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Radio: Triune drama

14 March 2012

by Edward Wickham

ONE of the most popular, and misap­propriated, expressions in broadcasting PR must surely be “cutting-edge”. It all depends, of course, on the substance you are trying to make an impression on. The margarine-soft expectations of the Classic FM or Radio 2 audience will be more susceptible to a worn, blunted blade than the hardened, refrigerated listeners of Radios 1 and 3. But it would have been a listener of egregious sensitivity who would have regarded Radio 3’s Saturday- night drama Father, Son and Holy Ghost as anything more than straightforward and traditional.

That Kwame Kwei-Armah’s play did not live up to its description as “cutting-edge” is not to say that this was not an exceptionally well-executed piece of work. It told of Pastor T, the rising star in an urban, Pentecostalist church who comes into conflict with the outgoing bishop over suspicions surrounding the latter’s financial dealings.

The play addresses the respons­ibil­ities a spiritual leader has for managing the expectations of his or her flock, and maintaining a balance between spiritual ambition and personal hubris; and the title of the play invites us to speculate on the wider significance of these tensions.

What impressed, however, was the pitch-perfect dialogue and delivery. Kwei-Armah’s writing was witty and stylish; and the contem­por­ary techno music was both appropriate and innovative.

Somebody who was not and never will be cutting-edge is Johann Sebastian Bach. Even in his day, his music was regarded as somewhat old-fashioned, and it took many decades before the impression of archaism faded. Now, the discip­lined technique and effortless creativity of Bach’s music inspires all who encounter it, not least the pupils and choristers of St Thomas’s, Leipzig, who, by their early adolescence, regard JSB as a friend. “He is still alive in our singing,” one declared to Stephen Evans in Bach’s Choir (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week); and it is the repertoire that the choir is still most famous for.

The choir at St Thomas’s dates back 800 years, and the church has not changed significantly since the end of the 15th century. It survived the Nazi and Soviet eras with the schooling and repertoire of the choir largely untouched. Indeed, during the early German Demo­cratic Republic period, the choir of St Thomas’s was the regime’s most esteemed cultural export. Most impressively, the school managed to fight off the in­junction that the children must learn Russian, and preserved instead Latin as the second language for all choristers.

Radio 4’s observance of Lent could hardly be described as rigor­ous, but we should at least appreci­ate the commitment represented by the weekly Lent Talks (Wednesdays), which this year focus on the individual and society.

The Bishop of Bradford, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, and Professor Linda Woodhead have, over the past two weeks, provided us with nuggets of wisdom. In last week’s talk, Professor Woodhead’s theme was the new social networks that have replaced traditional associa­tions. We may be contemptuous of them, but the networks that sustain 21st-century communities are both powerful and helpful; and no institution can ignore them.

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