Radio 4

Why do I find sketch shows – even the better ones – so embarrassing and charmless?

On sketch shows, the wisdom once was that you needed a punchline. That is, a slightly hammy, summative sign-off to let people know that they had come to the end of any given bit, to help the audience keep its bearings. The rules changed when the team behind Monty Python, who hated writing that mugging final joke, discovered that you could simply cut to Graham Chapman wearing a dress in a field and saying in a stern voice: ‘And now for something completely different’ — and it turned out that this was not only just as good, it was actually quite a lot better. This is the problem with sketch

Floods you with fascinating facts: Trees A Crowd reviewed

Listening to Trees A Crowd, a podcast exploring the ‘56(ish) native trees of the British Isles’, solved one of childhood’s great mysteries for me. Why, when you plant a pip from one type of apple, does it grow into a completely different type of apple tree? The answer — one kind of apple tree will typically cross-pollinate with another variety to pass on a different set of genes — is less interesting than the next bit. Which is that if you do plant, say, a Braeburn seed, and it takes, you’re likely to end up with crab apples. The reason, as explained on the podcast, is that the wild crab

Why the mangling of language matters

I thought that this week I would share with you a bunch of words and phrases which are currently overused and I find thoroughly annoying. The idea came to me after hearing a woman with the IQ of a soap dispenser speaking on Radio 4 about the godawful programme Love Island. During the course of her peroration she continually referred to myself. Not to me, but to herself as ‘myself’. Such as: ‘I would say so far as myself is concerned…’ No, sugartits. The word is ‘I’m’. She is far from the only culprit: myselfitis is spreading rather more rapidly than the Delta variant. So too is its kind of

Refreshingly unfettered: LRB Podcast’s Close Readings on Patricia Highsmith

I’d forgotten what a rich and deep and characterful voice John le Carré had. Listening to author and lawyer Philippe Sands’s Archive on 4 programme on him last week, I was struck by how much more engaging it was than almost every other male voice on the radio these days. Le Carré’s weren’t simply the measured tones of a mid–century public schoolboy. There was a real spirit in his voice, something melodic, which, in a world of Nick Grimshaws and Greg Jameses, stopped me in my tracks. Le Carré’s voice was undoubtedly part of the armoury that enabled him to win people over, even ‘to manipulate crowds’. This, his youngest

Why In Our Time remains the best thing on radio

In Our Time is the best thing on Radio 4, possibly the best thing on the radio full stop. It is broadcast regularly from a parallel universe where everyone is interesting, everything is worth knowing and anyone can know it if they want to. It gets the best out of its medium by being somewhat contemptuous of it. It understands that the overproduced trimmings of modern radio are entirely extraneous. There will be no sound effects, no music and no catchphrases. All that we need by way of introduction is the word ‘hello’. After that, there’s no telling what will follow. ‘Hello. In 541 AD, in the realm of Justinian,

Enjoyably tasteless: Power – The Maxwells reviewed

This year marks three decades since Robert Maxwell fell naked to his death from the deck of his yacht, The Lady Ghislaine. Power: The Maxwells is the latest contribution to the never-ending autopsy of Maxwell’s character and the circumstances of his death. It follows a now well-established formula, juxtaposing the lives of Ghislaine and her father, marvelling at how against seemingly unbeatable odds she can have managed to disgrace the good name of Maxwell, and throwing in the occasional Trump soundbite as a garnish of relevance. The Maxwell family iconography is simply irresistible — she, the ‘international party girl’, ‘friends with princes and presidents’, now languishing ‘in a Brooklyn jail

Englishness vs California dreaming: Meghan and Harry’s Archewell Audio reviewed

On Archewell Audio, Harry and Meghan’s new podcast, ‘love wins’, ‘change really is possible’, and ‘the courage and the creativity and the power and the possibility that’s been resting in our bones shakes loose and emerges as our new skin’. There’s no room for Christmas — the first episode dropped as a ‘Holiday Special’ — but there is for kindness, compassion and more than a few bromidic interjections of ‘So true!’ The podcast purports to ‘spotlight diverse perspectives and voices’ and ‘build community through shared experiences, powerful narratives, and universal values’. Turn down the volume and what you’ll actually hear is the most tremendous tussle between Englishness and California dreaming.

Enjoyably bad-tempered: The Lock In with Jeremy Paxman reviewed

‘I used to be Mr Nasty! That was good! Mr Nasty was easy!’ Jeremy Paxman bellows at Michael Palin on his new podcast. Now Paxman wants to know: ‘Have you got any recommendations as to how you become the nicest man in Britain?’ ‘I’m a very angry, cross person half the time!’ Michael Palin protests, pleasantly. The Lock In with Jeremy Paxman is Paxman’s attempt at a more convivial register — ‘just interesting people, over a pint, with me’ — in contrast to the tone he deployed famously on Newsnight for 25 years: that of the professional curmudgeon. Luckily Paxman is still a hopeless grouch and cannot easily sustain common

