Kate Chisholm

Fever pitch | 28 July 2016

Plus: living with ebola and why radio is one of our great exports

Fever pitch | 28 July 2016
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It cost just £4/10s for 19-year-old Alan Dryland to buy a season ticket that would take him inside the stadium for all ten of the World Cup matches held in London in that magical summer of 1966. The pound was falling, the Vietnam war raging, but England made it through to the final and the Beatles and Rolling Stones were battling it out to top the charts. If nothing else, 66: We Were There, Radio 5 Live’s affectionate look back at that tremendous victory, proved that Sixties music was brilliant. The producer’s choice on Saturday was pitch-perfect, from the Lovin’ Spoonful’s ‘Summer in the City’ to Chris Farlowe’s ‘Out of Time’.

I was there. Well, not at Wembley, but a choirgirl in white ruff and surplice delegated to rush across to the vicarage between weddings to check on the score on our tiny black-and-white TV. We were all caught up in football fever. Not that this meant I was particularly keen to listen to a week-load of anniversary programmes on 5 Live, until I found out that Tom Courtenay was presenting and that it would be a straightforward compilation of memories from those who were really there. I didn’t expect to stay long but I was hooked from the off, by the music, by Courtenay’s distinctive, compelling voice, and the clever way the programme was put together by the producer, Garth Brameld. It was such a contrast to BBC4’s overblown attempt to capture the spirit of ’66 in an Arena documentary, also at the weekend.

No attempt was made at sociological analysis, what football might mean, the impact on our island story. This was simply people talking, interspersed with a gradual unfolding of the match, goal by heart-stopping goal. From the ballboy who was the first Englishman to touch the ball after it was kicked offside by the West German side, to James Mossop, a fledgling sportswriter, who spent the night afterwards celebrating with Jack Charlton.

Charlton said he would buy the drinks, having earned £100 on the day from wearing boots made by Adidas. Unlike the dairy farmer who rushed down from Staffordshire in his father’s Morris Oxford van but had to return speedily after the match to milk the cows he had kept waiting. He was supposed to meet up with his girlfriend next day but could not speak, he was so hoarse from cheering on the England side.

‘If you think small is insignificant,’ said Usifu Jalloh, a traditional storyteller from Sierra Leone, ‘then try being locked in a room with one small mosquito.’ He was talking to Penny Boreham in Ebola Voices for the weekend documentary on the World Service. He and Boreham have been working together on a radio project with the children of Sierra Leone who have been so badly affected by the Ebola epidemic. Their schools were closed, the markets were shut down as the virus took hold, they went hungry and many also lost close family. Now the survivors are living with the after effects of the virus, hearing and sight loss, headaches and intense muscle pain. Many schools have still not reopened.

Their stories are recorded by Child to Child, which works for children’s rights, and sent back to the UK, where Boreham and her team thread them together to make a radio programme that is then sent back to Sierra Leone to be broadcast to the children. Hearing their own voices telling their stories has given them confidence to speak out and voice their fears, and also about what they want when they grow up.

Usifu’s role is to help them tell their stories by showing them how it’s done. He believes that ‘storytelling is the palm oil with which wisdom is swallowed’. A refugee from Sierra Leone’s civil war living in Britain, he went back with Boreham and discovered that the children they met all knew his stories and the jingles that introduce the radio broadcasts. He had never met them, yet they felt they knew him intimately and personally through the stories he had told them via a microphone back in the UK. That’s the power of radio.

By chance I caught the end of Inside Health (BBC Radio 4) while in the car last week. Mark Porter’s programme is billed as ‘demystifying’ health issues and that’s no exaggeration. The words that caught my attention were ‘warfarin’ and ‘rat poison’ but by then I had arrived and needed to get to my appointment. I was so intrigued, though, I had to catch up on iPlayer and discovered once again how efficient and insightful radio can be. Porter’s guest witness Margaret McCartney gave such a clear and concise account of what warfarin does and how it was discovered, she was all done in less than four minutes. We should never take such precise articulation for granted. And to make sure you’ll listen in and be convinced of why radio is one of our best exports, you’ll have to go find her on BBC catch-up to discover why warfarin has in fact nothing to do with rat poison.