Kate Chisholm

Crime and punishment

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Just a snippet on an edition of Today last spring taken from the programme that had just won an esteemed Sony Gold radio award was enough to create an impact. Ray and Violet Donovan were talking about the murder of their son, Chris, on a feature made by the Prison Radio Association. The programme was part of an innovative Restorative Justice scheme, using the power of listening to help victims, heal prisoners, and of taking that one further step by then broadcasting their conversations throughout the prison network. It was one of those moments when you just had to stop whatever you were doing. There was something in the voice, the stillness around that voice, the lingering echo of what was being said.

It made you want to hear more from Ray and Violet, and from the prisoners. What were their reactions? Is there a chance that such a conversation might really change a prisoner’s life? Originally, the award-winning programme could only be heard inside prison walls. But on Monday night a shortened version (produced by Marianne Garvey) was broadcast on Radio 4. The Victim’s Voice took us to a room inside HMP Brixton, where Ray and Violet and another victim of violent crime, Michelle, were gathered together with three prisoners, Carl, Liam and Adrian, who have all been convicted of serious assaults, for a conversation led by Professor Tanya Byron. She’s a psychologist with a particular interest in violent crime, sparked by her own experience as a teenager of discovering the battered body of her grandmother, victim of a random, pointless act of violence.

The professor stressed several times that these particular prisoners and victims were not ‘connected’ by specific crimes, only by the shared experience of violence and its aftermath. Yet the tensions inside that room, those four walls, were palpable as Violet began by explaining ‘The day just started out normal’ but ended by stating, so very simply, ‘I couldn’t believe that anyone could stamp on someone’s head.’

Perhaps most striking was the way that both Ray and Liam praise each other for their ‘bravery’ in being willing to come and talk, really talk about crime. Not a word was said for effect. Everything was telling, and doubly, triply so because of the containment of those six people within that room. It must surely have been the most powerful conversation on radio this week.

It’s such a simple idea, to bring together a group of people in a single room to talk about a specific subject, but it’s a device that works so well on radio. Nothing else is needed, just words, and the way they are said, for real drama to be created each and every time. On Sunday Sue MacGregor introduced a new series of her programme The Reunion (produced by Brian McCluskey) by talking to a trio of Girl Stars from the Sixties, Helen Shapiro, Petula Clark, Sandie Shaw, alongside the songwriter Jackie Trent and Ready Steady Go! producer Vicki Wickham. She might have guessed that nails would be extended, blood drawn, because there was such rivalry in those days to be top of the Top 10 spot, and there were so many contenders, Shapiro reminding us that the Beatles toured with her and not the other way round.

It was lucky for Jackie that she was not in the studio, but talking down the phone from Majorca, as there’s evidently no love lost between her and Sandie. Jackie started it by piping up with a few lines from ‘Everybody Loves a Lover’, which Sandie had just admitted was the first song she had ever sung in public. Jackie gushed it out like Doris Day. ‘It was not done in that style,’ insisted Sandie, who if you’re too young to remember made her name by appearing barefoot on TV, quickly adding, to make her point, ‘It was more R&B style.’

Sue, who as ever had done her research, was quick to intervene, but next minute it was all-out war as Sandie, who obviously never forgets an insult, accused Jackie of once trying to push her into a swimming pool when she knew she couldn’t swim. ‘You’re just a big bully, Jackie,’ said Sandie, drawing blood by declaring, ‘Older women are always bullies.’ Ooooh! Aaaah! The air crackled like a well-played 45.

Just checking, but are you still tuning in to The Archers in spite of all pleadings not to? Chopping onions will never be the same when not accompanied by cows being milked and yogurt churned, but if the Radio Times billings are to be believed (I really, truly haven’t been listening) Ambridge is undergoing a real crisis (‘Mike is evasive and Adam tries to move on’) and we’re going to have to keep up the boycott for a while. But it will be worth it in the end, if only to hear once more Joe grumbling about his cough while Lilian giggles over a gin and tonic.