of great pathos as well as nightmarish horror.
Frankenstein Lives! on Radio 4 (produced by Jane Long) took us back through the archives to trace the transformation of Shelley’s vision into the monster we know today via stage plays, horror films, graphic novels, Boris Karloff, Herman Munster and co. ‘I am the new Frankenstein,’ announced Dr Christiaan Barnard after he completed the first ‘successful’ heart transplant operation in 1967, tapping into the unexpected afterlife of what was at first not a bestselling novel. Only when it was transformed into a stage play five years after it first appeared did Mary’s monster enter the popular imagination. Its power lies in its ‘air of reality’, said Professor Sharon Ruston; this really could happen.
Our fears are not always fanciful, as the World Service made clear in Pandemic (produced by Ashley Byrne), which took us back to the flu outbreak of 1918–19. The virologist Professor John Oxford has been studying the epidemic for 30 years in the hope of finding out how it started and why it was so particularly devastating. It’s calculated now that more than 50 million people died from the illness and that it reached every corner of the globe. Most weirdly, it was often young, fit people in their twenties and thirties who were most at risk; not as you might expect the elderly. It took just ten days for the outbreak to engulf South Africa. There was not enough wood for the coffins; many were buried in mass graves. ‘If you heard someone sneeze, it would be spine-chilling.’
There was no better way to persuade us all to have the flu jab.