FROM the self-proclaimed "biggest broadcasting deployment in
peacetime" to ignominy, humiliation, and violent breast-beating,
the BBC has had an embattled year, alleviated by none of the
virtuous resilience of Dunkirk. The Olympic coverage may have
demonstrated how, in the hour of need, all hands could be turned to
the pump - the cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew commentating on
archery, for example, and Five Live's redoubtable team doing the
best they could with synchronised diving - but, as the hour for the
BBC's big 90th anniversary approached, the Corporation was shooting
at itself over sexual-abuse allegations and editorial
mismanagement. The only beneficiaries of such a crisis are those
who either do not know how bad standards of radio broadcasting are
elsewhere in the world, or do not care.
So it is with a certain protectiveness that I recall the
broadcasting flops of the year; for they, at least, all dared to
aspire. Classic Serial: Songs and Lamentations (Radio 4,
June) is a case in point: a two-hour narrative squeezed from the
book of Jeremiah and associated texts, which suffocated in its own
earnestness; another was Richard Holloway's Honest Doubt
(Radio 4, June), which attempted a 20-part history of religious
scepticism, and lost its way after a couple of outings.
It is not that time and effort are not expended on these
projects: take Says Who? (Radio 2, November), whose
attempted survey of people's attitudes to morality employed some
refined production values. But pacing is everything, and this
effort was slowed down by the weight of background noise, the
endless playlist of an over-zealous editor.
Two Radio 2 documentaries make it into my 2012 favourites: A
Year in the Life: The Beatles 1962 (October) told the story of
the Fab Four's coming-of-age; and How Sweet the Sound: The
Amazing Grace story (May), a survey of the hymn in all its
myriad forms, from the Scots Dragoon Guards to the Blind Boys of
Rougher round the edges, but on a good day no less effective, is
the Five Live method: immediate, and hands-on. Nicky Campbell
taking performance-enhancing drugs (5 Live Breakfast,
August) was compelling; and Men's Hour (July) on
circumcision was traumatic; while Victoria Derbyshire's live
programme in June from an abortion clinic justifies by itself her
status as one of the BBC's finest.
You need great original material to make a great radio
programme; and my two highlights of the year benefited from such.
Radio 4's drama Blasphemy and the Governor of Punjab
(September) told the story of the life and death of Salmaan Taseer,
murdered for questioning Pakistani blasphemy laws. Methodical, yet
bristling with righteous anger, the piece gave a valuable insight
into a dysfunctional society.
Social dysfunction and moral ambivalence are all part of the
world that James Joyce recreated in his masterpiece
Ulysses, which, on Bloomsday this year (16 June), was
celebrated on Radio 4 with a seven-part adaptation of the novel.
This story of a flawed hero, negotiating prejudices and
blandishments with a quiet determination, would make an appropriate
role-model for the BBC in these dark days.