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Radio review: When Greeks Flew Kites, Simon Mayo on Scala, and Breakfast

15 March 2019


The novelist and scholar Sarah Dunant explored codes of shaming in When Greeks Flew Kites (Radio 4, Monday of last week)

The novelist and scholar Sarah Dunant explored codes of shaming in When Greeks Flew Kites (Radio 4, Monday of last week)

THERE are many ways to induce a sense of shame. In the Middle Ages, it was likely to involve a donkey and a noisy rabble. In the 21st century, the power to shame lies with the hashtag. But you have got to admire the creativity of one South American judge from the last century, whose punishment for drink drivers was to make them wear for their court appearance a Swiss milkmaid’s outfit.

The exotic history of shaming was explored by Sarah Dunant in a fresh addition to her series of essays When Greeks Flew Kites (Radio 4, Monday of last week). Dunant is, as ever, lucid and perceptive, while the production lifts the programme above the status of an extended Point of View.

As a scholar of early-modern culture, Dunant is particularly well-placed to comment on the elaborate codes of shaming which kept society, particularly women, in check in the late-medieval and Renaissance periods. The refinement of a sense of shame was the ambition of all well-bred ladies, encouraged by texts warning of the dangers attendant on getting drunk and going to wrestling matches.

Those who transgressed might be shaved and paraded in the streets; they might be hauled through the streets astride a freshly hewn log; but they might, like Jane Shore, the mistress of Edward IV, suffer with such dignity that the shame rebounded on the oppressor: in this case, Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

For the shame game is unpredictable. Confessing your shame does not necessarily enable you to regain control of your image. After the actor Liam Neeson revealed his violent, racist behaviour as a young man, instead of the expected approval for his honesty he was rewarded with a bucket-load of hashtags.

Alan Partridge has returned to the BBC (Fridays; TV, 8 March). And I cannot help wondering whether Simon Mayo is gazing at the image of Partridge as he attempts almost single-handedly to launch Scala Radio. This new classical radio station — which, to all appearances, operates in the same reportorial waters as Classic FM — made a great deal of its acquisition of Mayo, after a fallout at Radio 2.

Let’s be clear: Mayo is one of the best in the business, and I would not leave home without the podcast of his Film Review show on my generic listening device. But the discomfort is palpable, as he promotes the strand The Clinic, with questions such as what is the best way to deal with wet clothes in the office? That was one that even Partridge would have discarded.

Meanwhile, on Radio 3, the Breakfast strand has stepped gingerly into the 21st century by including video-game music in the usual eclectic mix. There is nothing wrong with that; this is sophisticated music, invested with the highest production values. But, at the same time, does the show really have to pretend to be something it isn’t, by adopting simpering subtitles such as “Petroc’s Rise and Shine” and “Petroc’s Alarm Call”?

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