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Home from home

21 November 2014

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MOVING house is said to be one of the most stressful aspects of modern life, along with bereavement, divorce, and setting a new online password. Yet the protagonists in last week's The Move (Radio 4, Wednesday) seemed to be doing fine, despite the fact that one couple were moving to Northern Ireland, where they knew only their daughter; and another lady to Scarborough, where the only previous contact had been with somebody on the internet.

Throw into the mix a house auction on which the whole move depended, and you have enough material for several episodes of a documentary called House Moves from Hell. That Rosie Millard's half-hour documentary was cool, calm, and, above all, humorous, says something about the way that radio and TV documentary genres have diverged so dramatically over the past ten years.

The humour came courtesy of Jim, Sheila, and some deft editing. Natives of the East Midlands, the couple were upping sticks and dogs to be closer to family. Jim is phlegmatic: he has clearly experienced sorrow, but refers to the loss of children as "par for the course".

Naturally, he has a shed; and who wouldn't, with Sheila around. Sheila talks for Britain; and for Northern Ireland, too, now that they are moving there. It is her who is mad about the dogs; and, as she tells of how she and Jim are going to sleep in the garage to keep the dogs company while they are between houses, you can just picture Jim's expression of tired acquiescence.

But this was not a case of putting the microphones in front of the couple and letting the drama reveal itself: it is the fine instincts of the programme to tease out the inherent comedy and pathos in this everyday but unique tale.

By contrast, the editorial intrusions we had to endure in A History of Ideas (Radio 4, weekdays) gave the impression of a production team desperately trying to justify its fee. This new series, introduced by Melvyn Bragg, aims to address 12 philosophical questions over the course of 12 weeks, in ten-minute weekday chunks.

One of the first big questions was "What does it mean to be free?" (Monday), and around the table for Lord Bragg's introductory discussion were a lawyer, a philosopher, a theologian, and a neuroscientist. This pre-recorded round-table was given to us in short clips, interspersed with cabaret-style jazz. The intended effect, one must assume, was of a long, languid, and intellectual discussion at an exclusive club; the music served as insurance against the accusation of generality and flippancy.

The follow-up episodes presented a different character: something like the audio version of a textbook, with detailed information about a featured thinker (Isaiah Berlin or William of Ockham) delivered in a semi-robotic voice, as if this were the "info-box" section on the textbook page. That this is a co-production with the Open University suggests that we were being served up an undergraduate module under another guise.

It is a great improvement on the OU programmes of yore, however: segments presented in the dead of night by the clinically hirsute on behalf of the sleep-deprived student.

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