On the whole, Radio Four has had some good controllers over the years, the better ones being those who introduced gradual change. The two who were the least successful in my view both tried to rearrange the furniture after moving in; I’m thinking of Ian McIntyre in the late 1970s who, one felt, wanted to return radio to the 1950s, and, in the 1990s, James Boyle, who, enslaved by focus groups, brought in many pointless changes. He was succeeded by the successful Helen Boaden and last year Mark Damazer replaced her.
Wisely, perhaps, he hasn’t said much about his plans for the network, though he does have a few in mind. He gave an inconclusive interview in the Radio Times last month and answered listeners’ questions and concerns on Feedback on Radio Four last week (Friday) without giving much away. It became clear, though, that there would be no revolutionary change; he believed more in evolution. Having said that, I was caught out by Boyle’s participation in the same programme some years back when he soothingly indicated caution and respect for Radio Four only to set about it with an axe. Damazer told the presenter Roger Bolton that any changes he made would be phased in over the next year or so. ‘We know perfectly well that, if you disrupt the schedules too much, too quickly, the audience doesn’t like it. But the trick with Radio Four is to keep ringing the changes in some areas from time to time so that the network isn’t in standstill mode.’
He made the fair point that Radio Four now doesn’t sound like the Radio Four of ten or 20 years ago. Nor should it if it wants to remain in touch with its audience. In response to a moan from a listener that the daily consumer affairs programme You and Yours was too repetitive and, at an hour, was far too long (a Boyle legacy), he disagreed. He wouldn’t be reducing its duration, because its audience figures and approval rating had increased. I used to listen to this whingers’ programme when it lasted half an hour just to see how much money pressure groups and claimants of all kinds were demanding from the government to rectify some grievance or other, but now I find the programme rather tedious. It’s a pity he won’t cut it.
A listener complained about the often dire comedy in the difficult 6.30 spot between the Six O’Clock News and The Archers — exempting Just a Minute and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue — which he described as ‘childish material produced by entertainers...shouting in northern accents’.
He wondered why certain comedy programmes broadcast mid-morning to smaller audiences couldn’t be played at 6.30 instead, when people like him were home from work. I might be wrong, but I can’t think of any controller who’s managed to get this spot in the schedules completely right. Comedy is deemed to be appropriate at that time, but I have long believed that the problem is in finding the right talent and the huge differential between television fees and the money that radio is able to pay. As soon as comedy succeeds on radio, it’s snatched away by television. He admitted he hadn’t made up his mind about the future of Home Truths on Saturday mornings. A listener thought it wasn’t the same without the late John Peel and should be dropped. Although Damazer thought Peel had had a great impact on the programme, it was also about the listeners and their stories and he would need longer to decide what to do with it. I still loathe the programme with or without Peel and would happily see it ditched. I can do without knowing what people do in their garden sheds or how they wash their cars at weekends and all the other banalities that seem to fill Home Truths.
Looking ahead, Damazer might do us a favour in getting rid of Red Nose Day on Radio Four, though, even if he wanted to, I don’t suppose he can. This is a grim time of year when BBC people and members of the public are dragooned into supporting Comic Relief and cavorting with enforced jollity to raise money for African politicians’ Swiss bank accounts and the salaries of aid-agency administrators. One can’t help wondering how much of the £380 million raised in recent years has actually reached the needy in Africa and elsewhere. Very little, I should think, if the state of that hopeless continent is anything to go by. I normally avoid Comic Relief, but was cornered last week by actors appearing on Today pleading with fake actorish abjection for listeners to pay to vote them into an appearance in Victoria Goes To Ambridge, the finale of a satire about The Archers written throughout the week by Victoria Wood, using the soap’s familiar cast. It was all a bit too cringe-making for me and the spoof Archers was, to paraphrase the cliché, achingly unfunny.