‘Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight…’ It all began on Friday night with the Shipping Forecast, made world-famous by Radio 4’s team of continuity announcers. Radio reigns supreme in these Olympics. It’s so much part of why Britain is different from the rest of the world, and Danny Boyle sparked off his extravaganza by recognising this. Hurrah! We’ve stuck with the old wireless technology, adapting, renewing, ensuring that the power of radio as life-saver, fact-checker, storyteller not only survives but also grows in stature. TV gives us the brave new world of moving pictures, and brought Boyle’s creative vision to life, but the commentators never seem to have done enough preparation. They know we can see so don’t seem to realise that most of us need a lot of help if we’re to understand why it’s all about teamwork in the peloton, what to look for in Rebecca Adlington’s stroke style, and how all those marks on the bars, the beam, the rings and the floor add up to a gymnastics gold medal. The best way to experience the Opening Ceremony was to have the TV on with the sound turned off so that you could simultaneously listen in to the commentary on Radio 5 Live.
Tony Livesey and Mark Pougatch took us through the quirky complexities of Boyle’s floor show, knowing just how much to tell us, what we most needed to know. ‘Ah, yes, here’s Isambard Kingdom Brunel,’ they declared, as soon as Kenneth Branagh popped into view in a shiny black top hat and sideburns. I’d never have worked this out from all that hectic activity with hammers, drums and molten steel (and the TV team gave us no help). Boyle’s chronology as he told our island story was all over the place, as Lynne Truss so brilliantly pointed out in her laugh-out-loud snapshot of the Olympic spectacular on the Today programme on Saturday morning. Not that it mattered. The whole shebang was just so wonderfully bonkers. Where else would have dared to give us not just one verse but the whole eight verses of that depressing, dirge-like hymn ‘Abide with me’? But Pougatch, Livesey and co. are the broadcasting medal-winners. We may not know their faces but you could tell how much hard graft had gone into their commentary, researching, planning, thinking it through, to bring it all to life on air.
Early on Saturday morning that Radio 4 staple Open Country took us to the White Cliffs of Dover for an investigation into what makes them such a symbol of Britishness. Helen Mark spoke to coastguards, geologists, botanists and of course Dame Vera ‘White Cliffs’ Lynn. It’s the rain that keeps the cliffs so white, we discovered, their brilliance enhanced by the contrast with the vivid, verdant green of the chalky grasslands on top. Julius Caesar was drawn to land just beneath them in 55 BC, but moved on to Deal, deterred by the hordes of ancient Brits thrusting javelins into the air from the cliffs down on to his Roman boats, determined to remain independent. All this we discovered in just half an hour of radio, no pictures required, the cliffs conjured up by Mark’s lively commentary as she crunched along the chalky gravel paths and scrambled down to Shakespeare Beach to look back up the 100 metres of stark white cliff face. ‘What is it about that song?’ she asked Dame Vera. ‘When you hear it, the cliffs are there in your mind,’ Dame Vera replied. ‘A little picture…’
Words and Music this week could have been the soundtrack for Britain’s Olympic festival. If you’ve never tuned in to this Radio 3 programme, it’s probably unique to British broadcasting because of the care with which readings of poems, thoughts, comments are selected to complement snatches of music around a given theme. There’s never any linking commentary or explanation, and it lasts for 90 minutes without interruption — no time-checks, no jingles, and definitely no tweets or emails. Words and music are allowed to slide into each other, sometimes dreamily, at others thought-provoking because of the weirdness of the juxtapositions. On Saturday the topic was just so English — ‘The Parish Priest’ — and like Boyle’s Friday-night project it was irreverent, cheeky, nostalgic, yet also fully rounded. We had Handel, Gilbert and Sullivan, Wynton Marsalis and ‘The Vicar of Bray’, along with Dickens, Trollope, Jane Eyre and the Wisdom of Solomon. Church bells rang out, babies cried, and Prince William recited his marriage vows. Best of all was Michael Kitchen quietly reading from the Bishop of Oxford’s account of visiting a family who have just lost a child in a nonsensical accident — ‘As I walked the short distance I felt completely devoid of words to say or prayers to offer. Nothing could reduce the tragedy ...all I could do was be with them and soak up the edges of their pain.’ What could follow that? Nothing but James MacMillan’s ‘A Child’s Prayer’, written for the dead children of Dunblane.