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Plain and simple

29 August 2014

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IF THE Church of England were asked to come up with a format for a radio programme, it might come up with Agree to Differ (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), "a new way to understand a controversial issue", the blurb says.

In it, two participants from the opposite sides of a controversy meet in an empty studio, with only Matthew Taylor for company, and state their case. No audience, no tweets or texts from listeners at home. And, at each stage of the debate, Taylor marks out territory on which the participants might stand together.

It is, if truth be told, a little dull - which might sound unfair coming from somebody who detests the Moral Maze format of confrontational debate. And the problem with the first show in this new format was that, as a subject for debate, fracking does not light many people's fires.

This is not to say that intense feelings are not stoked by the topic; but they tend to be localised. As the combatants, George Monbiot and James Woudhuysen, both admitted, people can get hot under the collar about fracking. As an advocate of fracking, Woudhuysen has had to face crowds of them at public meetings. These are the people who will live next door to the plants, fearful for the foundations of their houses and the combustibility of their tap-water.

But it was the manifest paradox of this programme that the one thing on which Monbiot and Woudhuysen could agree was that environmental policy should not kowtow to the NIMBYs. From Woudhuysen, such indifference to local sentiment might be expected; but from Monbiot this position can be explained only by the fact that the environmental lobby has its own NIMBY problem, with pesky locals whingeing about his beloved wind farms.

The Reunion (Radio 4, Friday) demonstrates how good radio can indeed be created in a single studio with a few people sitting around a table. Last week's, telling the story of the Berlin Airlift, was yet another example. There were contributions from pilots and logistics managers who worked on what is still the largest humanitarian mission in British aviation history.

The story can be told by statistics - the two-and-a-quarter-million population that was provided for, the thousands of flights - but it was the testimonies of these participants that gave the programme such rich historical texture, delivered in voices suffused with a form of British sang-froid which would sound stereotyped if it were scripted.

I enjoyed the account of the pilot who, when intimidated by a Russian plane, decided to fly right at it. "Did you see the whites of his eyes?" Sue MacGregor asked. "I couldn't - I had my eyes closed."

Not particularly funny now; you had to be there. Such is the excuse, Will Self argued in A Point of View (Radio 4, Friday), that confirms him in the opinion that "Nothing is funny twice." His essay is a case in point: amusing and contentious while you were in his company, but utter nonsense if you take the effort to recollect it in tranquillity.

After all, isn't this the man who spent years as a panellist on the TV comedy show Shooting Stars, where the humour was relentlessly repetitive?

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