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Radio review: The Political Butterfly Effect, Beyond Belief, and The Placebo Effect

13 September 2019


Eric Joyce MP leaves court, in 2012, after admitting assaulting a Conservative MP in a House of Commons bar. The consequences of the incident are explored in The Political Butterfly Effect (Radio 4, Monday of last week)

Eric Joyce MP leaves court, in 2012, after admitting assaulting a Conservative MP in a House of Commons bar. The consequences of the incident are expl...

ACCORDING to the media editor of The Guardian, Jim Waterson, the question how Brexit started comes down to a bar-room brawl in the House of Commons bar; and he laid out his thesis in the first episode of The Political Butterfly Effect (Radio 4, Monday of last week).

As the title suggests, the conceit that drives this programme is that small events have big consequences — although the gentle beating of a butterfly’s wings could scarcely be equated with the drunken beating that the Labour MP Eric Joyce drunkenly bestowed on a Conservative rival back in 2012.

Nevertheless, a train of events was set in motion which ended up with Jeremy Corbyn, whose lacklustre performance in the 2016 referendum is here credited as making the vital difference.

The links in this argument are not all wholly secure, but Waterson is having some fun while at the same time reminding us of some significant moments in recent political history — not least the well-meaning attempt by Ed Miliband to increase Labour membership by reducing the entry fee to £3, while at the same time pushing through a one-member-one-vote policy.

Of course, it takes the beating of flocks of butterflies to cause something as monumental as Brexit — along with a couple of right hooks and a head-butt.

A question of similar magnitude was the theme of Beyond Belief (Radio 4, Monday of last week): no less than “Who or what is God?” In the opening segment, featuring uncredited soundbites, we heard one lady declare that we should stop using the word “God” for 50 years, so loaded and unhelpful was the word. Without the power of redress, it was not possible to determine how she might enforce this ban, and why 50 years was considered enough time for the word’s radioactive properties to decay. Fortunately, Ernie Rea’s studio guests were a good deal more practical.

We might take the via negativa of the medievals and describe God as what God is not. But that hardly accords with the way in which the human mind works or language operates. In their different ways, all three of Rea’s guests argued for a plurality of identities, concepts, and descriptions. “Father” should not be rejected out of hand, nor “Love” accepted as the final word; to talk of an existence that is beyond words, we must either experiment with all the words at our disposal, or be silent.

If you ever wonder how some radio comedies make it to the airwaves, then you should have a listen to the ones that don’t quite make it. I suspect The Placebo Effect (Radio 4, Friday) is an example of a failed pilot that made it into the schedules to plug a gap; certainly, it has all the hallmarks of a venture that looks entirely plausible on paper, but fails in reality.

It’s not that the doctor and stand-up comedian Kwame Asante does not have perfectly good comic chops, and there was a live audience clearly desperate to be entertained; so perhaps it is just that the world is not quite ready for gags about psoriasis and irritable-bowel syndrome.

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