Radio review: Surrogacy: A family frontier, First Ladies of Fleet Street, and Close Both Eyes

14 December 2018

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WHAT ambitions do you have for your children? You would like them, I imagine, to be healthy, clever, and caring; you would want them to set themselves goals, to pursue those goals doggedly until they are accomplished, and never, ever be a loser.

There was an awkward moment in Surrogacy: A family frontier (Radio 5 Live Podcast, Thursday of last week) when the gay couple from California flipped from being the ideal prospective parents — indulgent, affectionate, and gently irrational — to demonstrating all the controlling instincts of Tiger Dads.

They listed criteria by which they would be judging the natural parents of their surrogate baby; and, while health was the obvious top choice, they also included “emotional intelligence”, and “they must have done something with their lives.”

You would be hard pressed to find a presenter more good-hearted than Dustin Lance Blake, a screenwriter best known to the British for being the other half of the Olympic diver Tom Daley. But even Blake was finding this interview difficult to finesse. It was because they wanted in their baby the same as they found in one another, he suggested. But that doesn’t make it much better, and one cannot but pray that parenthood will engender in these well-meaning wannabes an acceptance of the messiness of family life.

This was, nevertheless, a joyous programme: Blake was given the time and latitude to talk at length to his guests. Their stories inevitably involved a succession of disappointments — there were tales of miscarriages and unsuccessful IVF treatments — but this first episode was devoted to happy endings. Or should that be happy beginnings?

There has been a dearth of good Radio 2 documentaries of late, and First Ladies of Fleet Street (Radio 2, Thursday of last week) shows what they can do when they put their mind to it. This two-part celebration of the most powerful women in the British newspaper business started with the pioneers of yesteryear — Rachel Beer, for instance — and went on to the likes of Eve Pollard and Marje Proops.

Granted generous interviews were Janet Street-Porter, Eleanor Mills, and Jane Moore — all of them worthy of an hour’s profile each. You do not necessarily have to like them, and they wouldn’t mind if you didn’t. But, through the bluster, there is an inspiring pragmatism to the way that they got on with things: brushing off the lewd attentions of boorish colleagues or — as in Street-Porter’s case — cutting down the time the old codgers would sit around gassing in her office by installing uncomfortable chairs.

Fiona Shaw does formidable women well; and, in Close Both Eyes (Radio 4, Monday of last week), she channelled this talent into the role of a sceptical psychology professor who takes on a psychic, played by Tony Jones. This was as good as radio drama gets, and well worth listening to.

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