Radio review: The Digital Human, My Dream Dinner Party, and Four Seasons: Poems for the Summer Solstice

29 June 2018


“Laughing Baby Ethan”, a YouTube sensation, showed how the online world can enable people to encounter joy, it was argued on The Digital Human (Radio 4, Monday of last week)

“Laughing Baby Ethan”, a YouTube sensation, showed how the online world can enable people to encounter joy, it was argued on The Digital H...

I DEFY anyone not to break into a smile watching “Laughing Baby Ethan”. This YouTube sensation features a little boy endlessly chortling while his father tears up pieces of paper. Besides demonstrating how infectious laughter is, and how we are all prepared to watch anything on the internet rather than do what we are supposed to be doing, it also proves — Aleks Krotoski, the presenter of The Digital Human (Radio 4, Monday of last week), says — how the online world can enable us to encounter joy.

Much as I admire Krotoski’s programme, which is one of the most intelligently inter-disciplinary radio shows around, this seemed to be pushing it a bit; after all, Ethan’s performance might just as easily be something you see presented on early evening television alongside any number of videos of dads falling over on the dance floor.

The more pertinent observation arising from last week’s edition was that social-media users were perpetually aestheticising their lives, framing experiences so as to create a good Facebook or Instagram shot. However immediate and authentic these online revelations appear to be, they are necessarily performances; and, by the time you have thought up an apposite hashtag, the spontaneity has gone.

The internet may be able to furnish you with circles of friends from around the globe; but with access to the BBC radio archive you can furnish yourself with a collection of guests from across time as well as space.

That is the genius of My Dream Dinner Party (Radio 4, Saturday) in which a celebrity gathers from the four corners of the archives celebrities even bigger than themselves, for an evening of spliced conversation. Last week, Sally Phillips hosted the likes of Barbara Cartland, Jack Lemmon, and Bob Monkhouse; her guests’ contributions were brilliantly cut and pasted from past interview material.

The childish narcissism of the enterprise — the audio equivalent of having a tea-party with your favourite teddies — adds to the whimsical humour of the show. The set-up provides an opportunity to challenge Barbara Cartland’s 19th-century views on gender in a way that one would hardly dare attempt were she there in the flesh. Nor is it incapable of gravitas: an exchange between Phillips and Monkhouse about parenting children with severe disability sounds neither inappropriate nor self-serving.

But the honours really go to the producers who manage to create an immersive and credible acoustic environment from what must have been a wide range of source materials.

Time for a quick observation on Four Seasons: Poems for the Summer Solstice, which punctuated the Radio 4 schedule on Thursday of last week. I have no complaints about the concept, or the choice of poems, which included works by Emily Dickinson and Jack Gilbert. But it is a curious reflection of our priorities when these are pre-announced as offerings by Simon Russell Beale and Anton Lesser. We are used to above-the-title status for famous actors — but replacing both title and author?

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