A beautiful radio adaptation: Radio 4’s The Housing Lark reviewed

Nineteen fifty-six: the Suez crisis, the first Tesco, Jim Laker takes 19 wickets in a match. But also: Trinidadian pianist Winifred Atwell becomes the first black woman to have a UK number one with ‘The Poor People of Paris’; Kenneth Tynan announces a playwriting competition in the Observer, which is won by the Trinidadian dramatist Errol John, and a third Trinidadian, Sam Selvon, publishes his most enduring novel, The Lonely Londoners. He was photographed the same year by Ida Kerr, looking up out of shot past a crooked nose, a frown half creasing his forehead as a smile plays around the corners of his mouth. Selvon’s novels are fatalistic comedies,

Hats (and knickers) off to the hosts: The Naked Podcast reviewed

I spent half an hour this week listening to a woman make a plaster cast of her vulva. Kat Harbourne, co-host of The Naked Podcast on BBC Sounds, opened a recent episode by buzzing her bikini trimmer over the microphone before squatting over a British Airways peanut dish. Jenny Eells, her partner in crime, stood close by offering to hold up her dress. ‘I feel a bit like a voyeur, almost,’ she said, as if surprised at herself. ‘Thanks for letting me be a part of it.’ Then the mould-maker, Phoebe, put a porridgy alginate in Kat’s dish, and Jenny thought it looked ‘tasty’. Jenny and Kat are used to

Rod Liddle

My pronouncement on the BBC

Radio 4 recently ran an adaptation of Albert Camus’s The Plague in which the protagonist, Dr Bernard Rieux, was transformed into a woman. A woman who was enjoying a lesbian ‘marriage’. Of course they did, you will be muttering to yourself. If the BBC can transgender a rabbit in Watership Down they can certainly put a lesbian in The Plague. The boss of BBC audio drama, Alison Hindell, explained that the masterpiece had been altered to provide ‘contemporary resonance’. Does it resonate with you? Drama invites us to suspend our sense of disbelief for a while but needs to have at least a slender connection to reality. The original story

Why is Robert Burton’s masterpiece Anatomy of Melancholy being sold as self-help?

The BBC has been having a good pandemic. Stuck at home, a generation raised on podcasts and YouTube has discovered the comfort of a radio that babbles quietly in the corner. The concerts from the empty Wigmore Hall, streamed live on YouTube once a day, have been the first classical concerts of my life that could honestly be described as cultural events. And in the initial terror of the disease’s spread, everyone reverted to watching the BBC simply to find out what would happen next. Perhaps our vaunted passion for fake news was only a fad of convenience given that, when our lives depended on it, we really listened to

Adapting Wodehouse for the radio is a challenge – but the BBC has succeeded brilliantly

Everyone knows a Lord Emsworth. Mine lives south of the river and wears caterpillars in his hair and wine on his shirt and has just occasionally written for this magazine. That doesn’t much narrow it down. When you look at him, you understand a little better why P. G. Wodehouse is topping the lists of authors to read during lockdown. It’s not just that the books are funny. With an Emsworth or a Bertie Wooster you’re guaranteed that idling and dithering will land you somewhere. Even if it is in the soup. Adapted for Radio 4 this fortnight, Leave it to Psmith, the second in Wodehouse’s Blandings series, sees the

I’ve lost patience with podcasts and their presenters

‘To be recognised and accepted by a peregrine,’ wrote J.A. Baker in 1967, ‘you must wear the same clothes, travel by the same way, perform actions in the same order. Like all birds, it fears the unpredictable.’ Sitting around in the same old clothes, performing chores in the same order, travelling by no way at all, I’ve found comfort in Baker’s assurance that I may at least prove attractive to birds in my slovenly purdah. Sir David Attenborough read The Peregrine beautifully on Radio 4 just before Christmas, but if you were too busy steaming puddings to listen, you may find this a good time for enjoying the series online.

Ill-disciplined and self-indulgent: The Guilty Feminist podcast reviewed

With theatres shut, radio must lighten the darkness. The Guilty Feminist is a wildly popular podcast performed by Deborah Frances-White and guests. In the episode of 23 March, the presenter hoped the superbug would cure our mania for business trips to ‘Philadelphia for a meeting about key performance indicators… Don’t fly to see people you hate. Fly to see people you love.’ She was probably unwise to dabble in medical predictions. ‘I hope Boris catches coronavirus so badly he needs to be sequestered on a desert island with no loo roll.’ Her co-presenter, Sindhu Vee, mocked her children’s frailties and her own. One of her young daughters announced her intention

I’ve seen wars more amusing than BBC comedy

Last weekend’s papers claimed that the government desires a ‘massively pruned back’ BBC. Former Conservative cabinet minister Damian Green and someone called Huw Merriman spoke out against this, which allowed the BBC to put the headline ‘BBC licence fee: Tory MPs warn No. 10 against fight’ atop its characteristically impartial coverage. I suppose there are various reactions one can have to this, ranging from outrage at supposed ‘cultural vandalism’, via a vague shrug, all the way through to the full Charles Moore. In recent years I have moved through all these stages. The discovery that mattered most was the realisation that the less BBC I had in my life, the