Inform, educate, entertain 

3 October 2007

Stephen Hopkins traces a personal history and evaluation of Radio 4

Fans of Hercule Poirot, one of Agatha Christie’s enduring creations, may recall the great man on occasion listening to the radio and hearing something relevant to a case he is working on. In one episode or another, the station itself gets a mention: the National Programme.

The what programme? Poirot is set in the inter-war years (1918-1939), when radio broadcasting was in its early stages. Perhaps over-simplifying a little, by the 1930s two main radio services had evolved. The National Programme broadcast to the majority of the population from Daventry, and the gaggle of local stations that were the mainstay of the BBC in its earliest years had coalesced into the Regional Programme, which broadcast from a number of transmitters serving the main centres of population.

They didn’t survive the war, or the peace. At the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, the BBC Home Service took over on the frequencies of the Regional Programme, while the National Programme was renamed the Forces Programme and used to entertain the troops. In 1945 the BBC re-organized its services on a peace-time footing. The Home Service was retained; the Forces Programme had by this time become the Light Programme, and a new Third Programme was broadcasting as well. And thus the pattern was set for the next two decades.

The big shake-up came when the BBC launched a new pop-music station to fill the void left by the passing of the pirate radio stations thanks to the Marine &c Offences Act 1967. The new Radio 1 broadcast on one of the frequencies of the Light Programme (which itself became Radio 2). The Third Programme was renamed Radio 3 and became (for most of the time anyway) a classical music station, and the Home Service took up some of the Third’s non-music programming and turned itself into Radio 4.

Radio 4 has been part of my life for pretty much as long as I can remember. It was always part of the furniture when I was growing up; during the evening meal, the family would often have the radio on the sideboard switched on for the six o’clock news. I can remember sitting in the secondary living room (what we called the study), listening to PM when Gordon Clough and Suzanne Simonds were presenting it. I also recall playing or helping my father with something in the back garden, with Down Your Way coming from the radio perched on the garden wall.

I remember the heady days in the summer of 1995, when Conservative rumblings of discontent simmered, culminating with the announcement by the then Prime Minister, Mr John Major, that he would resign and seek re-election as leader of the Conservative Party. I kept running from one room to the other, flicking between TV reports from ITN and coverage on PM, which was on the air as the news broke. Similarly, the election broadcasts covered on Radio 4 (and in later years simulcast on Radio Five Live) have been compulsive listening.

One year, for his birthday I got for Dad a copy of Just a Minute: Silver Minutes. He let me make a copy of it, of course, and some of the featured escapades involving the great four (Derek Nimmo, Clement Freud, Peter Jones and Kenneth Williams) still reduce me to helpless laughter, even if I know them verbatim. Just a Minute is still going strong, and even if surmounting the heights set by the original team is an almost impossible task, it still makes me laugh.

Another panel game that is usually good value is The News Quiz. I have a number of episodes on tape from ten or fifteen years ago. It is interesting to listen again to archive recordings and compare them with more contemporaneous editions to spot similarities and differences. Sandy Toksvig has a different style to Barry Took (who is the first presenter I remember hearing), who in turn was different to Simon Hoggart, but it has always been an interesting (and amusing) listen. Some of Alan Coren’s cuttings in particular are classics, although he does seem to have the knack of comic delivery.

Elsewhere in my childhood, Week Ending, a long-running satirical review of the week in the news (and whose mantle has been inherited by the likes of Dead Ringers and The Now Show) was a constant source of amusement. I have long been a news junkie, and I credit Radio 4 for doing much to stimulate my interest in news, politics and current affairs. As I got old enough to understand the world around me, knowing what had happened that week allowed me to appreciate topical comedy in a way that would otherwise have been next to impossible. During the school holidays I would sometimes go to my room and rest for a bit after lunch. I would sometimes catch the end of The World at One and the day-time repeat of The Archers, followed by the news and Women’s Hour.

