Radio review: Something Understood, The Psalms, and The Essay

26 April 2019

BBC

Sir Mark Tully presented the final episode of Something Understood (Radio 4), on Easter Day

Sir Mark Tully presented the final episode of Something Understood (Radio 4), on Easter Day

IN CASE you were worried how a poor radio correspondent might cope during Holy Week in what the BBC designated “The Year of Beliefs”, I can reassure you that it has been business as usual. There has been no great flurry of religious programming competing for attention.

In fact, Easter Day marked the demise of Something Understood (Radio 4), a show that has quietly been doing its stuff at the fringes of the radio schedules for 24 years (News, 2 November). From henceforth, the cost-cutting BBC will be airing episodes from the archive.

I should admit to harbouring mixed feelings about the strand. This final show, in which Sir Mark Tully explored the theme of endings and beginnings, displayed all the characteristics that made the strand both fascinating and comically pretentious.

The excuse may be that, when it is broadcast at 6.15 a.m., listeners are still in that dreamlike state in which the mind can journey from T. S. Eliot to Ecclesiasticus via Guillaume de Machaut without suffering travel sickness. But there is no time of day or night which can justify a line such as “The Puerto Rican singer Hector Leveaux . . . agree[s] with Marcus Aurelius’s view of the fleeting nature of life.”

One could never fault the production values, the intellectual reach, or the sincerity of the enterprise; and we lose with it a significant element in BBC Radio’s religious content. There appears to be nothing upstream with which it will be replaced; nor has the Year of Beliefs yet provided us with anything that we might not already have expected.

But, rather than regret what we have not, let us acknowledge what we have. Two hours of Jeremy Irons reciting The Psalms (Radio 4) in four half-hourly episodes from Good Friday to Easter Monday is not to be sniffed at.

Irons appears to relish these grand projects: not long ago, he gave us a recitation of the complete poems of T. S. Eliot, and you can see the sense in employing the same voice to declaim these great expressions of penitence, anger, and melancholy. Indeed, there is nobody better qualified to declare that he is “a worm and no man”, or rail against those whose “eyes swell with fatness”; less convincing were his exclamations of joy. The Jubilate sounded creepy — like a misanthrope forced to grin for the camera.

The pluralist ambition behind the Year of Beliefs is laudable; and last week’s contributions to The Essay (Radio 3, weekdays), in which writers from different faith backgrounds reflected on images of the suffering Christ, fulfilled that remit admirably. Of the five, I found Sheila Hayman’s account of The Crucifixion by the Master of Delft particularly compelling. But I could not help wondering how much more interesting and innovative it would have been to ask for commentaries from people who shared the faith perspective and spiritual investment of the artist.

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