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Infrequent laughter

07 November 2014


JUST as the Boy is father to the Man, so is the Young Turk to the Old Fart. It is a truth forgotten by even the most self-aware, be they politicians, artists and even comedians - whose job, you might have thought, would be to register more keenly that inevitable slide into complacency.

And so, much as we all like Graeme Garden and John Lloyd - responsible for some of the classic radio and television comedy of the past 40 years - it is hard not to baulk at their complaints, aired on The Frequency of Laughter (R4, Saturday), about the axing of shows they loved, and the paucity of laughs on the radio these days, while, in almost the same breath, recollecting how stuffy BBC Light Entertainment was when they entered the fray.

While the thought of Quote, Unquote makes John Lloyd proud to be a member of the species, there are others who wonder how on earth such dreary pretension is still commissioned after all these years.

The Frequency of Laughter is a six-part history of radio comedy, from 1975 to the present, and the first episode took us to the end of the 1970s: a time when Ian McIntyre, controller of Radio 4, wielded the new broom.

The amount of material produced in his three years is phenomenal, particularly in comparison with today's moribund turnover; but there was nothing so intrinsically meritorious about The News Huddlines or Week Ending which required their unquestioning reappearance in the schedules. With The News Quiz and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue limping on, sacred cows on which nobody dare place the electrodes, BBC Radio continues to demonstrate a cagey attitude to change.

One thing we can all agree on - Garden and Lloyd described him here as a genius - is the quality of John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme (R4, Wednesday). In its fourth series, and unfatigued by success or an indulgent studio audience, the programme contains a strategic balance of satire and absurdist humour.

In the first category, witness the sketch last week about the antiques collector who has everything - except the swivel chair designed by the most famous carpenter of all, Jesus. In the second, a terrific sketch featured the sun-gods Rah, Helios, and Sol trying to get along at an interfaith conference. Radio comedy will always be a hit-and-miss affair. (If you want an example of a miss, then you need listen to only five minutes of Welcome to our Village, an offering earlier on a Wednesday on Radio 4.) But John Finnemore remains a consistent hit.

Unwitting humour, though, is often the most memorable. And there were laughs a-plenty in Across the Board(R4, Thursday) during which the footballer Sol Campbell simultaneously played chess with and was interviewed by Dominic Lawson.

Campbell is, by his own regular admissions, a modest, humble man. To ignore the taunts of the fans showed, in his own words, "class, maturity, and humility". He is a great learner, we are told, and, were he not a footballer, he would surely have demonstrated a talent in another field.

As he spouted all this, Lawson methodically took his game apart, making Campbell look like a player full of panache but to no real effect. An Arsenal footballer, in fact.

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