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Sentimental memory

19 April 2013


IN ALL the commentary and reminiscence re-echoing around the broadcast and print media after the death of Lady Thatcher, there are plentiful examples of that psychological declension that transforms painful memory to bitter-sweet memory, and finally to nostalgia. When the transformative agent is music, then this process can be swift and irreversible, as was demonstrated by The People's Songs (Radio 2, Wednesday of last week).

Recorded before the announcement of Lady Thatcher's death, this episode in Stuart Maconie's outstanding survey of British popular music in the later 20th century was serendipitous, in that it dealt with songs about industrial unrest in the 1970s and early '80s.

If the witnesses featured here were to be believed, the Three-Day Week of 1974 might be thought to have been an enchanted party, with candlelight illuminating family board-games, and where British virtues of neighbourliness and stoicism, dormant since the Blitz, were reawakened. The ambivalent attitude of us Brits to the hardship, and the industrial relations that caused it, is expressed not in songs of outright protest from either political perspective; but, instead, in ironic offerings such as "Right, said Fred", sung by Bernard Cribbins.

The most successful song of this genre from the era was "Part of the union" by the Strawbs, although it was not affiliated with the trade union ambitions of the early '70s. Meanwhile, Slade's "When the lights are out" celebrates power-cuts as an excuse for some old-fashioned heavy petting; and even in the early 1980s, when a group of former Marxists called themselves the Flying Pickets, their chart-topping success came in the form of the synthesised close-harmony effort "Only you", which sounded as if it was sung by a group of Oxbridge choral scholars. It is a very British confusion of messages.

Mixed messages of a different kind blighted the powerful Afternoon Drama: The fewness of his words (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week). Hugh Costello's script told of a fugitive paedophile priest who is tracked down by a Vatican "fixer", and persuaded to give himself up. Inevitably, this fixer is himself conflicted; and the attempts to make him into the flawed-yet-fascinating hero lead to some unplanned humour. It does not, for instance, make your heart beat faster to hear that your hero is making a visit to the UK to do some research at the Bodleian Library.

My main problem with this was the excuse required to drag the story out beyond the moment when the errant priest is discovered. Our priest-hunter is persuaded at this point not to call in the police straight away, but to let the man confess and be redeemed first. It made no sense at all, and thus the "dilemma" that the publicity had likened to a Graham Greene novel, was no dilemma at all.

They say that it takes several episodes for a new sitcom to bed down; but Grandpa Ted (TWR, Saturdays) is going to require a month of Sundays. It claims to be "the UK's first Christian sitcom", written from a Christian perspective. And if you ever wondered why it is the first and only one, then just tune in. I won't say more, for it has a good heart and laudable ambition. But these things alone never made anybody laugh.

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