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
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.