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Radio review of the year

22 December 2016

BBC/PETE DADDS

Gripping story of country folk: the Helen-Rob conflict showed The Archers’ high stand­ard of scriptwriting and production values

Gripping story of country folk: the Helen-Rob conflict showed The Archers’ high stand­ard of scriptwriting and production values

THE futurologists got it wrong. We all got it wrong. When, almost a year ago, the BBC’s correspondents gathered to predict the main events of 2016 (in Correspondents Look Ahead, Radio 4, January), the worst that they could foresee was falling house-prices. Per­haps that is because, as we have been learning in the post-truth era, we have been inhab­iting an information and opinion bubble, created by the internet company we keep.

In that respect, Bobby Friction’s doc­u­mentary Bursting the Social Network Bubble (Radio 4, December) provided a useful, if late, corrective. And, for those whose Time­lines and Twitter-feeds do not provide sufficient opportunity for cathartic rage, then why not try competitive name-calling, or “flyting”, as recommended on The Verb (Radio 3, July), and become the most elo­quent troll on the block?

There was good news — so long as you are prepared to overlook the Kantian objection to existence’s being greater than non-existence, and are thus reassured that a world in which Helen Titchener can be acquitted is not all bad. The real and substantial cause for celebration here is that radio can be this good; for The Archers (Radio 4, passim) has demonstrated during the whole Helen-Rob conflict the highest standards of scriptwriting and production values.

The drama of the year for me was a new production of Beckett’s All That Fall (Radio 4, March), a play that, unusually for Beckett, has a climax. But I am also a sucker for a plucky loser, and the prize for heroic failure must, therefore, go to Robert Wilson’s Tower of Babel (Radio 3, November): a fitting, if unwanted, accolade, bearing in mind the mythological inspiration.

Radio 3’s 70th-anniversary season of pro­grammes has also provided a continuous reminder of what high-end, challenging radio has been and can be like. In particular, the series Three Score and Ten (Radio 3 from September) has been mining the archive of poetry readings by some of the 20th-century greats: Larkin, Hughes, Heaney, and Plath.

Evidence that the network can still create programmes of the intellectual clout that characterised the Third Programme might, for example, be found in The Listening Service, during which is explored some of those questions about music’s function which are coming to the fore in modern-day Music Studies.

For me, the presenter of the year was Jolyon Jenkins. Two of his pieces this year — on the dangers of extreme meditation (Mind­f­­ulness and Madness, Radio 4, March), and the bizarre story of Liberland (Out of the Ordinary, Radio 4, November) — achieve in their coverage an exquisite balance of gravitas and eccentricity. The mockery is light, and the tone is generally of concerned tolerance.

And so to my programme of the year, which happily — and for the first time in memory — goes to a February edition of Sunday Worship (Radio 4) from HM Prison Long Lartin. The ability of the producers to capture the ambience of a building, and thus the character of the worship itself, was never better demonstrated than here.

There is still much in our media culture about which we should feel positive.

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