This would not be possible now, of course. In 1998, the then Controller, James Boyle, radically overhauled the schedules. Out went the arts programme Kaleidoscope and Week Ending, while Sport on Four moved to Radio 2. In its place came Home Truths, presented by John Peel, while Today gained an extra half hour and The Archers a Sunday episode. The World at One now ran for 30 minutes instead of 40; Women’s Hour moved to the morning; You and Yours now lasted a full hour while the lunch-time comedy programme moved from 12.30 to 13.30, displacing the lunch-time repeat of The Archers which moved to 14.00. The Moral Maze moved from Thursday mornings to Wednesday evenings, while Feedback moved from the weekend to Friday lunch-time, doubling in length but losing much of its bite with presenter Chris Dunkley giving way to (in my opinion the less effective) Roger Bolton. The news bulletin at 19.00 was cut back from five minutes to two and The Archers lost a couple of minutes, thus allowing a new arts magazine, Front Row, to run from 19.15 to 19.45.

The new schedule was not popular. Radio 4 audiences are notably conservative, and that such wholesale change proved too much, at least in the short term. It was reflected in the listening figures, which plummeted. Ironically, looking back, I soon adjusted to the current schedule, to the point where reverting to the pre-1998 one would have been as disruptive as the original change undoubtedly was. Sure, I have increasingly hazy recollections of the old schedule (I can hear now the late Nick Clarke the Friday before the changes came into effect: “The World at One; this is Nick Clarke with – mark these words well – forty minutes of news and comment”), but as often happens, radical change beds in and over time becomes as familiar as what it replaced. I had grown up with Radio 4, and become accustomed to regular programmes’ places in the schedule. In words that might be familiar to those who heard Robin Scott, Controller of Radio 1 and Radio 2, broadcasting on both networks just before Radio 1 struck out on its own for the first time, it was familiar, like a pair of old shoes, and when you get a new pair they take a bit of time to break in until they fit properly, and occasionally squeak a bit at first.

It was also at this time that the weather bulletins on Today started getting shorter and harder to understand. The weather would usually start at five minutes to the hour and run for a good three minutes, giving John Kettley or Michael Fish ample time to meander through the forecast, area by area, at a leisurely pace. Now, it starts at three minutes to the hour (officially, at least; sometimes closer to two), to the extent that the poor forecaster is so squeezed for time that by the time he’s finished you hardly know what to expect in your part of the country. I sometimes wish that if the preceding interview overran, they would sacrifice the inevitable trailer in order to do justice to the weather forecast.

Some years ago, I was regularly getting up before the lark and listening to the radio as I was getting dressed. I’d sometimes listen to Radio 1 or Vibe FM (in the years before it re-branded itself as Kiss), but often I’d hear the World Service as it handed over to Radio 4 at the start of the day. Thus it was that I became acquainted with that peculiar but much loved arrangement of British traditional music known as the Radio 4 UK Theme.

The music that until 2006 started each day on Radio 4 is often (wrongly) thought of as the UK Theme of Radio 4. The post-war Home Service inherited the regional structure of the pre-war Regional Programme; consequently, Radio 4, which took over the Home Service’s medium wave frequencies, was also initially a regionalized service. Recognizing that the development of local radio was making regional radio redundant, the BBC gradually phased out Radio 4’s Home Service regional variations, culminating with a grand re-organization of frequencies on 23 November 1978. The BBC took advantage of international changes to medium wave frequency allocations (for a detailed account, see Development of the BBC AM transmitter network) to re-shuffle its medium wave services. Radio 4 moved to 200 kHz (later tweaked to 198 kHz) on long wave, displacing Radio 2 which found a new home on 693 and 909 kHz medium wave. To emphasize the fact that Radio 4 was a truly national service in a way that the old Home Service never was, it was for some time billed as Radio 4 UK. Hence, when reading the name, the mental comma should come after the third word: it is the Theme of Radio 4 UK.

What do I usually listen to on Radio 4? Let’s look at what I heard in this (not atypical) week. I don’t listen to it at work over the internet because I’d never get anything done! I will usually switch on Today in time for Thought for the Day, which often makes me pause for thought. I time my lunch break religiously so that I’m back home for The World at One, and often catch the tail end of PM. I do a bit of washing up while listening to the news at six, and often lie down for a bit or do some housework with the 18.30 comedy programme in the background. I’ll usually catch The Archers when I can (and sometimes Front Row, if the running order is tempting enough), and The World Tonight at 22.00.

