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?
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 three part television drama from Sweden, made in 2012 broadcast by the BBC in 2013, took me back. Set in the early 80s, it tells the story of a young man Rasmus who moves to Stockholm from his country home after graduating from his high school. In the city, he intends to find the gay community and find the acceptance that alluded him back home.
He discovers a group of young friends who welcome him into the fold but this is the time of AIDs and, as the story develops, we find out more about the effect of the disease on the young men. Paul is the centre of the group. His flamboyance and love of life ensures all around him have a good time.
Into this circle comes Benjamin, a religious person who first meets Paul while trying to evangelise. He is conflicted about his own sexuality, or rather tries to understand his own sexual yearnings while living within the church. When Rasmus and Benjamin meet they develop a relationship which turns into love.
That love is needed in the time of AIDS and the second and third episodes show what happens to their relationship when the disease becomes personal.
The title is spoken by one nurse to another in an early scene showing the fear that existed at the time. The drama was based on a trilogy of novels by Swedish writer Jonas Gardell. I recently heard a radio play by the same writer covering similar ground; a teenage boy, part of the church and sincere in his faith goes to his pastor for support when he realises he is attracted to other boys. The answer he gets makes it clear the teachings of the church come first. His play, ‘Wild is the Wind’ reminded me of the potency of his television drama.
‘Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This radio series from the BBC and the accompanying book are excellent. This is because Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, is excellent at using artefacts to illustrate and illuminate key moments, and as a starting point for reflection on wider issues. He did such a good job on the series ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’. Here, his subject is narrower but no less interesting. His choice of a nation is also interesting since, as he shows across the series, the borders of Germany have been somewhat elastic over time.
I listened to the radio series when it was broadcast but also followed the programme by reading the chapter on the same day. It made for a fascinating experience; listening without seeing the artefact described maintains a focus on Neil MacGregor’s words but seeing the pictures in the book afterwards was equally as important. I suppose television wouldn’t find the space or time for such a series, or it would conflate everything into a chunk for the schedule. It works best as radio.
What I found most fascinating of all was to learn about the places that are now firmly within the borders of other countries, such as Poland and Russia, but which were once German. Strasbourg Cathedral was very important to that hero of German letters, Goethe, but the place of his affections is now clearly part of France.
In deciding to tell the story of German history, the connection with other European countries has been important. What is known by many in Britain about this country is often conflated to the years 1914- 1918 and 1939- 1945. MacGregor shows that there is much more to know while recognising that this is a country that has every reason to take history seriously.
‘Germany: Memories of a Nation’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I was in London recently so returned to the British Museum. As I was there I reflected on how important this museum has become to me over the years. I return several times a year and each time I seek out something I have been meaning to see. It is a much better experience, focusing on just a few objects. When I first came here as a school boy I was keen to see it all and dismissed most of it as unimportant.
In the last few years, the BBC radio programme ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ has guided me through. I listened to the series when it was broadcast in 2010 and bought the book, which I still dip into ahead of a museum visit.
Then, this week it was announced that Neil MacGregor the director is to retire. His is the voice on the radio programme and his is the expertise that informed the book. It was such an inspired idea, to tell the history of the world through carefully chosen objects from the collection. I am sure there have been many copies of this simple but clever idea by all sorts of museums, galleries and organisations. The important thing is that the objects all came from the British Museum collection and it is possible to go to London and see artefacts and works of art from just about any country in the world.
My history lessons were nearly all about Britain. Other countries were only considered, if at all, when considered in relation to British history, hence the Empire featured strongly. The idea of other places and other people having a civilisation as distinct from a British/Western one was unheard of. And this is just one of the things that Neil MacGregor did in his time as director. He showed that there are other perspectives. Power to his elbow.
The British Museum is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Visiting the memorial to Bomber Command reminded me of the excellent BBC radio production of the Len Deighton novel called ‘Bomber’. I have never read the book but I remember the news around the radio production when it was first broadcast. The BBC took the decision to broadcast it ‘in real time’ so that the sense of 24 hours in the life of a bomber crew were recreated. I downloaded the programme so did not have the same experience but it was riveting nevertheless.
The programme, so I imagine the book also, tells the story of a raid on Germany in 1943. We learn about the RAF crew, the back up team around them, but also the German civilians in the town the bomb. In the drama we hear the preparations, the take off and long journey to Germany, and the return home by midnight… for those we make it home.
The best thing about this drama was the exposure of the human cost of war. Germans as well as British are at the heart of what is going on and it is made more poignant by the fact that we, as listeners, know what is coming, for both the Germans at the end of the bombs as well as the air crew who are in danger of being blown out of the sky. The fictional town in Germany sounds like a town anywhere with everyone going about their daily business. It makes for difficult listening, knowing that some, if not all, of the characters will be killed.
Throughout it all, Tom Baker narrates with his deep tones adding to the sense of impending doom. There is no doubt that lives will be changed after this one night.
The BBC radio production of ‘Bomber’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?