Kate Chisholm

Faulty connection

Plus: why the Today team should listen to Vanessa Feltz's show on Radio London and the extraordinary force of nature that was Catherine the Great

Faulty connection
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There’s no doubting her passion for the programme of which she is now chief of staff. Talking to Roger Bolton on Radio 4’s Feedback slot, Sarah Sands told us repeatedly how much she loved Today, how it was ‘a privilege’ to be in charge of such a ‘flagship’ programme, how its length, three hours, was such a luxury after years spent in the newspaper business. She was so happy to have so much time to cover big subjects and invite so many experts into the studio to talk about their subject. She relished the challenge of preserving the programme’s ‘depth and resonance’, its ‘great intelligence’ and ‘thoughtfulness’.

Sands was responding to recent criticisms that there are now too many ‘soft’ interviews on the programme, not enough hard-edged reportage, and that, in particular, the themed programme about London Fashion Week had failed to investigate that business properly, appearing instead to be rather in awe of fashion’s glamour, its celebrity and luxury brands. Sands’s glowing enthusiasm is impressive, and it has to be said that listener figures are on the rise, although this is probably a temporary response to global turbulence and domestic insecurities rather than a sustained increase. Inadvertently, though, she gave away the reason why the programme is losing its edge.

Nowhere did she talk about engaging the listener. Nowhere did she suggest that she appreciated the essential difference between her background in published news and what it’s like to listen. Nowhere in what she said did she appear to understand the special connection that’s made between the person behind the microphone and the listener at home. At Today, the story is becoming ever more locked inside the studio.

By chance, at peak morning time on Monday, I tuned in to Vanessa Feltz on Radio London (my FM Radio 4 signal having disappeared under a blast of static, and digital being too fickle to bother with). Feltz was on fire about the Dove advertisement for body lotion showing a black woman taking off her top to reveal a white woman underneath. What struck me immediately, and kept me tuned, was her approach to the story, which went straight to the nub: who authorised the advert? How could it have got through the chain of command at Unilever (which owns Dove)? What did they intend the advert to mean? She addressed straightaway all these questions with an immediacy that felt a long way from how the Today team would have tackled the issue. Feltz, of course, fronts a phone-in programme, which is very different from the remit of Today. But it might be worth Sands and her team tuning in from time to time to learn from Feltz’s innate gift for hitting on what we want to hear, from her finely tuned connection with her ‘lovely listeners’.

For Radio 4’s season of programmes marking 100 years since the Russian Revolution, Vanora Bennett took as her inspiration the classic tourist souvenir brought home from Moscow or St Petersburg, those dolls inside dolls, either the political version starting with Putin and going through Yeltsin, Stalin, Lenin and Marx, or the folk version of five working women, pink-cheeked, wearing headscarves, the real bearers of Russian tradition. In Russia in Five Babushka Dolls (produced by Sam Peach and Mark Rickards), she gave us five women who have influenced the course of Russian history, beginning on Monday with Catherine the Great and, via Stalin’s wife, Ayn Rand and the first Russian woman cosmonaut, ending up with one of the members of Pussy Riot, the punk rock group who were prepared to go to prison to defend their right to protest against the government of Vladimir Putin. Given Catherine’s story, as revealed by Bennett, the Empress would probably have approved of Pussy Riot’s defiance of all convention.

An extraordinary force of nature, Catherine was said to have died while having sex with a horse, which says much more about the way she made men feel uncomfortable than about her actual character. Married at 16 to the weak and ineffectual Peter, she was a political pawn, sacrificed to satisfy the desire of her Prussian royal family to link their puny country to the vastness of Russia. After a few miserable, lonely years, she realised that it was up to her to make her destiny. Not averse to a bit of violence (Peter was murdered most probably at her request), she then set about modernising the country to which she had been virtually exiled, grabbing the riches of the Orthodox Church to build her own palaces and cities, and buying up most of European art to decorate them.

Bennett’s essays took us further inside Russian history than the laborious drama, Ten Days That Shook the World, which was supposed to give us the sense of being witness to the October Revolution as it happened through the eyes of John Reed, an American journalist who reported back from Petrograd (as St Petersburg was then known). Here the tone was just so wrong. ‘Have you talked to the workers, the peasants? Have you been to the front?’ asks his wife Louise Bryant, also a journalist. Would she really have said that in 1917?