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Review of the Year 2019: Radio

20 December 2019


Michael Symmons Roberts, who created Luke, Acts and A Believer’s Guide to Atheism
(both Radio 4)

Michael Symmons Roberts, who created Luke, Acts and A Believer’s Guide to Atheism
(both Radio 4)

THIS was to be BBC’s Year of Beliefs. There has been a survey on morality; there was talk of a “youth panel”, although evidence of its existence has escaped this reviewer; and there was to be more religious broadcasting. That has certainly passed me by. Like the spending promises of a wily government, the “extra” programming turned out largely to be an exercise in repackaging.

You will no doubt be relieved to learn that your reviewer was not inundated with faith-based material to recommend. Indeed, the most notable change in religion on BBC Radio was the axing of Something Understood, a staple of the Sunday morning schedule for more than 20 years.

So, we should be thankful that there are still producers around who are prepared to make the effort. Two significant Easter offerings demonstrated that ambitious religious programmes can still be made: Luke, Acts (Radio 4) is the closest that radio gets to a sword-and-sandals biblical epic — a two-hour drama created by Michael Symmons Roberts (with help from the Authorised Version); while the following week, Radio 4 carried a reading of The Psalms by Jeremy Irons, a thespian more suited to Psalm 51 than 150.

BBCRadio 4 carried a reading of The Psalms by Jeremy Irons

Nick Spencer’s The Secret History of Science and Religion (Radio 4), and A Believer’s Guide to Atheism (Radio 4; another Symmons Roberts project) are also worthy of commendation; while the difficulty of managing religious comedy was convincingly demonstrated by God’s Work (Radio 4).

The distortion of news in a “post-truth” world has become something of an obsession for documentary-makers, not least because their own livelihoods are at stake. Everyone, it seems, has a meta-narrative to spin. How, then, to sound real? The Puppet Master (BBC Sounds podcast) is an example of one strategy: the “box-set” serial, novelistic in its layering and comprehensive in its treatment of Russian social-media manipulation. Another is The Corrections (Radio 4), in which we, as listeners, were invited to question the programme-makers’ own bias, with the help of a “narrative consultant”.

Worthy as this might seem, the lack of firm ground under one’s feet is liable to bring on sensations of epistemological nausea; and one feels guiltily relieved to find an account of contemporary conspiracy as straightforward as Allan Little’s A History of Hate (Radio 4).

But it is, as ever, the chance encounters that have brought the greatest listening pleasure this year — of which, special mention to two. Between the Ears (Radio 3) presented a soundscape of a Russian container ship; a floating city during whose endless voyages the 20 crewmen, from across the globe, entertain themselves with karaoke. And — from the rootless to the local — The Angels of the Bayou (Radio 4), telling the story of a mysterious sculptor responsible for the creation of hundreds of angel statues in a Louisiana town which, owing to coastal erosion, was fast falling into the sea.

This was radio at its most effective: poetic, fascinating, and enigmatic — the best kind of meta-narrative.

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