I have been thinking recently about the 80s and how it felt for the whole of that decade to feel politically adrift of the mainstream view in this country. One thing that kept up my spirits, apart from all the campaigning I did, was the radio comedy programme broadcast every Friday in a late night slot on Radio 4. Before the days of catch- up and download, it was essential listening.
The show consisted of satirical sketches, mostly mocking the government and senior politicians of all parties and always topical. Apparently, it was written and recorded very close to broadcast.
Bill Wallis, a great character actor, had the most distinctive voice and, along with Sally Grace and David Tate, is the audio memory I have when I think of the programme. It ran from the 70s until the late 90s but I remember it from the 80s when I was a keen listener.
Poking fun at politicians is a healthy thing but seemed necessary to me back then when the values I subscribed to seemed unwelcome in a right-wing Britain. I was glad of ‘Week Ending’ and remember it fondly.
I rarely write about radio drama yet I listen to a lot of BBC plays or I listen whenever I get the opportunity. The selection from the week available as a podcast is usually very good indeed. Thinking back on last year I heard a lot of powerful plays broadcast but the one that remains in the memory is from the early Autumn.
‘Hidden Harm’ by Natalie Mitchell was a wonderful but poignant play about the effects on a brother and sister when their family falls apart. Things are looking up for Sam and his sister Lucy at the start. They have been allowed back home to live with their dad after a year when, following the death of their mother, their father hit the bottle. The main issue is whether he can remain ‘dry’ when his own father has little confidence that he can and when his own mother is herself near to death. These pressures have an effect on everyone but Lucy finds herself in the role of substitute adult. Quite soon she is projecting a positive family image to the world when the reality is something different. Her brother feels left out and retreats to making tapes, inspired by the mix tapes his father showed him. Yet, his tapes reveal the anguish he is feeling.
The play illustrates the harm caused by people who want to do the right thing but whose own concerns prevent them from seeing things clearly. Actors Finn Monteath and Fern Deacon were excellent as Sam and Lucy. ‘Hidden Harm’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I was so taken with Scott Zesch’s history book about children captured by ‘Indians’ in the nineteenth century that I decided to buy the audio book and listen to it on car journeys. As I had read it first, I was expecting to ‘know’ the contents. It was a surprise, therefore, to hear new things. Perhaps it was the narration by Grover Gardner that emphasised points I had missed from the page or maybe it was the slower, somewhat more measured pace you get from listening to a book rather than reading it that helped.
The stories are obviously the same but the added dimension for me, as British, is the American accent of Grover Gardner. This adds a sense of authenticity that might otherwise be lost. He was also able to heighten the sense of drama through his reading so that the sections about the Smith brothers were much more emotional than had seemed at first reading.
‘The Captured’ by Scott Zesch as read by Grover Gardner is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
My latest podcast discovery is this series from the Wilson Center (sic), an American organisation established as a memorial to President Woodrow Wilson. One of the many projects of the centre is a history of the Cold War and a series of podcasts explores the role of sport international relations during this period.
British radio presenter and producer Vince Hunt is the voice that guides us through key events. Each podcast involves an interview with an academic who selects an event or a historical document that illustrates a connection between sport and the Cold War. The selection of topics is fascinating and there is sufficient time to explore each theme, episodes are about 20 minutes each. Vince Hunt is a skilled interviewer; he is able to ask questions which clarify without interrupting historians who know what they are talking about and who are skilled at making their topics interesting.
This series of podcasts is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This BBC radio series of oral histories was excellent and not only because the estimable Bridget Kendall presented it. Each programme is a short exploration of one episode from the early years of the Cold War using interviews with people involved. Use is also made of archive recordings.
The series covers events from 1946 until 1962. I understand that a further set of programmes covering the 60s to 80s will be broadcast next year.
This is the type of programme the BBC does so well: short but informative with space for the people involved to offer reasoned judgements with the benefit of hindsight. Indeed, this is a series that is only possible now that the Cold War has ended.
The obvious episodes are here, including the Berlin Air Lift, the Korean War and Hungary 1956, but there are also aspects of the era I was less informed about such as how important the Greek Civil War was to both sides and how worried America and its allies were (including the Catholic church) over the 1948 election in Italy when the Communists looked close to victory in democratic elections.
These are fascinating programmes. They are in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This radio programme from the BBC is one I make a point of listening to, regardless of what else I need to do. The format is simple but highly effective. Three guests are invited to suggest an exhibit for inclusion in the virtual museum. John Lloyd presides with a different comedian per series at his side acting as the curator.
The mix of guests makes a difference. As with all BBC panel shows, there is the usual line up of comedians who have made an appearance. Of more interest, though, are the scientists, authors, historians and other academics who also appear.
There standard format is comforting. Each programme is divided into two parts: in the first John Lloyd interviews the guests and draws out interesting information about their careers; part two is when the guests make their donation and explain why they are presenting it for inclusion in the museum. Unlike other panel games, all donations are accepted so the guest does not have to convince the curator. The energy comes from the interaction between all three guests, everyone has something to say about the other contributions.
Of most interest to me are the exhibits which could not possible be placed in a physical museum: the singer Suggs donated The Great Exhibition; Richard Herring suggested Rasputin; Sandy Toksvig donated the alphabet; and Jo Brand put in childhood.
‘The Museum of Curiosity’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I haven’t read this book but I have ‘heard’ it. The story of a white settler boy who is brought up by Indians was interesting because of the attitudes it represented; these attitudes reflect the time the book was written, 1953. Conrad Richter wrote his novel to show the boundaries that are crossed between cultures. John Butler was taken captive as a young boy by the Lenni Lanape in Pennsylvania.
The story opens, though, ten years after this event when John, by now seeing himself completely as a member of Lenni Lanape tribe, is returned to the white settlers as part of a peace treaty. He doesn’t want to go. He is, by now, completely assimilated into native American life and does not see himself as ‘white’ at all. So, John returns to the family he was taken from and has to give up the name he was given and which he thinks of as his, ‘True Son’.
What follows is the heartbreak of being taken from the family he knows to return to the family he was taken from. His loyalties are all to his tribe and their way of life. His astonishment at the values of the whites is made clear as is his view that, as humans move away from nature, they lose essential elements of their humanity. It is an unusual take on the essential differences between the cultures.
When I grew up in the 60s, cowboys and Indians was a game of choice on the streets of London. What we learned from television and cinema was that cowboys were always on the side of the good. The Indians were the threat! I was never ware of the novel or any like it that took a contrary view. Reading Susan Cooper’s ‘Ghost Hawk’ recently sent me to this story, there may be others like it. Both stories portray the white settler- native American experience in ways other than the ones I learned as a boy.
Over the years I have continued to explore the idea of identity and the extent to which identity is formed within you or through the external messages given by others. ‘The Light in the Forest’ is a fascinating story when considered in thee terms. True Son feels ‘Indian’ and his birth parents are right to be hurt at his rejection of their way of life. Yet you cannot help but feel sympathy for the boy who is taken away from the family he had grown up with for ten years.