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Radio review: Witness History, Tunnel 29, and Free Thinking

15 November 2019


EVER since Joshua and the fall of Jericho, music has been bringing down walls. In Witness History (World Service, Friday), we heard about the concert in 1987 at which were heard, for the first time, cries from East Berliners to bring down the Berlin Wall. If David Bowie, Genesis, and the other bands cannot actually be credited with driving the bulldozers, they can at least be thanked for their part in giving East Germans an irresistible taste of what they were missing.

Thanks to the American-backed RIAS radio station, the concert was broadcast to East Berlin, complete with David Bowie’s message of greeting “to our friends on the other side of the wall”. As a Berliner him­self, Bowie appreciated most keenly the symbolic potential of such occa­sions; and years later he was thanked officially by the German government for the part he played in re­­unification.

Those less inclined to prioritise individual actions in the grand sweep unfolding of history might argue that Bowie et al. were there at the right time. Had they turned up in 1962, they would have had little success. This was the year in which Joachim Rudolph and his friends were trying frantically to tunnel their way under the wall — a story that is told in ten podcast episodes of Tunnel 29, whose first half was broadcast in omnibus form last Friday on Radio 4.

The story has several strands, which are nicely handled by the production team, led by the pre­senter, Helen Merriman. Just like choosing which tunnelling route to take, the choice of which narrative strand to pursue was clearly a challenge. But for some fascinating details about the engineering of a big hole, one might have been frustrated by the fact that the first tunnel we are taken down leads nowhere. Rudolph’s first attempt ends in flooded failure. But there is another tunnel ready-made by earlier con­spirators; and, within five minutes of podcast time, Joachim’s gang have adopted the new tunnel and suc­cessfully completed it.

Tunnel 29 assumes much of the grammar and structuring that have become the norm for podcasts of this kind. The rhetorical questions, the music, the paragraphs opening with “So, there’s someone else you need to meet.” In the service of a ripping good yarn, much can be forgiven — even, perhaps, the sound effect of a man panting for breath, as an aural shorthand for claustro­phobia.

Is the Berlin Wall now deserving of artistic status? Who curates what of the past to preserve and what to discard? These were the questions for the Free Thinking panel (Radio 3, Thursday of last week), and it all boiled down to: What would you save if your favourite museum were on fire? Sadly, the professional museum curator here did not feel it appropriate to give an opinion: it should be a democratic decision. By that time, the museum and all its contents have been reduced to ashes.

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