In all the fuss over BBC salaries this week, I heard nothing about the quality of the presenters and the relative merits of their salaries. Bridget Kendall came to mind as an example of the very best of BBC journalists. I wonder what she got paid!
This second series of ‘Cold War Stories’ was essential listening. Just like the first series broadcast on BBC Radio Four last year, it is made up of fifteen minute episodes, each relating a specific event in the Cold War, with contributions from people who actually took part. It takes off where the last series ended with the death of Khrushchev and follows on chronologically, taking in events such as the fall of Saigon, the Prague Spring, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the birth of Solidarity in Poland. There are also episodes on the proxy war in Africa and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Later episodes cover the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Bridget Kendall is now Master (!) of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Her expertise in Russian made her an outstanding journalist for the BBC and this series reminded me of her contributions to bulletins when a trusted voice was essential.
Jeremy Bowen is something of a BBC star as far as I am concerned. His level headed reporting from one of the world’s hottest regions is always worth listening to. He seems to get across complex ideas with clarity and he is not prone to that modern journalistic disease which rates feelings over facts and imagery over clarity.
This series of short (fifteen minute) radio programmes, broadcast by BBC Radio Four, allows him the opportunity to reflect on his twenty five years of reporting from the Middle East. I remember most of the stories the covered even if many of them were long forgotten to me. He carefully crafts a modern history of the region through returning to his news reports.
The series is not without feeling, how could it be, when as a journalist, he has seen some terrible things? Yet, while showing his humanity he never forgets that his job is to report the facts and get the stories out. There are brief glimpses behind the scene as well, though. He tells the story of his dinner party for fellow journalists on the night Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered.
‘Our Man in the Middle East’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
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?