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Radio review: Great British Bus Journey, Analysis, and No Such Thing as a Fish

09 February 2018


BRITAIN is never more divided than in its breakfast. You can tuck into a traditional English, Scottish, or Irish breakfast, but where can one find the Full British Breakfast? It was questions such as this which Will Self was pondering as he embarked on his Great British Bus Journey (Radio 4, weekdays), a tour of Brexit Britain which eschewed trains in favour of the humble coach and occasional double-decker.

Lacking the wit of Bill Bryson, or the common touch of a radio presenter such as Hardeep Singh Koli, Self’s state-of-the-nation tour is a somewhat laboured affair. The register that Self does best is languid vituperation, and, on occasion, he lets slip the persona of laissez-faire liberal to let fly. His critique of a B&B in Wolverhampton — a “symphony of brown synthetic dankness” — was so damning it was worthy of TripAdvisor.

Nevertheless, the irony of the project was not lost on its presenter, as demonstrated in his encounter with community volunteers from West Bromwich who relied for their funding on the National Lottery. Did any of them buy lottery tickets?

None of them did; and, in that instant, we were invited to observe not only something of the irony of a charitable sector so heavily dependent on investment by the least empowered, but also, by extension, the curious relationship of a publicly funded BBC programme-maker to subjects who are hardly the programme’s target audience.

The listener may have felt similarly challenged by the exchange with two Afro-Caribbean car mechanics who happily admitted that they preferred doing jobs for English customers than Afro-Caribbeans.

The conversation might have served equally well as evidence in Analysis (Radio 4, Monday), a discussion of unconscious bias even within disadvantaged groups. The stats are indisputable, and derive from numerous studies of the kind in which researchers posing first as male and then as female applicants send in their CVs for particular jobs. Even in fields where women are predominantly the gate keepers, such as literary agencies and pretty much anywhere with an HR department, men are heavily favoured.

All of this was convincing and sobering; case made. But, of course, you cannot make a programme of this kind nowadays without getting a scientist to tell us something about neurons and dendrites. I was reminded of the Harry Enfield/Paul Whitehouse parody of a 1940s public-information film in which a scientist explains the differences in hthe ways men and women’s brains store information. A more useful allocation of time might have been to explore how unconscious bias could actually be addressed.

The realm of the podcast is an increasingly rich and varied one, but I was reminded in listening this week to No Such Thing as a Fish (qi.com/podcast) of the benefits of decent presenters and structured banter. This show is all about the wacky and the counter-intuitive, but what the presenters have neglected is the rookie rule not to laugh at your own jokes. Ten minutes in, I longed for the cool, controlled script of a Will Self.

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