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Highly thought of

10 January 2014


THE words and style of liturgical music have been recruited to many a peculiar cause over the centuries, but it still came as a bit of a shock to hear, in About the Boys (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), that the film score to Alien 3 featured so prominently the Agnus Dei.

I confess I do not know the film, and so cannot guess at the symbolic significance that this appropriation might engender; but my hunch is that it is less to do with the eucharistic text and more to do with the sound and sensibility evoked by having a treble voice singing Latin.

About the Boys was all about why boys' voices are, in the introductory remarks of the presenter, Christopher Gabbitas, so poignant and natural - as if coming "from the heart". So no pre-judgement there, then. There is no shortage of material to bring to bear on the question, as couched in these terms. We are all familiar with the theme tune to the TV series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and Ernest Lough's "O for the wings of a dove". And, to give it all more gravitas, we heard from a scientist about the physiological effects produced by the particular frequencies in the treble voice.

Other views are available, of course, as are other kinds of treble; and it would have been refreshing had this programme looked beyond the vaulted quires of English cathedrals and chapels. We at least had the scholar Martin Ashley on hand to remind us that all this reverence is socially conditioned, and tells us much about how we think about the civilising influence of song.

If you wanted to bring gender analysis into it, you might want to explore what was meant when one commentator referred to boys' voices as sounding more "pure" than girls'. Certainly this subject deserves a survey that takes you further than the first verse of "Once in royal David's city".

Across the Board (Radio 4, weekdays) was as amiably batty as About the Boys was limited and conventional: Dominic Lawson meeting five people whose public fame belies an obsessive interest in the game of chess.

As the 15-minute game progresses, Lawson interviews hissubjects about how chess has inspired or even saved them, while from time to time we hear the commentary of the chess master Daniel King telling us about the strategic errors each player has made - as a result, presumably, of trying to make a radio programme while negotiating the Sicilian Defence or Zukertort Opening. What other radio programmes could you create using this template? Interviewing Umberto Eco over a game of tiddlywinks, perhaps, or Ann Widdecombe while playing Twister? In any case, it worked for me.

It was fascinating to hear from Natan Sharansky about the games he played in his head during his years in solitary confinement as a prisoner of the Soviet state; and from the writer John Healy about how his prison cell-mate Harry, "the Brighton Fox", taught him the game that would prove so addictive that it provided a substitute for alcohol.

The notorious burglar persuaded Healy by pointing out that it was the only game where you got to steal a queen and kill a king without getting nicked.

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