On Monday, I heard bits of The Learning Curve, discussing educational matters, although I admit I was more prone to playing music this Monday evening just gone. I have other engagements on Tuesday evenings so I usually miss the radio altogether. On Wednesday, I was delighted to see the return of The Moral Maze, this week discussing euthanasia, and this was followed by the usual repeat of the Sunday Supplement from Sunday’s The Westminster Hour. Thursday was particularly fascinating, with In Business discussing the idea that the businessman who views his occupation as a craft is more likely to do well than one who adheres rigidly to management school orthodoxy. After Costing the Earth, which I caught bits of, Melvin Bragg returned with In Our Time, which this week dissected the life of the philosopher Socrates.

I had some time ago read a quote attributed to Socrates: “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” I had not a clue what this meant. One of the contributors to In Our Time had an idea. Socrates wanted to test the received wisdom of the Oracle of Delphi, that there was no one wiser than he; so he would dispute issues of the moment with those who believed themselves to be paragons of wisdom, only to find that their believed knowledge was based on some misapprehension. So, Socrates concluded that the Oracle was correct: he was indeed the wisest man alive, because true wisdom consists of recognizing the limits of your own understanding.

Another episode of In Our Time devoted itself to the topic of the Permian-Triassic boundary, the period in the great story of our planet in which the continents formed a unitary land mass known as Pangaea, the crust of the earth split in present-day Siberia and massive and protracted lava eruptions belched masses of gases into the atmosphere. It offered little comfort to those of us who fear the effects of global warming taken to extremes, for these, combined with other factors, led to a massive rise in earth temperatures and a progressive deterioration in the ability of the earth to sustain life, resulting in the extinction of a full 95% of all life on earth.

Why do I like Radio 4 so much? It’s a hard question satisfactorily to answer, but I think I have finally settled on one simple fact: it feeds my brain’s thirst for information and knowledge. The calm, unhurried presentation of news, and the sober and restrained delivery of inter-programme links, by consummate professionals such as Brian Perkins, Charlotte Green, Harriet Cass and Peter Donaldson are in marked and, for me, refreshing contrast to the over-excitability of their counterparts on some other channels. It is a reliable source of news and current affairs, with regular briefings on issues of the moment. It offers personal and reflective dispatches as heard on From Our Own Correspondent, useful information in the guise of Moneybox, a regular political fix with The Week in Westminster and Today in Parliament, a thorough analysis of issues of the moment with Any Questions?, drama with The Saturday Play, access to literature contemporary and classical with A Book at Bedtime and The Late Book, and a range of light entertainment with numerous panel games and light entertainment. And I’ve barely scratched the surface.

Radio has a powerful ability to stir the emotions. I remember sitting in the car on the day the death of Mother Teresa of Calcutta was announced. One of the tributes spoke of how she had rescued an elderly and infirm woman who had been abandoned (if I recall correctly) to her death; dumped in a refuse bin by, of all people, her own son – can you believe it?! – At least, the speaker intoned, the poor dear would have experienced a degree of humanity and human kindness before she died. Hearing that unsettled me like few things can, and I still find it difficult to recount it now.

For me, Radio 4 comes as close as anything the BBC has ever done to being an unqualified success. Sure, it sometimes gets things wrong, as regular listeners to Feedback will attest, but looking at at overall it is almost impossible to fault. I have often listened to Desert Island Discs and marvelled at those who achieve the impossible and whittle down their favourite pieces of music to a list of eight, but my choice for a book would be much simpler: it would have to be one of a dictionary, a book of quotations or a guide to English grammar. And my luxury? A wind-up radio permanently tuned into Radio 4, I think. For those of us who value a healthy and active mind, who relish delving into the guts of a complex or complicated argument or moral or ethical dilemma, who see the importance of keeping up-to-date with what’s happening at home and abroad, and who value the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, the sort of intelligent speech that Radio 4 broadcasts is vital nourishment for the brain.

Station controllers, schedules and even names come and go, but I like to think that, at least in part, the Radio 4 of today carries discernible echos of the best of the Home Service and the National and Regional programmes of old. It observes par excellence Lord Reith’s edict that the BBC should inform, educate and entertain, and its range of programming and overall style make it the sort of station with which even Hercule Poirot might still identify.

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