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Subject to ridicule

25 July 2014

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NOWADAYS, the subject matter might be a politician allegedly calling a policeman a pleb. Three hundred years ago, the scandal that rocked the ruling class involved a nobleman's cutting a lock of hair from the head of his beloved without her permission. But in the hands of Alexander Pope, the affair becomes the subject of one of the great poetic satires in English literature.

The Rape of the Lock is 300 years old, and to celebrate that fact Ian Hislop presented The Verse That Stings (Radio 4, Sunday), which discussed not just Pope, but the whole position of the satirist and the Establishment. The society in which Pope operated was the first in England in which poets could make a living entirely from writing, and he found that he could thrive through patronage.

Looking to the Latin satirists for inspiration, Pope and his peers did not spare the sinner in decrying the sin. His protagonists in The Rape of the Lock are easily identifiable as the leading Roman Catholic aristocrats of the day.

Inevitably, the question arose of the satirists' relationship with their victims; and both Hislop and his guest Armando Iannucci (the writer of the TV series The Thick of It) stand in that awkward position of being critical of, and welcomed into, the circles they hope to rile. One of the reasons why this balance can be maintained is because people recognise the characteristics being satirised - not in themselves, but in colleagues.

Another reason is that they simply occupy a different Establishment: one that is entirely self-sustaining, and whose currency is a cultural capital just as enriching as the political capital sought by public servants.

One figure travelling in a more distant orbit in the celebrity cosmos is John Shuttleworth, aka Graham Fellows, whose home-made take on cabaret-style radio is presented in John Shuttleworth's Lounge Music (Radio 4, Sunday). In this, Shuttleworth's latest series, he invites pop has-beens into his house; to celebrate mediocrity.

Last week, it was the turn of a band, the '80s sensation Heaven 17; and, to their credit, Martyn Ware and Glenn Gregory were charming participants in the Shuttleworth fantasy-world, exchanging sex, drugs, and synthesised pop for "fun and frolics in the conservatory". Any pretensions to greatness were swiftly despatched with bathos by their host: when one of the band declared that one of their singles had been the biggest-selling single in the United States, the lightning question came: "So have you got an ISA?"

The kind of low-budget creation that Shuttleworth offers may prove to be a template for serious radio shows in the future, if the cutbacks to the BBC's programme-making funding continue. On Feedback (Radio 4, Friday), Roger Bolton discussed with the Director of News, James Harding, the prospect for high-level journalism, when 415 jobs are disappearing from news (and more than 100 being created in digital).

Mr Harding's job is to put a good spin on a dire situation; but there was something particularly desperate about his espousal of a new, localised model for news reporting: the BBC is, after all, about Swindon as much as it is about Syria.

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